The New European - - Expertise -

It might be tempt­ing to revel in the tribu­la­tions of Tehran’s un­pleas­ant rulers. But, says PAUL KNOTT, it’s worth be­ing care­ful what you wish for

The Ira­nian regime is in trou­ble. Trade sanc­tions, a fail­ing econ­omy and many ci­ti­zens’ frus­tra­tion with curbs on their free­dom are un­der­min­ing its grip on power.

But prompt­ing the weak­en­ing or col­lapse of Iran’s ‘Is­lamic Repub­lic’ sys­tem would not nec­es­sar­ily be a good out­come for its peo­ple or op­po­nents in the Arab world and the West.

The 2015 nu­clear deal au­tho­rised the lift­ing of most of the in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions that had se­verely hand­i­capped the Ira­nian econ­omy for many years. Slow im­ple­men­ta­tion meant the coun­try had barely be­gun to re­cover from their ef­fects when Don­ald Trump de­cided in May to rip up the nu­clear agree­ment and re-im­pose harsh US sanc­tions.

This de­ci­sion sent the Ira­nian econ­omy into a re­newed tail­spin. In­fla­tion and un­em­ploy­ment are ris­ing sharply and the cur­rency, the rial, has lost more than half its value.

Iran’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to ex­ter­nal pres­sures is ex­ac­er­bated by in­ter­nal fail­ings such as cor­rup­tion, in­ef­fi­cient man­age­ment and the mar­ket dom­i­nance of com­pa­nies run by regime bod­ies, par­tic­u­larly the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps.

The se­vere eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties many Ira­ni­ans are fac­ing are cou­pled with their frus­tra­tions at the regime’s re­stric­tions on their per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal free­doms. Whilst the sys­tem fea­tures el­e­ments of democ­racy, in­clud­ing an elected pres­i­dent and par­lia­ment, these in­sti­tu­tions are sub­or­di­nate to a hard-line re­li­gious and se­cu­rity forces’ es­tab­lish­ment. Mass demon­stra­tions have be­come a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the Ira­nian po­lit­i­cal land­scape over re­cent years. As have the re­pres­sive meth­ods used to put them down.

Os­ten­si­bly, there would be lit­tle rea­son for most out­siders to mourn the fall of the Is­lamic Repub­lic. It is a se­rial hu­man rights abuser, a sup­porter of vi­o­lent, in­ter­na­tional ex­trem­ist move­ments and a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to in­sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East through its in­ter­fer­ence in coun­tries such as Le­banon and Iraq. Work­ing in tan­dem with Rus­sia, Iran has en­sured the sur­vival of the re­pel­lent As­sad regime in Syria.

But the huge les­son of re­cent decades is that the world – and es­pe­cially the Mid­dle East – is a com­pli­cated place. The fall of a trou­ble­some regime does not au­to­mat­i­cally mean that what fol­lows will be bet­ter.

In Iran’s case, the short-term risk is that the pres­sure will de­stroy the rel­a­tively mod­er­ate and re­formist govern­ment of pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani, be­low, rather than the Is­lamic Repub­lic sys­tem as whole, and hand full con­trol to the hard­lin­ers.

Rouhani staked his pres­i­dency on agree­ing a nu­clear deal with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in re­turn for the lift­ing of sanc­tions. The re­form­ers ar­gued that this prize would en­able them to re­build the econ­omy and di­rectly ben­e­fit the Ira­nian peo­ple.

In con­trast, Iran’s hard­lin­ers ac­cused the re­form­ers of naivety be­cause the West, par­tic­u­larly Amer­ica, was un­re­li­able. Their view was that the nu­clear deal re­quired Iran to sur­ren­der its se­cu­rity in­ter­ests in ex­change for sup­posed eco­nomic ben­e­fits that would never ma­te­ri­alise.

By rip­ping up the agree­ment and re-im­pos­ing sanc­tions, Trump has proved the hard­lin­ers right. Supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei says Trump’s de­ci­sion is “clear proof that Amer­ica can­not be trusted”.

Rouhani is al­ready rein­ing in his ef­forts to re­duce the in­flu­ence of hard­line bas­tions such as the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards and court­ing their sup­port in­stead.

