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The structure of Iranian politics

Commentary, 18 December 2009
Middle East and North Africa
Powerful structural forces inside Iran, not individual personalities, have brought Tehran to the brink of confrontation with the international community over its nuclear programme. Hope lies with closer US-Iran contacts - but this will come at the expense of even greater tensions with Britain and Israel.

Powerful structural forces inside Iran, not individual personalities, have brought Tehran to the brink of confrontation with the international community over its nuclear programme. Hope lies with closer US-Iran contacts - but this will come at the expense of even greater tensions with Britain and Israel.

By David B Roberts for RUSI.org

Iran politics - Persian

After a week in detention, Iran's release on 2 December 2009 of five well-fed and well-treated British civilian yachtsmen came about unexpectedly quickly. Certainly, on the two occasions in recent years when the Iranians arrested British military personnel for illegally entering Iran's territory they were released relatively swiftly, but this case was somewhat different for a number of reasons

The Iranian authorities had spent the unfortunate British sailors' final days in captivity provoking the international community over its nuclear programme. Tehran both announced the construction of at least ten new uranium enrichment plants and hinted that it would consider pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Also, this time the British were actually at fault, having entered restricted Iranian waters - as opposed to the previous examples, which were at best ambiguous. Tehran ominously stated that its measures would be 'hard and serious' if the British were found to have 'evil intentions'. Given the questionable state and impartiality of Iran's judicial system, as witnessed in the aftermath of the summer's presidential elections, one could be forgiven for thinking that the yachtsmen might have been disadvantaged. Iran still holds three American civilians who accidentally crossed the Iranian frontier on 3 July -  a fact which did not inspire confidence. Indeed, overall, it was not difficult to imagine the yachtsmen staying somewhat longer in Iran and being caught up in a bout of international diplomacy. 

Yet, despite these factors, the sailors were released relatively quickly, confounding logic once again - and confirming the adage that if you think you understand Iranian politics, you clearly don't understand Iranian politics.

It is therefore premature to conclude that this release should be construed as some kind of signal that Iran seeks, or is even at all open to, some kind of rapprochement with Britain. Given the complex and opaque nature of Iranian politics, it is important to remember two salient facts: that all politics is inevitably domestic, and that Iran's actions are coolly rational and far from as illogical, fanatical or religiously-beholden as they are sometimes portrayed.    

Modern roots of rationality

Even at the apogee of Iran's presumed religious piety after the Islamic Revolution and during its hugely costly war with Iraq, Tehran maintained relatively intimate dealings with Israel - its 'avowed' enemy. Despite vitriolic public attacks and support for proxy forces fighting the 'Zionist entity', cold, hard balance of power calculations kept Iran and Israel on the same side. Their primary concern was not each other, but the potentially expansionist and existential threat that both countries faced from Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rule. Under the shadow of this shared enemy, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spare parts, tanks, munitions and fighter jets were sold by Israel and paid for with Iranian oil. It is only since the dissolution of Iraq as a threat to both countries after 2003 that the strategic calculus dissolved, and with it Israel and Iran's primary reason for cooperation.

All politics is domestic

It is important to see Iran's attacks on Israel and America today in this light. The very make-up of Iranians' support for the government mandates to a large degree that it maintain 'pure', 'Islamic' and populist policies, rhetorically at least. As the Iranian state today arguably loses more and more popular legitimacy, especially in the light of the recent post-election clamp-downs, they are concentrating more and more on Israel and the West, stirring up ever more invective. Yet, even under these circumstances, it is critical not to forget the trade with Israel throughout the 1980s. Rhetoric is one thing: action is another.

In the bread and circuses analogy, lambasting Israel, America or the UK provides the Iranian government with the circus that keeps the population's attention and anger directed elsewhere - the bread being subsidised food and fuel. Indeed, it must not be forgotten that Iran has both the second largest oil and gas supplies in the world and was endowed with one of the most highly educated citizenries in the Middle East barely fifty years ago. From these beginnings Iran clearly finds itself in a disreputable state today - and someone needs to be blamed.

