By Adham Bishr
The name of Iran has been upon the lips of everyone interested in the War on Terror or anyone interested in the Middle East at all. The Bush administration considered Iran part of an “Axis of Evil” along with North Korea and Iraq and aggressively pursued sanctions against Iran. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama has attempted to engage Iran as part of his reset on foreign policy and come up against a stonewall. Iran’s importance stems from three precedents: its expanding influence in the region, its nuclear program, and its role in the War on Terror.
Extensive literature on this topic gives us a broad view on the complex enigma that is Iran. Scholars are wary about the naïve but politically popular view that Iran is simply a group of terrorists unable to want anything but the destruction of the Western world through the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Three elements allow people to understand the Iran’s complexity. The first is the question of who’s running the show in Iran. It is not simply under the control of one man—it is a coalition of forces synthesized into one society with each attempting to defend its own interests and views on what Iran should be. The second is the nuclear question. It is well known that Iran now has a nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz. Though Iran claims it is solely for nuclear power, many believe that the enrichment facility could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The possibility of Iran developing enriched uranium will be considered in various scenarios to determine the likelihood of a bomb. The third is Iran’s wider role in the Middle East. With Islam emerging as a stalwart against the military fascism in most Arab countries, there is no doubt that Iran will attempt to assert some sort of influence over its neighbors. Iran will also be examined within the context of the Arab Spring and its possible consequences. It is a complex creature that must be studied closely if we are to understand its future.
Who’s Running the Show?
To understand where Iran is going, we must examine the key players. The two main groups that hold power in Iran are the religious clergy represented by the Ayatollahs, the military represented by the Pasdarans (Revolutionary Guard) and the Bassijis, a volunteer militia. In the middle is President Ahmadinejad, a former member of the Pasdarans, who must balance the interests of the clergy and the military or otherwise be thrown from power. Olivier Roy deeply explores the power dynamic in “Iran Poised Between the Nuclear Bomb and Bombardment.”
Roy begins his discussion about the general situation in Iran. While economic sanctions have been stepped up, they seem to have no effect on Iran’s determination to seek nuclear capabilities. But, this does not mean that economic sanctions have not had any effect at all. Ahmadinejad has lost enormous support all across Iran due to the poor handling of the economy. Even the conservative base, the traditional supporters of Ahmadinejad, is now weary of supporting him. The middle-class is no longer investing and stocks have fallen precipitously. All this occurred before the recession had even hit. Iran is attempting to redeem the economy by trading with Turkey and Syria, but it continues to worsen. Many Iranians question why Ahmadinejad is determined to use increasingly inflammatory rhetoric despite the United States winding down its military presence in the Middle East, resulting even more sanctions on Iran.
But, to understand why Ahmadinejad acts the way he does, we must understand his background with the Iranian military establishment. The military power is typically the Bassijis, the junior version of the Pasdarans, and the Pasdarans, usually referred to in the media as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Bassijis are a volunteer militia that becomes a breeding ground for intense nationalist sentiment. The Bassijis typically recruit from the impoverished lower classes that tend to be deeply religious and resentful of capitalism for its relationship to the “sinful” West. Ahmadinejad was part of the Bassijis and gradually ascended to the Pasdarans. The Pasdarans are also a hard-line group, considered to generate the principal funds for the terrorist group Hizbollah. Pasdaran ideology is generally shaped by what they feel is a hostile America trying to eliminate Islam and eradicate Iran. They have enormous funds from oil revenues, and despite the lack of transparency, they control many industries in Iran such as the Tehran airport. They do not only hold economic power—a third of Parliament are members of the Pasdarans.
The clergy present the other side of the coin in Iranian politics. Despite popular belief to the contrary, they are the more moderate force next to the ultra-conservative military establishment. The Mullahs (headed by Ayatollah Khameni) hold complete sway over parliamentary decisions. Unless laws brought before them comply with Islamic law, the Mullahs can reject the law outright. But don’t let this fool you into believing that the religious authorities are against any sort of progress. They have successfully synthesized education and religion to produce an educated group that efficiently run the government in their stead and retain Islamic beliefs. Thus it should be no surprise that Islamist engineers and doctors are the backbone of fundamentalist movements throughout the Muslim world. Clergy members require training in the social sciences to effectively govern rather than claiming knowledge of the Koran as a basis to rule.