This may not be enough to save his po­si­tion. Con­ser­va­tive ri­vals such as the for­mer mayor of Tehran, Mo­ham­mad Bagher Ghal­ibaf, are al­ready on ma­noeu­vres, mak­ing fire and brim­stone speeches about the need to re­turn to hard­core revo­lu­tion­ary val­ues. The hard­lin­ers gain­ing com­plete con­trol of the Is­lamic Repub­lic would do noth­ing to solve Iran’s prob­lems, of course. It would sim­ply lead to more re­pres­sion, more pub­lic anger and greater do­mes­tic in­sta­bil­ity with un­pre­dictable con­se­quences. This would only in­crease the suf­fer­ing of the regime’s big­gest vic­tims, its do­mes­tic crit­ics.

Iran’s nu­clear weapons pro­gramme would likely be restarted, re­viv­ing the hor­rific spec­tre of a nu­clear arms race in a dan­ger­ously un­sta­ble re­gion. A ramp­ing up of Iran’s ma­lign in­ter­fer­ence in other coun­tries around the re­gion and sup­port for ex­trem­ist, anti-west­ern groups would also en­sue.

The longer-term im­pacts would be dam­ag­ing too. His­tor­i­cal per­spec­tives are pow­er­fully res­o­nant in Iran. The per­ceived his­tory of West­ern med­dling in the coun­try is a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in the Is­lamic Repub­lic regime’s anti-west­ern stance. Ira­ni­ans of all po­lit­i­cal stripes often cite West­ern se­cu­rity ser­vices’ al­leged in­volve­ment in the 1953 over­throw of the sec­u­lar, demo­crat­i­cally elected govern­ment of Mo­hammed Mos­sadegh.

The West is also blamed for back­ing Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq dur­ing the 1980-88 war with Iran. That bru­tal con­flict im­pacted many Ira­nian fam­i­lies, cost­ing more than 200,000 Ira­nian lives on the bat­tle­field. Many more died sub­se­quently as a re­sult of their in­juries or the long-term ef­fects of Sad­dam’s chem­i­cal weapons.

One of the trick­i­est as­pects of the decade-long nu­clear deal ne­go­ti­a­tions was per­suad­ing Iran that the West could be trusted to stick to its com­mit­ments. The ac­tions of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion will now lead to the agree­ment be­ing seen by many Ira­ni­ans as yet an­other act of de­cep­tion.

The down­ward spi­ral of dis­trust was only ac­cel­er­ated by a ter­ror­ist at­tack last month in Ah­vaz, in the south west of the coun­try, on a mil­i­tary pa­rade com­mem­o­rat­ing the start of the Iran-iraq con­flict. Twenty nine peo­ple were killed in the as­sault, which ap­pears to have been car­ried out by an ex­trem­ist, sep­a­ratist group from the sub­stan­tial Arab mi­nor­ity in Iran’s Khuzes­tan re­gion. Supreme leader Khamenei was quick to blame “Us-backed regimes in the re­gion” for sup­port­ing the “plot”. For­eign min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Sharif vowed that “Iran will re­spond swiftly and de­ci­sively to the re­gional ter­ror spon­sors and their US masters who are ac­count­able for such at­tacks”.

Whether the Is­lamic Repub­lic sys­tem sur­vives or not, Iran will re­main an im­por­tant power in a cru­cial area of the world. Fur­ther en­trench­ing Ira­nian mis­trust of the West will make main­tain­ing peace and se­cu­rity even more dif­fi­cult for many decades to come, what­ever type of govern­ment is in of­fice in Tehran.

Quiet, cal­cu­lated diplo­matic pres­sure on the cur­rent regime to change some of its prac­tices would be the best way im­prove the lot of the Ira­nian peo­ple for now, rather than prompt­ing mas­sive up­heaval.

The po­ten­tial col­lapse of an un­pleas­ant regime such as Iran’s may be noth­ing to shed tears over. But in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, it often makes sense to be care­ful what you wish for.

Photo: STR/AFP/ Getty Im­ages

RE­PRES­SIVE: Mem­bers of Iran’s Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps (IRGC) march in a pa­rade to mark the an­niver­sary of the out­break of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq

Photo: Atta Kenare/afp/getty Im­ages

HARD­LINE: Mo­ham­mad Bagher Ghal­ibaf, the Con­ser­va­tive for­mer mayor of Tehran, greets sup­port­ers at a rally in the Ira­nian cap­i­tal on May 16, 2017

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