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Iran is not Iraq

Opinion article by Kazem Alamdari (Source: Rooz Online)

The response of the Islamic republic of Iran to the latest Western sanctions against it has shown how critical oil revenues are to the survival of the regime in Tehran. Contrary to Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, events have shown that Iranian leaders realize danger at the right time and retreat, unless an unpredicted event takes place or the country's war-mongering forces see their interests otherwise. Some believe that economic sanctions do not force dictators to retreat. They point to Iraq to prove their point.

But Iran is not Iraq. If Iran is viewed to be similar to Iraq, then the question that is worthy of discussion is: What model does Iraq look like?

Such mechanical comparisons lack any value. When social upheavals take place, people are involved. And people, which includes dictators, do not respond identically to crises or danger. An example of this is the Arab Spring: Four dictators lost power in four different ways. Similarly, Syria, Iran and other dictators can have their own models of change. Another example is Burma and Eastern European countries, which had their own distinct ways of change. There, we witnessed the Polish model, the Czech model, the Romanian model and Yugoslav model: all different. So saying Iran is similar to Iraq is just not right and a comparison will not produce similar results.

Iraq's society and political structure during Saddam were completely different from Iran's current structure. In Iraq bureaucrats, military technocrats and civilians were in power. Unlike Iran, Iraq regime did not depend on an organized section of the lower sectors of society. The Islamic republic is also not as uniform as Saddam's regime. This alone is something that can thwart the type of genocide that took place in Iraq which killed thousands of people en masse through chemical bombings, hunger or illness. Such a policy in Iran would rapidly break the regime from inside. The Islamic republic has a great need to keep the masses that it has been dragging to political events through the payment of cash, to extract votes from the, and to hire mercenaries to punish, terrorize and suppress its opponents.

To continue to execute these projects the regime fanatically needs its oil revenue. This regime has already made its supporters dependant on state payments for providing political support and is fears the day when it will no longer be able to bring people into the streets to support it or engage in other religious or political events without such payments. The Iraqi regime never had the ability for such scenes and for mobilizing the masses and depended directly on its power of suppression.

Oil revenues provide the needs of hundreds of religious organizations whose mission is propaganda for the state, and suppression of opponents. State subsidies too are political rather than economic in nature and have been devised to recruit people. Through this project, the poor in Iran have for the first time become official salary recipients of the government. It is a fact that some seven or eight member families had never seen a million Toman (a US Dollar today can bring about 1,800 Toman) while they have been receiving this amount every few months as a state subsidy. People who receive such money have to remain loyal to the regime, and they do. They also participate in regime organized elections and demonstrations. Why would they not? After all, this money is handed over to them without any official requests. Those who are given such stipends are among the most ignorant and needy sectors of Iranian society who are forced to sell their dignity for money.

A drop in oil revenues - which in any case constitute the bulk of the government's income - can alienate those people whom the regime has retained for its political survival. The absence of such stipends to people can result in their inability to pay their regular utility bills, which would in turn result in still lesser income for the regime.

Awareness of this reality can convince the regime that it is better and less expensive for it to come to an agreement with the West and people. A war would not only not solve any of the current problems the regime faces, it would in fact add the consequences of the war to the above-mentioned existing problems. The value of the Rial would drop steeply even further and foreign exchange, which would fall because of lesser oil exports, would become scarcer as the national treasury rapidly drains further.

The differences between the regime and the public in Iran are nothing new. As such problems heighten, people will hold officials responsible for their plight. The differences within the regime will increase as those circles inside the regime who believe in war as the solution to the problems increase their pressure and calls. This will result in a greater brain drain and deserters which like an avalanche will eat a part of society with each of its turns. Order and security will suffer. What is most likely to happen under such conditions is internal collapse and a coup to contain the power of the state. This is because some will try to come to terms with the West and people as a way to prevent the disintegration of the social structure. But they will be confronted by those who will be concerned about losing their monopolistic power and privileges. These people will prefer war rather than to compromise or to give any concession.

In addition to the differences listed above, it should be noted that Iran, unlike Iraq, has gone through a relatively recent revolution. Elections in Iran have never been as fake as they were in Saddam's Iraq. Iran has experienced the reform administration (Mohammad Khatami's presidency) and has a Green Movement calling for change. Differences within the regime today are greater than ever before. And as financial and economic corruption and state embezzlement continue to be exposed and as more efforts are made to cover up these evils, faith and belief in the regime by its own insiders is also weakening. Iran clearly has a large silent opposition which can rapidly grow if state control is loosened, all of which will speed up the forces of upheaval and change.

Another difference in Iran today is the eruption of the Arab Spring and the fall of some dictators. Saddam did not experience or witness these events and the Arab Spring. The leaders of the Iranian regime have the fate of Saddam, Gaddafi, Ben Ali, Mobarak, Abdollah Saleh and Bashar Assad in front of their eyes. They do not rule out the possibility of similar events in Iran. And in addition to all of these differences between Iran and Iraq, the impact of international sanctions on Iran will be very different than on Iraq. The most likely situation is that the leaders of the Iranian regime will try to superficially maintain the revolutionary and populist slogans and goals while secretly coming to terms with the West, thus preventing the current tension and pressure from reaching uncontrollable levels.

But even in that scenario, the most that the regime can accomplish will be to contain and reduce the pressure from the West (by compromising with it). The economic and political issues, and the problem of legitimacy and deep public discontent will still continue. What can the regime do about these?

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