Another policy that is hugely domestically popular is Iran's stated aim to harness nuclear power generating technology. Obtaining such a level of technology automatically places Iran at the very top table of international relations. Indeed, these notions would fit perfectly with Iran's historic role. For centuries, the Persian Empire, the ancestor of modern-day Iran, was the most advanced civilisation in the world. Cities such as Persepolis and Pasargadae were breath-taking in their scope and majesty. The Empire spanned three continents and Persian art and science were second to none. Iranians today have not, in any way, shape or form, forgotten this illustrious history. Attaining such a level of technological sophistication would therefore give Iran a hint of prestige commensurate to their esteemed past.

However, now that President Ahmadinejad has advanced the notion that Iran has an inviolable right to nuclear technology and that they will one day obtain such technology, it is enormously difficult for him to go back. Yet this is what he tentatively tried to do earlier this month.

Exposed: acquiescence, revenge, rejection

In September, Iran was forced to admit that it was constructing a secret, well-bunkered uranium enrichment plant near Qom. The site possessed far too few centrifuges for a nuclear power plant, but just enough to theoretically produce sufficient uranium for one bomb a month - if the plant was run at the fullest capacity possible, and was used to reprocess 'low-grade' uranium stockpiled at Iran's existing enrichment site in Natanz. Nevertheless, Iran refrained from pulling-out from scheduled talks in Vienna at the start of October. Moreover, these talks progressed well. Acting apparently with Ahmedinejad's acquiescence, Iran's chief negotiator agreed to a deal involving moving 80 per cent of Iran's uranium out of the country for processing under international controls. The decision was described as a great victory by the ultra-conservative Kayhan government newspaper in Iran.  

Yet, as so often with Iranian international politics, it was a case of one step forward and several back, for the proposal was rejected in time by the Iranian government. The key reason for this appears to have little to do with the deal in and of itself. Rather, the deal was taken as an opportunity by Ahmadinejad's detractors to undermine his credibility and to make him look either weak or out of touch.

This should, in many ways, come as little surprise. Not only is it reasonable to expect others within the Iranian establishment to play the nuclear card, this episode is also another reminder of the constant nexus between foreign and domestic politics. It was also interesting to note that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, dubbed the 'moderate' candidate in a gross over-simplification by the West during the summer presidential elections, jumped on the bandwagon, castigating Ahmadinejad for not being tough enough and caving towards the West.

A month later and the situation worsened yet again. At the end of November, the United States, the UK, France, Germany and - unusually - Russia and China delivered a collective, public and embarrassing rebuke to Iran for its latest but most blatant transgression at Qom. Now that figures in the Iranian establishment were suddenly playing a game of 'who's the toughest' (after rejecting Ahmadinejad's Vienna proposal), a harsh reaction was inevitable. This explains the threat to withdraw from the NPT, and the impractical and almost childish announcement of the construction of ten further nuclear plants.  

Structural not personal

Putting Iran's recent alarming statements into their historical and cultural context highlights the keen interplay between domestic and international politics. It also suggests that Iran is structurally unable to seek a significant rapprochement with the UK, America or Israel, although closer covert relations are possible.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that after the elections and the ensuing problems, Iran decided to complain long and loud about Britain's role as the nefarious instigator, and not America's. There could, of course, be simple reasons for this, namely that Britain and not America has an embassy in Tehran, offering a perfect focal point for protest. However, there could be altogether more subtle reasons afoot.

Given that it has been shown that Iran is willing to deal with any country no matter its rhetorical stance towards it, avoiding setting America up as the key villain in the post-election problems could have been deliberate, so as not to poison relations with the President Obama's new administration. If this is the case, it would suggest that Iran is at least vaguely interested in what America has to offer. This is unsurprising, given America's wealth, technology and, perhaps most importantly, its control of anti-Iranian sanctions. If a mini-rapprochement were to be attempted it would be logical to expect - the anomaly of the five sailors' release notwithstanding - an increase in anti-British or anti-Israeli rhetoric (or both). Iran has to keep up an anti-Western face for its domestic audience somehow. Attacking America, given the precariously balanced nature of Obama's administration and the potential blocking power of the Republicans, would be counterproductive.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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