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Iran has lacked viable, legitimate, and representative governance since February 1979. That has been demonstrated by its social and economic performance domestically. Its clerical Government has not been prepared to trust the population, and the population, as a result, has not trusted the Government.
Equally, however, external powers — friendly or unfriendly — have constrained Iran since 1979 from progressing as a normal member of the international community. This was a response to the behavior of the Iranian Government, but it was often counter-productive.
The current transformation of the international strategic and economic balance — resulting from the 2019-20 COVID-19 crisis and the attendant global “fear pandemic” — has taken the outlook for Iran into a new arena. The COVID-19 crisis management by the clerical Government was seen as so inept that the remaining trust levels in government by the public appeared to have evaporated.
The one “man on horseback”, who appeared to be able to galvanize a sense of national pride and direction — Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani — was killed in his war against the US, and governmental behavior since his death on January 2, 2020, has been haphazard and domestically divisive.
US thoughts on possibly taking advantage of the internal disarray in Iran included the announcement on March 20, 2020, that the US Navy had deployed two supercarrier strike groups — around USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Harry S. Truman — with unspecified purpose. That deployment seems destined, if escalated, only to galvanize the support of a reluctant Iranian population around the failed clerical Administration.
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Iranians consistently rally around their government when a foreign threat appears.
The US, Iran, and others have failed to learn that repeating failed policies does not improve the chances of their success.
In viewing Iran’s prospects, it is essential to understand that most policies by and toward Iran for more than four decades have been poorly-conceived and counter-productive.
The exceptions are that:
- (a) The policies of the ruling clerics of Iran have been geared solely to the preservation of their power, and these have worked; and
- (b) The policies of Iraq (1980s), Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (supported by the US) have been designed to cause, lead, or demand an international isolation of Iran, and these have partially worked.
Neither of those policy streams has benefited the Iranian public nor the international community.
It could be argued that both of those draconian policies — of preservation of power domestically, and international containment — did provide an opportunity for Russia (after 1990) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to gain some traction in the region because they kept the US and the West generally at bay. So there have been limited benefits for Moscow and Beijing, the most notable being the avoidance of an opportunity for a reassertion of Western influence.
There is no evidence that, since the departure of the Shah from Iran in early 1979, Saudi Arabia’s security has benefited from the failure to develop a viable modus vivendi with Iran.
The global economic breakdown into what, at least for a brief period, will be a depression will have a profound impact on Iran. Of primary initial importance will be the contraction of demand for Iranian oil and gas from the PRC and Japan, not just in terms of volume, but in terms of price. Allies (a term which needs to be qualified) Russia, Turkey, and Qatar (and to some extent Iraq and Syria) can do little for Iran at this time, particularly in the critical area of need: food supply.
Absent an improvement in food supply, all domestic political crises will be exacerbated, particularly in light of the Government’s poor response to the COVID-19 contagion which resulted from the clerical Government accepting PRC pressure to sustain unfettered air links between the two countries, thus exposing Iran to a higher-than-necessary level of risk to COVID-19.
By March 30, 2020, the Government acknowledged that COVID-19 deaths were 2,757 out of a confirmed caseload of 41,495. In fact, the contagion rate in Iran at that point was an absolute unknown, and was clearly much higher than official “confirmed cases”, and the death toll was also much higher. The lack of a clear understanding of the dimension of the health threat further exacerbated public mistrust in the Government.
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Iran’s porous border with Turkey may well have contributed to the situation in that country where informed estimates of contagion were that some 60 percent of the Turkish population had contracted COVID-19.
Iranian Pres. Hasan Rouhani made the case on March 29, 2020, that sustained US economic sanctions against Iran were to blame for Iran’s situation. In fact, while the sanctions may have inhibited the Government’s late-starting attempts to respond to the epidemic, the cause of the high-rate initial contagion was entirely due to the Government’s submission to PRC demands for constant, open travel from affected PRC areas to Iran.
What, then, is to happen to Iran, and what should or could the Western response be to the changing situation?
- Iran’s Government is reaching a watershed in its ability to impose further constraints on public discontent, but, equally, the internal opposition lacks cohesion, energy, and resources. A military-led solution may occur if, for example, Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini Khamene‘i relinquishes power or dies.
- The US must decide whether, at this historical point, it wants to devote increasingly limited resources to supporting the domestic opposition as part of a strategy to constrain the PRC. Washington first must understand Iran, which it arguably has not understood since Pres. Richard Nixon (1969-74), the last US President to balance Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As with all good battlefield sieges, the besieger must offer hope to the besieged. For Iran, hope must be in the restoration of its historical civilizational glory.
By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Staff
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