Sunday, 31 March 2013
Where is Iran going?
What are the long-term ambitions of the Iranian regime?
The answer to that conundrum, if indeed it has been fully formulated, is a secret restricted to Ayatollah Khamenei (the “Supreme Leader”), and the tight group of oligarchs of which he is head. As long as they are able to retain complete dominance over the instruments of the state, their grip on the reins of power is well-nigh absolute. That dominance is not, however, without threat.
One predominant aim within the Iranian oligarchy must be to preserve in their own hands the vast access to wealth and power that they have managed to accumulate through a network of foundations, charities and other bodies − essentially business organisations with extensive national and international connections. These are estimated to control some 70 per cent of the national economy outside agriculture and the state-owned industries.
Amir Taheri, a veteran Iranian writer, estimates that in the past 10 years some 200 state-owned enterprises have been “privatized”, in other words transferred to a small group of politicians and mullahs close to the Supreme Leader. Senior Khomeinists, including Khamenei himself, are among major shareholders of over 100 companies. In addition, the oligarchy has divided Iran's foreign trade among its members − for example, trade with much of Asia, China and Japan, is reserved for the Rafsanjani-Bahremani clan.
Perhaps the greatest internal threat to dictatorial regimes in the modern world − as the Arab Spring has vividly demonstrated − is the internet. It is no surprise that the Supreme Leader has denounced the internet as sinful and a means for the West to wage "soft war". Accustomed to censors blocking Facebook, email and foreign news sites, Iranians recently learned that the régime has ambitious plans to block access to foreign-based social media sites and email altogether, and to substitute Iranian versions. The first phase of this “Halal Internet”, as it has been termed, has already being introduced into government departments and the universities. The aim appears to be to isolate Iran altogether from the world wide web, partly perhaps to avoid another Stuxnet-type cyber attack like the one carried out on its nuclear facilities in 2010. Something similar is being attempted in Saudi Arabia. There is, though, some doubt whether either country has the necessary infrastructure to cut off users' access to the internet entirely.
The religious ambitions of Iran’s oligarchy seem to centre on precipitating the introduction of extreme Islamism across both the Muslim, and as much of the non-Muslim, world as possible − for example in Latin America, where considerable inroads have been made via Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador. According to Amir Taheri, under the 1979 Khomeinist Constitution the Supreme Leader represents Allah's sovereignty on earth, is the leader of all Muslims throughout the world, whether they like it or not. and has unlimited powers to decide what Islam is and is not at any given time. Considering that the Iranian religious oligarchy are firm followers of the Shi’ite tradition, this is not a proposition that the vast Sunni Muslim world has ever accepted, or is likely to. Nevertheless, the Iranian oligarchy sees itself as the embodiment of a messianic revolution, opposed root and branch to state structures that require to be cleansed of "corrupt" rulers and Western democratic constitutions.
As the mass of Wikileaks documents released into the public domain in 2010 revealed, many Arab leaders – especially, perhaps, in the Gulf states − view Iran’s bid for leadership of the Muslim world, to say nothing of its covert operations to achieve that aim, with alarm. Their deep-seated fear of a nuclear-armed Iran stems from these activities.
Iran’s bid for regional hegemony has been sustained by the military and financial support it has lavished on Shi’ite organisations like Hezbollah and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, but also by nurturing the extreme Islamist – albeit Sunni-based − Hamas organisation in the Gaza strip.
Do Iran’s ambitions – which doubtless extend to developing a military nuclear capability as soon as possible − also encompass the physical destruction of Israel? Both the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have on numerous occasions declared their desire to see Israel removed from the map of the Middle East. It would not take more than three or four atomic bombs to wipe out Israel’s infrastructure and most of its citizens. Tempted though Iran’s leaders might be − once they possessed the requisite nuclear capability − could the régime contemplate with equanimity the possible response by Israel or the USA to a nuclear strike on Israel?
The balance of probability is that Iran, from mere self-interest, would probably desist from a direct nuclear-based assault on Israel, unless it was part of a concerted action. Iran’s lack of allies in the region render this an unlikely proposition. The old “Shia Crescent” concept – the crescent-shaped area in the Middle East where the majority of the population is Shi’ite − is a busted flush, as far as an active military campaign against Israel is concerned. Two of the major members, in addition to Iran, were Iraq and Syria. Neither are now capable of joining such an alliance; Azerbaijan and Bahrain would not wish to; Hezbollah, although a major player in Lebanon, does not control the government.
A nuclear capability in Iran’s hands, does, however, open up the prospect of much heightened terrorist activity, fostered and supplied by Iran, both within Israel and in the wider world. Which explains the near-universal approval for the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on the Iranian regime for failing to comply with its nuclear obligations.
From the point of view of the West, Iran exemplifies the “rogue state” – a regime intent on advancing its own malign interests and undermining or destroying states which stand in its way, regardless of almost all considerations. The will to control its overweening ambitions, backed by a convincing display of force, is long overdue.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 March 2013: