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IRAN: A Situation Analysis

By Afshar Koorosh




Not dissimilar to the pre-crisis years of the late 1970s, the world appears to have, once again, been caught off guard vis-à-vis its assessment of the political dynamics of Iran and the survivability of a regime, not long ago, classified as "secure" by most western intelligence and think-tank analyses.  


September 11, the ensuing removal of the Taliban and the subsequent forced fall of Baghdad have brought a new and very real focus on the clerics of Tehran whom by most measures serve as the poster boys of radical extremism, in quest of the atomic bomb.


In many respects, the international focus on Tehran has bolstered and added fuel to the voice of domestic discontent against the ruling religious regime.  President Bush's axis-of-evil speech followed by a crescendo of unprecedented personal overtures to the Iranian people -- in support of their cause against the clerical regime -- has had an undeniable influence on the Iranian psyche:  While the dissident movement and, for the most part, the people welcome such overtures, the ruling regime, including its so-called reformist faction, has been nerved by the underlying intent of such calls.


Not withstanding, there is a real and vibrant civil discord brewing in Iran which is simply based on an epic and uncompromising conflict between a regime, set on ruling by divine right, and a populace in need of earthly freedoms and opportunities.


Approaching his seventh year of presidency and term limited, Hojatolislam Mohamad Khatami, by his own admission, has failed.  Powerless or unwilling, the mid-ranking cleric president failed to draw on a mandate of "reform."  Despite successive presidential and legislative elections, no meaningful challenge was ever risked against the ruling conservatives.  Consequently, the recent student crackdowns, preceded by the rejection of "reform legislations," by the conservatives, are viewed as the final acts bringing as end to what was once dubbed as the "2nd of Khordad Movement" (named after Khatami's first election date).


Adding to its domestic turmoil, the regime's chronic inability to steer away from militant positions on a variety of international issues (i.e. pursuit of WMDs, obstruction of the Middle East peace process, relations with Al Qaeda operatives, overt and covert support of subversive anti terror forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the latest beating death of a Canadian-Iranian journalist, etc.) has strengthened the case against it, legitimizing its classification as a rogue, evil and non-conventional state.


Policy Reassessment


This dynamic has brought forth an urgent need, in many western capitals, for a serious reassessment of their respective "Iran Policies."  Any such reevaluation however will only translate into an actual policy shift (away from "dialogue and engagement") if its findings convincingly satisfy the following questions: 1) Is there mass discontent in Iran? If so, how deep and how broad based is it? 2) Is there leadership at the helm of the Iranian discontent; and if so, is it armed with a strategy and organization - inside and outside of Iran?  3) Absence a leadership, how long will public voicing of dissent and protests be sustainable?  4) How brutal will the regime get and how far will it go in its suppression?  5) What are the prospects of a "Palace Coup," and or how far will the regime bend in offering concessions to and compromise with, the people or the "reformist" faction?


To most Iran experts, it is painfully and glaringly obvious that the missing ingredients in the equation for regime change in Iran are: leadership and organization, both domestically and among an extraordinarily affluent diaspora.


Fractious, splintered, unimaginative, spiteful and apathetic are words often used to describe the Iranian opposition.  Hence, despite years of "waiting for their moment," the Iranian opposition is today ill-prepared and not in position to provide leadership for a movement that has a very real and legitimate chance of bringing positive and permanent challenge to a visibly paranoid and de-legitimized regime.


Despite numerous attempts and calls for unity among and between the various opposition groups, factions and personalities, very little has been accomplished and prospects of a miraculous coalition or even détente among such groups are dim.


This is especially troubling, since the regime's efficient intelligence apparatus is, by and large, quite successful in regularly draining the pools of political leaders that emerge from the domestic front of its political opposition.  Those "leaders," who escape incarceration by the regime, find themselves in exile, where they either get consumed by exile politics, or become ineffective when disconnected from their domestic peers.


Window of Opportunity


Rushed by an increased acceleration of political events within Iran, there is a growing and very legitimate concern over the closing of a window of opportunity and the imminence of political chaos in Iran. 


Irrespective of political orientations, a strong case can be made that the window of opportunity for meaningful change in Iran (either via internal "reform" or regime change) is approximately 7-16 months -- with the next Majlis (February 2004) and presidential (May 2005) elections as the critical focal milestones.


Based on this window, there are three distinct schools of thoughts which attempt their best to foretell the unfolding of events in Iran.


1)     One school believes the regime will weather the storm:  Arguing that the so called pragmatists among the ruling elite are survivors and, thanks to a leadership vacuum among the opposition, the regime will buy itself time by inevitably offering a series of strategic concessions.  These concessions may come in two form:  a) To the West: in the areas of WMD's, the Middle East peace plan, war on Al Qaeda and even human rights; and, b) To the Iranian people: it will loosen some social controls, offer an amnesty, concoct revisions to the election vetting process and shift some of the powers of the expediency council to the presidency.  Under this formula, the regime will find the perfect opportunity to unveil "Khatami II," just in time for the next election cycle.  (This time perhaps a western educated non-cleric, a former "dissident," or even a "liberal" female can become the dark horse to win the purse.)