The goals of these two groups are essentially one. They both dream of a more deeply religious state where the military and Islam band together to dispel all Western influence from the region. But despite their supposed mandate from God, Iran faces enormous crises due to their pursuit of the nuclear program. The middle class is poor and unwilling to engage itself in Iranian society. The government struggles to pump money into an economy weakened by a global recession and international sanctions. As Iran finds itself increasingly isolated from the rest of the world as well as a population growing increasingly discontent, the government will be forced to act fast to prevent itself from suffering the fate of neighboring governments during the Arab Spring.
The Nuclear Question
There is no doubt that Iran would generally fly under the public’s radar if it were not creating a nuclear program. Michael Levi’s article “Drawing the Line on Iranian Enrichment” explores the Iranian nuclear program. Levi vehemently believes that the United States should no longer attempt to keep Iran from developing any enrichment possibilities. An Iran with no enrichment capabilities will never occur.
Levi begins his discussion of Iran’s nuclear capabilities with Natanz, its main uranium enrichment facility. The Iranians are attempting to avoid the mistakes Iraq made with their nuclear program. Firstly, Iraq had its Osiris nuclear facility bombed by the Israeli air force. Secondly, Iraq abandoned its nuclear program, a move (interpreted by Iran) that left it vulnerable to conventional military invasion of the United States. As such, Natanz was built deep underground to prevent any Israeli aerial strikes from destroying it and to prevent aerial reconnaissance. Iran is also adamantly pursuing a nuclear program as a possible deterrent for invasion. But, Natanz cannot currently develop enrichment for a nuclear bomb. It would need to reconfigure the facility to produce weapons grade uranium or possibly recycle uranium several times (called batch recycling). Despite ordering more centrifuges for the station, the nuclear facility is currently not configured to produce weapons grade uranium. If Iran were to switch to production of the bomb, the world would have ample warning (approximately six to seven months).
Levi also explores alternate scenarios for the Iranian quest for the bomb. Iran could expand the Natanz facility or enhance the centrifuges. But the simple truth is that Iran would not attempt to build a bomb unless it could produce several quickly. Iran needs at least two bombs, one to test and demonstrate to the world and another to use. Otherwise, without the other(s) to be used as deterrents, Iran would risk a pre-emptive strike from America or more likely, Israel. Considering the fact that everyone knows about Natanz, Iran may consider producing uranium at a clandestine site. But there is no doubt that with the 24-hour surveillance of Natanz and the fact it would take nine months to enrich the transported material, such a method seems unlikely. The most likely course of action would be Iran to eject its inspectors before producing a bomb. There runs the risk of the United States or Israel taking unilateral military action to prevent Iran from developing the bomb. But with Israel seen as stonewalling negotiations with the Palestinians and the United States winding down its presence in the region, military action would be extremely unpopular without any actual proof.
Iran is Not Enough
Iran is one piece in the extremely complicated machinations of the Middle East. But, with its oil and natural gas reserves, Iran has both the will and resources to play a dominant role in Middle Eastern affairs. Iran, generally the most Islamist of all Middle Eastern governments, intends to export its form of theocracy all across the Middle East.
Before we discuss Iran’s ambitions, we must dispel the notion that Iran is a mouthpiece for the rest of the Middle East. Most Arabs, while Muslims, tend to lean towards a more secular version of government despite rhetoric by some Americans that democracy would lead to an Islamist state. The division between Iran and the rest of the Middle East exists along both ethnic and religious lines. While the Middle East is predominantly Arab, Iran is a Persian nation, a fact not lost on the Arabs who had lived under the Ottoman yoke for hundreds of years. But the much larger division is along religious lines. Most Arabs are Sunni Muslims whilst Iranians are of the Shi’a sect. The Sunni consider the Shi’a a perversion of Islamic faith and thus heretical and vice-versa. With a Shi’a government, most nations are wary of getting closer to Tehran.
