The Republic and the Rahbar

January 21, 2009 Topic: Society Tags: DiplomacyIndustryHeads Of State

The Republic and the Rahbar

Mini Teaser: With all of the hype surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and its incendiary President Ahmadinejad, we have been fooled into believe Tehran is one of our biggest threats.

by Author(s): Gary Sick

JUST AS America shakes off its recent prolonged election cycle, Iran will be entering a presidential race of its own. As President Obama takes office, he must decide whether we will make a change to our long-standing Iran policy, and on what timeline. The United States can continue treating Iran as a permanent enemy to be confronted and isolated, thereby perpetuating the policies of the past three administrations. Or it can begin treating the Islamic Republic as a potentially "normal" power-subject to the usual blandishments of carrots and sticks. This accepts that Tehran has the capacity not only to annoy us but perhaps also to help ease some of Washington's worst dilemmas in the region.

Candidate Obama famously indicated that he would be prepared to open substantive talks with Iran-with proper preparation. But several of his advisers openly favor policies that would make meaningful dialogue difficult, if not impossible. The eventual decision will not only be contested but is certain to be hugely complicated by the poisonous domestic political climates in both Tehran and Washington. In both capitals, there are powerful political factions that thrive on the state of permanent hostility and reinforce each other through an extreme rhetoric of fear.

If President Obama is to pursue the course proposed by Candidate Obama, attempting to initiate a dialogue of a different sort with Iran, he will have to overcome the bitter residue of this venomous record. He must also decide how much priority to place on the Iranian issue when so many other problems-both foreign and domestic-are competing for attention. We have the ability to capitalize on Iran's political uncertainties in the run-up to the choice for its next leader. But any serious consideration of a coherent and more cost-efficient U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf must begin with a sober and realistic assessment of the Iranian threat. The climate of fear surrounding Tehran puts the United States in danger of making some potentially disastrous decisions.


Not Our Top Priority

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran is neither the most dangerous nor the most pressing problem to be faced by the new U.S. administration in the Persian Gulf region. The Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus, comprised of two weak or failing states with potential access to a stockpile of nuclear weapons, is clearly the most urgent and the highest risk to U.S. core interests. Iraq is a delicate and urgent problem, which will occupy much of the early attention of the new administration as Washington and Baghdad choreograph a responsible exit strategy. Nevertheless, the decisions the Obama administration makes about Iran in its first few months will have a significant effect on our other commitments.

Alarm about the Iranian threat typically rests on two propositions. First, it is claimed that Iran is a revolutionary Islamic theocracy that is politically extreme and undeterrable since the Shia religion welcomes martyrdom. Second, it is argued that Iran's ugly and belligerent rhetoric about Israel means that it will be quick to use any future nuclear weapon against Israel and its supporters, regardless of the consequences. Of course, Iran is no less capable of foolish and self-destructive decisions than any other government, but its record since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 has largely been that of a cautious power that puts regime survival above all ideological goals.

True, Iran's political influence has grown substantially in the past seven years, but that sharp rise has in effect been an unearned gift. The United States in 2001 attacked and dispersed the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's worst enemy to the east; then in 2003 we attacked and destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran's worst enemy to the west; finally, we oversaw the installation of a majority-Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history, largely comprised of individuals and groups that had relied on Iranian shelter and support in the struggle with Saddam. At the end of that process, Iran was indeed far more powerful and influential than before, but that was almost entirely the inadvertent result of our own policies.

Despite its new prominence, Iran's capabilities should not be exaggerated. Iran is a midlevel power with a largely unpopular and dysfunctional government headed by a firebrand populist president with limited power. Iran's gross domestic product is about the same as the state of Florida, and 85 percent of its hard-currency revenues come from oil, whose recent price oscillations have wreaked havoc on the budgetary process. Inflation is officially running at close to 25 percent, and job creation is so low that many of Tehran's young, well-educated citizens are looking to emigrate. Iran's annual defense expenditures total about $19 billion (2.5 percent of GDP), less than half those of Saudi Arabia and roughly equivalent to three months of U.S. expenditures in Iraq.