2)     The second school believes that the clerical regime will be unable to stand the socio-economic and political heat and will be left with one of two options:  a) A "palace coup" by the conservatives in an attempt to save political Islam and its "Republic" from the pagans.  Or, b) A "palace coup" by the pragmatists / reformers in an attempt to "bring to the people what they want."  (In either case, it is thought that Mr. Rafsanjani will play the power broker.  Unclear though, is which camp he will choose to pay his brokerage fee?)


3)     The third school believes that regime change is inevitable. Irrespective of tactical maneuvers by the regime, or an absence of an organized leadership by the opposition, this school believes that the regime will be unable to stave off the energy of dissent and the demands of the youth - who want nothing less than a complete exit of the clergy from governance and the establishment of a secular democracy. 


Haplessly optimistic, this group discounts the absence of an organizational leadership for the freedom movement by subscribing to one of two views:  a) That the movement is on the verge of spawning its leadership, from within Iran, and that it will happen literally overnight. Subscribers of this view believe that any such candidate will need to have either an armed services or a religious, yet secular, credential; or, b) There is an emerging non-traditionalist view that regards the current Iranian movement as a completely new phenomenon, breaking all rules and traditions and bucking all historic trends.  It argues that Iran's freedom movement is so well ingrained among the people that it needs not the traditional leadership; it needs not a set traditional organization or a pre-defined disciplined strategy.  In fact, it attributes the resilience of this movement to the very fact that there is nothing tangible for the regime to "shut down."  The strength of the movement lies in the fact that it is mature, entirely homegrown and genuine.  It is popularly driven and purely spontaneous - driven by individuals, in the streets, in the alleys and neighborhoods of Iran.  This school argue that Iran will produce the first "leaderless tidal wave of the masses" culminating in regime paralysis.


U.S. Factor


Notwithstanding its domestic problems, the Islamic Republic is also faced with increased and very serious challenge from outside its borders.


As the remaining superpower, and more especially because of the inherent "conspiratorial" psyche of the Iranian political culture, the United States will have an important role in determining the general direction and speed with which events unfold in Iran.


Yet, as reflected by grueling public debates and the ambiguities emanating from various Iran policy camps in Washington, America's direction and clarity of purpose will only come as a result of its dealing with the following issues:


1)     America's Paranoia: America suffers from a crippling paranoia emanating from its Iran-experience over the last half century.  On one hand America feels bound by the principal of "in defense of freedom, whenever and wherever," yet it suffers from its own inability to bridge the gap between 1953 and 2003.  Two historic windows, half a century apart, with distinctly intertwining messages, Iran's current political predicament provides America's champions of "freedom" and "popular will" with a golden opportunity to make the right choice by backing the right side - the people of Iran. 


Irrespective of which face of history one sides with -- the coup or counter-coup of 1953 - there is clarity in the opportunity afforded to America today.  Instead of endless therapy sessions over 1953, America's choice today must be non-other than an unwavering support of the Iranian people.  This resolve will not only strengthen the rightful aspiration of 70 million people - but will also cure America's paranoia that has manifested itself through catatonic foreign policy blunders such as Iran-Contra, the Clinton/Albright apology or the ongoing continuous search for "moderates" within the regime.


2)     America's alternatives?  With Khatami's "reform movement" virtually decapitated and in a hole, America's political options on Iran are limited to: a) A few undesirables within the regime's "conservative" camp -- with the claim to have the ability to offer Washington  "a deal;"  b) A daring, yet leaderless, student movement limited, in action, thanks to the brute force and crushing suppression of the regime;  c) The disorganized opposition within Iran; or, d) The unimaginative, pale and insipid Iranian opposition in exile. 


It is an undeniable reality that without a tangible alternative, it is difficult for any argument, no matter how morally just, to win a U.S. foreign policy debate in favor of ridding the status quo in Tehran -- especially with Baghdad and Kabul in such disarray. Nevertheless, President Bush may have already limited his options against Tehran with his increasingly uncompromising rhetoric.


Iran's freedom movement and dissidents are hopeful that, much like Ronald Reagan's calls against the "evil empire," Bush's Iran doctrine of rhetoric will not let up.  They hope that similar to Reagan, Bush's posture on Iran is also firmly heeled on a personal commitment and belief that ultimately (and despite a leadership vacuum at the helm of Iran's freedom movement) it is the freedom movement itself that remains America's only and clear alternative for investment.