“The Heirs of Nasser” by Michael Scott Doran analyzes the Arab Spring with a comparison to the rise of secularism under Nasser. While Nasser had a military behind him when he took over Egypt, the Arab Spring is a populist and relatively peaceful movement (with the notable exceptions of Libya and Syria). Nasser’s revolution (which spread secularism to other Arab nations) focused on dreams of a united Arab state, independence from imperialism, and confronting Israel. But the Arab Spring is more concerned with internal issues such as political representation and economic health. Doran argues that the Arab Spring represents a movement that is above national lines. States can now meddle in the affairs of their neighbors, encouraging the construction of proxies, the most famous example being Iran and its relationship with the terrorist group Hezbollah.
Iran is now trying to position itself as a leader of the Arab Spring against the many dictatorships propped up by American funding. This anti status-quo coalition includes Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the dominant party in Palestine. Iran has already had enormous experience countering United States influence in the region by synchronizing Shiite and Sunni groups in Iraq and supplying advanced IED material to Afghani resistance members. Iran has also emerged as a champion of Palestinian rights making it far more popular than the tacitly compliant governments under siege by the Arab Spring. Tehran is crystallizing hatred upon Israel just as Nasser did when he took over Egypt and inspired movements around the Middle East. The United States has been explicitly called out as a supporter of many Arab totalitarian regimes that suppress the Shi’a (like Bahrain), providing a win-win situation for Iran. If the protestors lose, then Iran could argue that the United States was involved, but if they win Iran can have a hand in molding the new regimes. The intention is to wear the United States out from its influence in the Middle East and permanently keep it from meddling in the future.
Now that Iran has been properly dissected, we can look at various approaches to handling Iran and countering its nuclear program. To begin with, America will have to seek some sort of compromise on Iranian enrichment possibilities. Seymour Hersh’s article entitled “Iran and the Bomb” points out that with the ineffectiveness of sanctions and the improbability of a military strike, America must abandon its policy of an Iran with zero enrichment possibilities. Hersh concludes that just as the Bush administration did with WMDs in Iraq, the Obama administration is overstating intelligence to support the conclusion that Iran is creating a nuclear bomb. With Iran being one of the top supporters of state terrorism, nuclear proliferation to non-state actors like Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda inspires states such as Israel to seriously contemplate a pre-emptive strike. Meir Dagan, the head of Mossad from 2002-2010, believed Iran would not have the bomb until 2015, contradicting many previous Israeli estimates. Dagan resigned to protest the option of bombing Natanz, which Dagan believes will unleash enormous blowback on Israel. He instead advocates covert action that is currently being conducted against Iran.
America must race against the clock to find a solution before Iran develops a nuclear bomb and Israel decides to take overt action. Hersh advocates that the world recognize that deterrence may be the only option to prevent Iran’s evolution from a nuclear power to a nuclear threat. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton suggested that the Middle East should be placed under an American nuclear umbrella as a deterrent. The Netanyahu administration was enraged when it heard this. To them, it meant that America had given up and would be tacitly compliant with a nuclear Iran. Clinton had to hastily assure them that America would continue working to prevent Iran from developing any nuclear technology. But Hersh believes that deterrence should not be America’s sole response. Isolating Iran would only turn it into another North Korea. Hersh believes that despite their differences, America and Iran can find significant common ground. Both want a stable and secure Afghanistan and Iraq in order to defeat Sunni extremist movements (like Al-Qaeda) that would not be welcome to a powerful Shi’a Iran. Drug trafficking is another area where Iran can be persuaded to join international efforts. With Pakistan and Afghanistan shipping their opium through the Middle East, Iran has been a focal point for the global war on drugs. With an extremely aggressive counter-drug policy, Iran can find common ground with the rest of the world. An Iran that is enticed into joining the international fold can pay huge dividends for American foreign policy.
Doran, Michael. “The Heirs of Nasser.” Foreign Affairs 90.3 (2011): 17-25. Print.
Hersh, Seymour M. “Iran and the Bomb.” The New Yorker (2011). Print.
Levi, Michael A. “Drawing the Line on Iranian Enrichment.” Survival 53.4 (2011): 169-96. Print.
Roy, Olivier, and Ros Schwartz. The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.
Courtesy of Futureatlas