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A Watershed Moment Is Looming For Iran

Strenuous domestic and international posturing by political leaders in Iran during July, August, and into September 2018 highlighted the degree of stress which Iranian leadership groups and individuals have felt as a result of compounding and interacting internal and external pressures.

The current threat themes being faced include:

- Domestic Unrest: A rapidly deteriorating domestic economic situation, exacerbated by extreme drought (which has been prevailing for a decade), power shortages, inflation, and corruption, leading to ongoing — and increasingly strident — major public protests in every Iranian city;

- International Isolation and Prestige Loss: Widespread domestic dissatisfaction with Iran’s failure to return to the global community since the 1979 departure of the Shah has meant that Iranians lack freedom of movement and the ability to trade normally or fully interact internationally. Within the leadership, the success or otherwise of international engagement initiatives, usually by the “political” sector (the Presidency and Cabinet), has polarized the overall clerical leadership with hardliners continuing the “revolutionary” stance of reluctance to normalize with the international community. At present, the U.S. withdrawal in 2018 from the 2015 so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to regulate Iran’s nuclear program is being portrayed as a failure of the “moderates”, led by Pres. Hojjat ol-Eslam Hasan Rouhani, and a reinforcement of the harder-line Islamists under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i.

- An Unpredictable External Military Threat Regime: There is a genuine perception, reinforced particularly by U.S. military threats and force posturing against the DPRK (North Korea), Iran’s ally, that the U.S. could also act militarily, directly or indirectly, against Iranian interests. Indeed, it is already doing so in alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. Moreover, Israel is also working militarily (and increasingly) against Iran in Syria, in particular, and there is a belief that Israel could influence the U.S. in taking military action against Iran.

Within this framework lies the reality that the Iranian “revolution” — in reality, the clerical Shi’a takeover of Iran following the collapse of the Shah’s Government — has now matured and the society overall is returning to a sense of normalcy which includes a reversion to its classical geopolitical identity. Much of even the clerical leadership is now moving strategic and security policy to accord with historical Persian norms, and the Iranian public is now, increasingly, rallying around Persian literary and cultural symbolism and creating a schism against the dominance of Shi’a religious identity. And yet it is the religious authority which is the basis for whatever legitimacy the clerical leadership claims for its actions.

These clerical Iranian leaders have, in varying degrees, broadcast a common view that the blame for the present internal economic problems of Iran and for its isolation lay with the renewal of sanctions by the U.S. Donald Trump Administration. However, there is widespread understanding — both within the clerical Administration and within the public — that this is a fiction.

It was true that the renewed U.S. sanctions had, by the second half of 2018, begun to bite into the Iranian economy, but underlying and almost universal domestic dissatisfaction with the governance of the country was now being equated to the dissatisfaction of the early 1980s, when the populace was close to mass unrest against the revolutionary leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. So Iran’s economic woes considerably pre-date the Trump sanctions and have been present since 1979.

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What saved Khomeini from a surge of popular unrest was the 1980 attack on Iran by Iraq. This caused Iranians to put aside their deep resentment of the clerical seizure of power in early 1979 and to suspend response to the immediate and widespread abuses of power the clerics had instituted. Thus when Iraqi forces attacked Iranian positions, starting on September 22, 1980, with a view to halting Khomeini’s planned export of Islamic radicalism (as well as to seize Iran’s largely Arab province, Khu-zestan), Iranians rallied around their government in the face of an external threat.

National instincts overrode hostility toward the clerics.

There is, within much of the present clerical leadership, the hope that Pres. Trump’s verbal belligerence against the JCPOA, and the renewed sanctions, might resurrect a national “siege mentality” among Iranians, so that they could again rally around the clerical Government. That, by September 2018, did not appear to be happening, although the full effect of sanctions on Iranian oil exports were not expected to hit until the end of 2018. Meanwhile, rather than street protestors in more than a dozen cities calling “Death to the USA”, as they had done in years past, they were now, often, calling “Death to Khamene’i”.

Even so, the Government has been portraying the U.S. and Israel as highly credible threats, and using this to justify a robust military posture for Iran. Less than credible announcements — some valid; some artificial — of “new” Iranian weapons systems have attempted to portray Iran as ready to rebuff any major conventional military assault. [Indeed, apart from modern weapons, Iran was well prepared by geography and human resources to make difficult any success for foreign military forces entering Iran.]

What has been significant has been the gestures by U.S. Pres. Donald Trump which on one hand have been threatening to Iran, and on the other welcoming a meeting between Iranian Pres. Rouhani and Pres. Trump. This could occur at the United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York on September 26, 2018, when Pres. Trump is due to preside over a session on Iran. There has been no meeting between a U.S. President and an Iranian leader since the Shah’s departure in 1979.

It is not insignificant that the clerics have been highly voluble in their condemnation of Pres. Trump’s readiness to meet with Pres. Rouhani, citing it as “psychological warfare”. It is clear that if a Trump-Rouhani meeting was to result in a new accord between Washington and Tehran to replace or supplement the JCPOA then Iran’s ongoing domestic unrest and economic decline would expose the clerical leadership to criticism from Iranians in the knowledge that there would be no foreign threats left to blame.

The highly-visible posturing of a strategic military threat to Iran has centered on the U.S. and Israel. That is not to say, however, that the U.S. and Israel (together or separately) could not represent a military threat to Iran or Iranian interests. Both states currently do oppose Iranian interests militarily, and have acted against it through cyber and intelligence warfare, just as Iran has acted against the U.S. and Israel in a similar fashion.

At a less publicized level, however, the Iranian Government has acted decisively to pursue its geopolitical interests and to counter actual Saudi Arabian military-political steps to undermine Iran. These Saudi-led steps have not only occurred in Yemen — where there has been Saudi and United Arab Emirates intervention to “save” the fragile unity of North and South Yemen (achieved in 1994) — but also in Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE had, through the removal on November 23, 2011, of former North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic: YAR) leader of the unified Yemen, ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shi’a, accidentally begun to ensure that, in fact, “Yemen” would begin to break up into its historical components. Saudi Arabia essentially postured to have Saleh — from the victorious North (the former YAR) — replaced by the nominally Sunni Vice-President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, originally from the former South Yemen (PDRY).


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Thus the civil war erupted again, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE posturing the conflict as a war against Shi’ism. In fact, it was far wider than that, but it gave the opening for Iran to support the Yemeni Shi’a and anti-Saudi forces, including a resurrected Field Marshal ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh.

But Iran’s interests in Yemen, and in the Red Sea littoral have been historical and have traditionally gone beyond Shi’ism. Indeed, Persian interests in the Indian Ocean rim region well pre-date Islam. Similarly, Iran’s interests in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are classically Persian in their geopolitical thrusts to ensure links to the Mediterranean, but they have, since 1979, relied heavily on the use of Shi’a societies in the Levant, and Yemen, to give common cause not just against Sunni Arab forces, but against radical Wahhabist and Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) jihadism, backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

There seems little doubt that Iran is reaching a domestic political watershed. The result could, however, be a much more unified and more secular state emerging within a decade. What would than mean for Saudi Arabia, quite apart from its impact on Russia, the PRC, Turkey, the U.S., and Israel?

By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

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