There can be no new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran is too much of an enigma. We do now know exactly what we are dealing with, to get involved. Instead Iran must be kept at bay. Sanctions must be maintained, to starve the government of funds to deploy militias. If necessary – but only if necessary – military means should be used to retard nuclear proliferation.
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By Matthew Parish
Iran is an extremely problematic country for the international community. It seeks confrontation with near-enough everyone. It is big enough to do that. The ideological premise of its government is designed for confrontation. The country is (almost) a democracy, and its populace want its leaders to execute their collective will. Iranian people are in substantial part the product of the predominant religion in the country, Shia Islam. They see themselves as standard-bearers for controversy, relentlessly confronting Sunni Muslims in the name of a theological dispute buried deep in history. Indeed aggressive Iranian foreign policy has rendered the Sunni-Shia divide the principal contemporary political fissure in the world’s most unstable region. The challenge for the west is, and since 1979 always has been, to create a strategy to manage their large and most exercising of pivotal Middle Eastern nations; and then to translate that strategy into a series of steps that addresses the day-to-day crises Iranian foreign policy habitually produces for the rest of the world.
Until 1979 Iran was the subject of a resented species of Anglo-American suzerainty, governed by a Royal Family close to the west. The purpose of the suzerainty was to maintain control over Iran’s oil assets, and a popular Iranian prime minister was overthrown by the west in the early 1950’s after trying to nationalise Iran’s foreign-controlled national oil company. The 1979 revolution was religious, nationalist and anti-colonial. The theocracy the revolution installed was and remains virtually unique. The Islamic Republic was to be a democracy, albeit one supervised by different bodies of clerics who would exercise control over the judiciary; could veto electoral candidates; and could exercise control over the legislative process. Different clerical bodies would supervise one-another, and the entire system would be overseen by a top cleric called the Supreme Leader. The system was designed for autocratic rule by one man, the first Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini who spearheaded the 1979 revolution. Although he personally crafted the Iranian government’s system of checks and balances, the entire structure was mostly irrelevant until Khomeini died. Then the Iranian government structure was suddenly put to the test. A number of themes emerged. For reasons not constitutionally transparent, unelected clerics would have the final say on foreign policy. The judiciary would remain stunted and would be used to pursue political agendas against dissident politicians. Unelected clerics could and would use the power of veto over domestic politicians to restrain liberal political movements. The unelected clerics supervising Iranian democracy would become increasingly elderly, against the backdrop of an increasingly youthful population.
In this political context, Iranian foreign policy has been aggressive within the region. Iran has actively been developing a nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programme over several years. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tehran provided financial and some military support to Iraqi Shia militia groups, and political coverage to Baghdad’s new Shia-majority government. After the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Iran sent militias, finance and expertise to support the government in Damascus. Over decades, Iran has provided military, financial and political support to Hezbollah, a Shia militia group in Lebanon that has engaged in attacks upon Israel from the south of the country. Israel became concerned during the Syrian Civil War when Iran started moving troops / militias close to its borders within Syria. In rhetorical terms, Iran has positioned itself as the leading critic of Israel in the Muslim world. Iran’s position on Israel is less one of sympathy for the Palestinians and more one of overt hostility to the concept of Israel as a nation state; Iranian leaders have made various overtly anti-semitic comments in public fora. Iran has traditionally refused to make any diplomatic overtures to the United States, that it casts as its principal foe. For this reason, US sanctions against Iran, including those targeting banks that do business with Iran, have crippled Iran’s international economic standing since 1979. Iran has also intentionally jeopardised diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, the European nation with which it traditionally had the closest relations, upon occasion. In 2011 a student militia that operates under the auspices of the unelected clerical establishment burned down the British Embassy in Tehran in response to British imposition of banking sanctions.
Iran’s foreign policy seems determined to cause everyone maximum aggravation and with minimum benefit, and maximum cost, to Iran. In short, Iran’s foreign policy seems to break all the rules of international relations. The country refuses to operate multilaterally, having no friends of note other than Russia (and even that is fragile), and being effectively excluded from participation in international organisations. Its unilateral foreign policy has alienated the two most powerful nations in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia (that is determined to counter Iran’s hostile agenda to advance Shia interests against Sunni wherever it may find them). A country that in theory ought to be wealthy has its economy crippled by one of the most comprehensive regimes of sanctions in the modern world. Moreover sometimes one feels that Iran just can’t help itself. Promptly after negotiating and agreeing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Obama administration in the United States, which was supposed to involve dismantling Iran’s regime for developing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief, Iran started testing ballistic missiles of the kind used to carry nuclear warheads. A new raft of sanctions was promptly imposed, and the JCPOA was eventually withdrawn from by the United States.
Why is Iran’s foreign policy so petulant, if not recurrently self-destructive? The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam can only take us so far. This is not a traditional ethno-religious conflict in which two groups are fighting for the same territory or for political control (at least, not in Iran – Iran has a number of qualities associated with such conflicts, as does Lebanon). Moreover the depth of this schism – which perhaps reached an apex with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States imposing an embargo upon Qatar, amidst allegations of overly close contacts with Qatar’s near-neighbour Iran – has emerged only relatively recently. The driver of that schism in becoming a prevailing foreign policy dynamic was the US invasion of Iraq and instalment of a Shia-majority government in Baghdad over a Sunni-minority one. That was in 2003. Before then, save during Lebanon’s civil war the schism did not infect every Middle Eastern political issue. It is a recent problem, as the political and geographical boundaries of the Levant are suddenly up for grabs and Iran has decided to get involved in both Syria and Iraq, for no comprehensible reason that can be discerned relating to its objective national interests.