3)     With or without Europe?  September 11 afforded America a unique mandate to lead the global war or terror.  That mandate however found little translation when it came to international resolve on Iraq.  Led by commercial interests, important powers within the European Union (EU) failed to follow America's lead threatening to deepen an Atlantic rift. Predictably that experience, caused American foreign policy careerist to draw a new line as to how far America's unilateralism should be tested - come next time.


With vast gas and petroleum reserves, a consumer market of 70 million, Iran serves as a valuable multi-billion dollar annual asset to the EU.  Hence, the very same commercial and political issues that served as the core reason for Europe's mutiny against Washington -- on Iraq -- are at play today with Iran.  This time, however, making the case for the EU are camps among foreign policy careerists and certain lobby groups in America favoring "dialogue and engagement" with the clerical regime as opposed to a unilateral American confrontation with Tehran.


The clerical regime however, has not played its hand very well with the EU in that, it has managed, on its own, to increasingly make the case for Washington.  The regime's belligerent and militant posturing vis-à-vis its WMD program and gross human rights violations, among other issues, are turning the tide against Tehran. Many members of the EU are taking formal and serious positions in support of Iran's freedom movement.


To exert successful pressure on the clerical regime, America needs Europe.  Hence, here lies a perfect opportunity to defuse friction with the EU by favoring a multilateral policy and close alliance with the Europe in support of the Iranian freedom movement.


4)     Election Fix:  For decades, America's strength -- its democracy and elective process - has also been viewed as its weakness when it comes to long-term formulation and commitment to foreign policy.  Every four years America's domestic politics and electioneering, handicaps its foreign policy considerations. 


With national elections (Presidential, the entire House and 2/3 of the Senate) 15 months away, the Bush administration will need to stop the hemorrhage of public opinion support of its foreign policy efforts in the Middle East.  Suggesting that the Administration's foreign policy choices will be severely limited by temptations of "quick fixes" and "settling down" the Middle East in favor of badly needed "success stories" and campaign sound-bites.


Unless something dramatically energizes the Iranian political process, within the next six months, it would be unreasonable to expect the Administration to take dramatic risks on Iran -- as U.S. campaign season kicks in by January/February 2004. 


However, Iran and the story of its 50 million youth have a place in America's forthcoming elections.  What better story than the story of freedom fighting for its place among a disenfranchised generation looking, not away from, but to America for support?


Serious or Curious?


Despite an overall pessimism among Iran experts in regard to exiled Iranian opposition, there has been, in recent months, a curious buzz about an unlikely name:  Pahlavi. 


The former crown prince, "Reza Pahlavi of Iran," as he prefers to be called, a few years ago embarked on a quiet campaign to re-introduce himself to the world at large, but more especially to the 50 million youth of Iran whom never knew him nor his father.


Young, modern, articulate and genuinely unassuming, Reza Pahlavi has found much success in the West, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, in presenting himself as a selfless "citizen-prince," calling for secularism by way of a referendum - brought about as a result of a non-violent civil disobedience campaign of political defiance. 


Careful analysis, as reflected by sentiments within power circles in western capitals, however, suggest Reza Pahlavi's bold public relations campaign significantly outweighs his organizational capabilities inside and, surprisingly, outside Iran.

This analysis suggests that in many respects Reza Pahlavi's strengths also appear to be his weaknesses:  His high name identification among all Iranians; his recent success with a well disciplined public relations campaign; as well as, his articulate campaign message serve him as double edged swords:  1) To those who find it counter-intuitive to support a return of monarchy in Iran, the name Pahlavi is an insurmountable problem;  2) To those who find little problem with his message, the fact that he has become an "overnight" media darling in the west is suspect and immediately attributed to a "conspiracy by the powers" to yet-again return a Pahlavi to the peacock throne; 3) Ironically, to those who may be willing to take him at face value, there is a looming contradiction between Reza Pahalvi's public relations campaign and an obvious inability or, worse, lack of desire to assemble, forge, command or partake in a cohesive political mobilization effort (i.e. united opposition); and, 4) finally to those who are not convinced of his formula: "Nonviolent political defiance and civil-disobedience = regime paralysis = facilitating a referendum and secular democracy," he is suspect of either not being serious or, of having ulterior motives.


It remains to be seen, and especially difficult to gauge, whether the citizen-prince is able to translate his strong rhetoric into a solid emotional connection with the frustrated masses living under the Islamic Republic.  His message has great appeal, but any legitimate chance for success largely depends on his ability to personally overcome the serious questions that have, for years, haunted him about his leadership skills and personal commitment to the cause.


Nevertheless, Reza Pahlavi has made inroads and is a name to be reckoned with.  If for no other reason, for the very simple fact that the institution he represents still commands emotions among Iranians and can command a natural constituency deeply rooted in Persian culture dating back well before both Islam and Christianity.

About the author:
Afshar Koorosh is a researcher and a general student of Iranian history and politics currently residing in the United States. 

... Payvand News - 7/30/03 ... --

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