US Foreign Policy

As Iran Simmers, the Nuclear Clock Ticks On

in Program

By Emile El-Hokayem – As the power struggle in Iran morphs from public unrest and street protests into a more diffuse, opaque and protracted dispute, what are the regional security implications of these profound changes? Much hangs on how Iran’s neighbours and the great powers assess the nature of the system that is emerging from the turmoil of the past weeks.

The Islamic revolution entered its second age with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005: its main traits are the growing assertiveness of the once timid supreme leader Ali Khamenei, the political and economic rise of the Revolutionary Guards, the emasculation of clerical and other key power centres and the rejection of popular legitimacy in favour of raw control.

Whether through sheer repression this system can survive the popular discontent on display recently, or will succumb over time to its loss of legitimacy, will play out over years: a perilous and volatile period for the nations affected by Iran’s evolution. Indeed, there is already a mixture of angst and confusion in Arab and western capitals as they adjust perceptions and policies to this fluid situation.

The most radical assessment is that Iran is no longer an Islamic Republic but an Islamic military dictatorship. Some, including many Arab leaders, argue that this was always the case and that recent events have merely raised the veil on a democratic pretence that the regime has cultivated for 30 years. For them, the re-election of Mr Ahmadinejad was good news in that it did away with the illusion of a moderate Iran on which many gullible westerners pinned their hopes.

There is some logic to that. Stung by the disappointment of the Rafsanjani and Khatami eras, many Arabs feared that a Mir Hossein Mousavi presidency, merely by not being an Ahmadinejad one, would soften the attitude of the international community without any tangible concession on contentious issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme. Those pragmatic presidents spoke of better neighbourly relations, giving the sense that the revolution was finally moderating, even as they camouflaged Iran’s nuclear progress, a deception still felt in Arab capitals. A parallel concern was that a US-Iran rapprochement was more likely under Mousavi, a prospect that unnerves Arab states somehow convinced that Washington’s interests – its heart, even – are closer to Tehran.

While little has changed in the formal power structure in Iran, the domestic balance has swung decisively in favour of the most radical and uncompromising faction. Power is now firmly in the hands of a praetorian guard with a dominant say in security and foreign policy, from the nuclear programme to Iraq. It has a fundamentalist and nationalistic outlook, with little knowledge of and few connections to the outside world beyond Syrian intelligence, Hizbollah and the likes of Hugo Chavez: so the rest of the world will find little good news and few interlocutors in Tehran.

How Iran behaves now will depend on the leadership’s reading of the protests. After all, the only threat that Ayatollah Khamenei really worried about was a western-backed “soft” revolution moulded on the Ukrainian or Georgian one that would split the country’s political elite: that threat remains, even if it is contained for the moment.

In the unlikely event that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad camp has the courage to acknowledge that the popular movement was the result of profound domestic discontent with their dismal stewardship, then Iran would become more inward-looking and freeze its investments abroad. But if they are convinced, as they claim, that the protests have been engineered in the West, then expect a more confrontational and angry Iran using its assets abroad to retaliate, with the ability to wreak havoc from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Mr Ahmadinejad may even decide to escalate his rhetoric against Israel and the West to rebuild his shattered standing.

What does all this mean for US policy? The Obama administration has manoeuvred deftly to balance its strategy of engaging Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear capability with the pressure to take a stand against the manufactured election, state repression and accusations of foreign meddling. Mr Ahmadinejad’s angry attempts to draw the US into the domestic Iranian dispute have been met with measured reactions from Washington.

With a weakened Ahmadinejad, an inward-looking Iran and the defeat of Hizbollah at the polls in Lebanon last month, Washington may even feel that its tactical position has improved, but time is still not on its side. Repression and recriminations will postpone the moment US and Iranian negotiators sit together, while Iranian centrifuges continue to spin.

Even when talks begin, expectations will be low. A growing number of countries believe this nuclear progress cannot be reversed and are already preparing for an undeclared nuclear Iran. For most, the question will be about the shape of containment, a combination of sanctions that would deter Iran from becoming a declared nuclear power (this will remain too little for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel). Iran’s hardliners may even decide that with internal challenges and foreign pressure converging, a nuclear umbrella would be a welcome addition to their defensive arsenal.

Arab leaders will find some short-term relief in this crisis. They are certainly delighted that Iran’s positive image on the Arab street, a source of much embarrassment to them, has suffered. Arabs have finally seen on their TV screens that not all Iranians are happy paying for the struggle against “Zionist and western imperialism” with their country’s isolation and at the expense of more pressing domestic priorities. This “hearts and minds” victory and the damage done to Mr Ahmadinejad’s standing will probably boost Arab leaders’ attempts to counter Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, and facilitate the new US diplomatic activism, including on the peace front.

Even Iran’s allies in Damascus and Beirut must have been perturbed by some of the slogans shouted by protesters, and seeing Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority so vocally challenged. Hizbollah may ape Iran’s more confrontational posture, but Syria, which has been hoping for a thaw with western and Arab states, will find itself squeezed.

And whatever advantage and respite the international community may derive from events in Iran may not last long. The Supreme Leader and the president are playing for absolute control over Iran, not goodwill abroad.

photocredit: Wikimedia Commons –


Emile El-Hokayem is a Non-Resident Fellow in the Southwest Asia/Gulf Program at the Stimson Center and the Politics Editor of the UAE-based The National newspaper. This article first appeared in the National on July 1, 2009.

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