The reason Iran’s foreign policy is so habitually haywire has less to do with Shia Islam and more to do with the dysfunctional political system the country inherited from Ruhollah Khomeini. That system has a quality of permanent revolution to it. Interposition of a supervisory structure of ruling clerics over an approximate democracy of relatively well-educated citizens is basically absurd. This structure did not matter when the entire country was run by just one man. But having lots of committees of clerics, with real political power, selecting and watching over one-another an watching over the country’s democratic politicians, is objectively illogical. These clerics have nothing to add to government policy or representative democracy. The system is replete with oddities that make no sense: for example, it is remarkably hard to be elected as President of Iran if you are not an ordained priest. But priests do not have the typical education and experience to run countries. The clerics, ageing, are at constant risk of irrelevance. Aside from vetoing democratic candidates – a tactic that can only get one so far because every time you veto a candidate a proxy will show up – the clerics’ real power in Iran lies over foreign policy because the military answers in practice to the Supreme Leader and various clerics around him.
This explains why Iranian foreign policy is so aggressive: it is a means for keeping the ageing clerics relevant. Causing trouble, and making Iran an international pariah, is the clerics’ principal line of business. The lyrics create a need for themselves by inviting relentless hostility from the rest of the world. That way, they make sure they don’t get abolished. The principal method the clerics have to make foreign policy is use of the various militias that comprise the Iranian armed forces. That is why we find Iranian militia involvement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and (possibly) Yemen. Militias are the tools the clerics have at their disposal to create foreign policy messes. Nuclear proliferation is also at the disposal of the clerics, because it is an essentially military activity. The western strategy underlying the JCPOA was to change the way Iran is governed by undercutting the clerics. If Iran is disarmed in exchange for economic growth, then dictatorship by the theocracy (empowered through a nuclear-military programme) could be undermined in favour of democratic government (democratically elected politicians benefit from economic growth).
The first reason the JCPOA was not going to work was because the cleric maintained plenty of means to sabotage it, such as the testing of ballistic missiles. Moreover the West may have been persuaded too quickly by the Iranian democrats, that the clerical oversight structure can easily be pulled down. There is another possible outcome: that it is rejuvenated by the dead of the current (and second) Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who it appears is on course to be replaced by Ruhollah Khomeini’s son: a man under the age of 40. If the West’s hopes for liberalisation of Iranian domestic politics are resting upon the imagined wisdom of an untested son of a revolutionary religious extremist, then that might be regarded as speculative. At the very least, one would have to wait and see what he might prove to be like once in office; and one would want to provide him with incentives that push him in the direction of reform. The second reason the JCPOA was flawed was therefore because it created a delay only Iran’s eventually obtaining nuclear weapons. Experts thought it could slow Iran down by a maximum of five years. But nobody currently knows how much longer Ali Khamenei will stay in office. He is elderly and ill, but he will likely die in office and there are no guarantees as to the identity of his successor. To have an agreement on de-nuclearisation with an effective fixed term, when there are several variables in Iranian politics including an unknown term of a person’s life, is unwise at best. There is no point rewarding Iran with sanctions relief at the current juncture, because we do not know who we are rewarding.
The politics of Iran are extremely hard for any outsider to fathom, and even harder to attempt to influence in any predictable way. That is because the constitutional structure is uniquely odd and the politics of the clerical administration is dominated by the personalities of a series of priests who hide themselves from view. Because they all appoint one-another, they have no need to give public speeches or have much of a public footprint at all. Their constituencies are each other, and hence it is remarkably difficult to find out much about them. We can listen to democratic Iranian friends, if we trust them. But they might be wrong. Iranian politics are so obscure that I am not convinced anybody can predict what is going to happen to the clerical superstructure over the next few years. We can say with confidence that it is not very logical for power in a large country to be shared between democratically elected politicians and a series of religious scholars who sit on committees arguing with and appointing one-another in the vein of the management structure of a London gentlemen’s club. But like the management of a London club, such a strange structure can survive. In Iran it has survived some 30 years since the death of Ruhollah Khomeini. Clearly the transition after Ali Khamenei’s death is going to be critical.
The West cannot play in the game of Iran’s internal politics. The principal flaw in the JCPOA was to assume that it could, and to take actions imagined to support moderate Iranian factions yet without really understanding the idiosyncratic domestic political environment with which they were tinkering. The only thing currently to do with Iran is to manage it as a problem until the current Supreme Leader dies and/or is replaced. Then discreet efforts should be made to engage with whoever (or whatever) replaces him. If the west tries to act before that point, then the consequences of its actions will be unpredictable and it may end up doing more harm than good. In the medium term, the West’s overriding objective must be to dismantle or weaken the supervising clerical structure that dominates Iran’s domestic politics, because this is the source of Iran’s erratic and destructive foreign policy that causes so much woe. But we cannot work out a strategy to do that until power changes hands in the theocracy; a new assessment is made of domestic political authority after such a change; and we watch to see whether this incongruous system of government pulls itself apart or is reinforced upon the demise of Ali Khamenei.
In the interim, there can be no new JCPOA. Iran is too much of an enigma. We do now know exactly what we are dealing with, to get involved. Instead Iran must be kept at bay. Sanctions must be maintained, to starve the government of funds to deploy militias. If necessary – but only if necessary – military means should be used to retard nuclear proliferation. The best way of ensuring that it will not be necessary is to make explicit the United States’ willingness tom use military force. Everywhere an Iranian militia unit pops up, both military force and diplomatic means should be used to repress it. There is no danger of a regional war as long as nobody invades Iran, because Iran has neither the financial nor military means to fight a genuine war of aggression. Iran’s military capacity rests at being a multiple irritant. The West can live with this, as we see how Iranian domestic politics play out over the next few years. For now, Iran must be restrained. Seeking to achieve anything else would be too ambitious.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.