Slow-Motion Nuclear Program

But that does not address Iran's growing command of nuclear technology, a threat that also tends to be overblown. Iran began to experiment with its own nuclear-fuel cycle in the mid-1980s, when Saddam Hussein was employing chemical weapons against Iran and was simultaneously developing a nuclear-weapons capability. According to U.S. intelligence, Iran terminated its tabletop experiments with nuclear weaponization in 2003, after Saddam was defeated and the Iraqi threat to Iran was eliminated.

Today, after more than two decades, Iran has a single nuclear-power plant, which is still not functioning, and a uranium-enrichment program involving, at the time of this writing, some five thousand low-capacity centrifuges (and expected to rise to six thousand by early 2009) under routine monitoring and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). (Just for comparison, India, Pakistan, Israel and South Africa each took ten to twelve years to produce a nuclear device from the time they made a clear decision to do so; that may explain why Israeli intelligence has been predicting since at least 1991 that Iran would have a nuclear weapon within three to five years-or even less.) Iran declares constantly that it does not intend to build nuclear weapons and that such weapons are anti-Islamic. The IAEA, though properly suspicious of Tehran's ultimate intentions, has found no credible evidence of a nuclear-weapons program in Iran.

None of this is intended to dismiss concerns about Iran's potential role in the region. Rather, it is intended to put in perspective some of the excessive hype about the "Iranian threat" that is such an omnipresent part of our lives and that, for the most part, goes unchallenged. Iran is a country with a stout internal-defense capability that would be a harsh test for any potential invader. It has the ability to provide money, training and arms to dissident groups throughout the Middle East. It specializes in incendiary rhetoric. But it has almost no capability to project military power beyond its own borders, and it has no history of expansionist ambitions. Its borders have shrunk, not expanded, over the past several centuries.

In the interests of good relations with Russia, Iran remained conspicuously silent during Orthodox Russia's conflict with Iran's fellow Muslims in Chechnya. Despite revolutionary exhortations by Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Sunni Arab Gulf monarchies, Iran has assiduously cultivated good relations with its Arab neighbors almost from the day Khomeini died in 1989. Despite calls by extremist Iranian fringe groups for volunteer political martyrs, there has not been a single case of an Iranian suicide bombing in Iraq. On the whole, Tehran has followed a cautious and prudent foreign policy based on a realistic appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses, and with regime survival as its primary goal. National suicide by using a rudimentary nuclear device against an opponent universally credited with more than two hundred deliverable nuclear weapons is contrary to everything we know about Iran. Tehran is not immune to classic policies of deterrence.


Decision By Consensus

Iran's unique governing structure makes it even more difficult for the leadership to make a decision that would threaten the existence of the regime or the state. Iran is an Islamic republic, which is itself a contradiction in terms. Although "Islamic" tends to trump all else, the "republic" part of the formula is reflected in a written constitution and multiple elections-averaging about one election a year over the past three decades of its existence. These are novel practices that do not appear in fundamentalist Islamic states such as neighboring Saudi Arabia, which rely on sharia law as their constitution and have historically regarded elections as un-Islamic.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the sixty-nine-year-old rahbar, or Supreme Leader, theoretically has almost unlimited powers. However, in practical terms he must confer with a series of other power centers and even build coalitions in order to make policy on controversial issues. In that sense, he should properly be regarded not as an absolute dictator in the mold of Saddam Hussein, but rather as primus inter pares in a complex repressive system where no one is fully in command.

Depending on the issue, the other power centers may include: the presidency and its administrative bureaucracy; the leadership of the majles (parliament); senior policy councils, e.g., the Expediency Council and the Guardian Council, which are populated by the elders and grandees of the political system (mostly clerics); the leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps; senior merchants and industrialists (the "bazaar"); and the senior clerical hierarchy in the holy city of Qum, among others.

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