Wed | Mar 22, 2023

Out manoeuvring Iran

Published:Thursday | February 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Early this week, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Qatar audience that Iran's political and religious leadership were being supplanted by the Revolutionary Guards, the country's elite military corps.

This thesis has been bubbling up in the Washington think-tank community for a while now. However, the Obama administration's decision to articulate it so boldly - in the Middle East, no less - may reflect a delicate political calculus on its part.

President Obama took office promising engagement with America's foes. On Iran, he adopted a relatively soft line. This made his enemies on the right apoplectic, and did little to mollify the Iranian regime. If anything, they have taken a harder line against the US.

But that may be the point. If Washington is saying "let's be pals", and Tehran just takes its ball and storms home, the Obama administration gets the schoolyard to itself. It can shrug and say "we tried". And that signals to Iran's opposition that Washington regards the enemy as not them, but their government.

Given the US's chequered history in Iran, group-hugs are still a long way off. Nonetheless, when the Iranian opposition took to the streets last year to protest what it considered a stolen election, the White House subtly took sides with it. When the regime reacted with a crackdown, Washington was able to send a message to the protesters: the thugs with truncheons, not we, are your oppressor.

A Revolution?

Iranian opposition has proved surprisingly resilient. Meanwhile, fissures within the country's clerical establishment appear to be deepening. On one hand, this strengthens the position of the Revolutionary Guards, who can act increasingly on their own. But on the other, it may further embolden the opposition.

Is a repeat of the 1979 Revolution, a popular upsurge against an unpopular dictatorship, close at hand? That may seem a little too much to expect at the moment. The Iranian regime retains deep support in much of the country, and the Guards are a united force. But increasing authoritarianism seems likely. So, too, does continued economic underperformance, which may undermine the regime's longer-term stability.

The dominant power

In the short term, an Iran that is increasingly controlled by its security apparatus is likely - as can be expected - to become ever more obsessed with its security. Iran's existential fight is with the US. With the elimination of Saddam Hussein, Iran has become the dominant power in the region. Several neighbouring governments are either unfriendly to it, or aligned to varying degrees with the US. To counter American influence, the Iranian regime uses a blend of diplomacy and mobilisation of Shia communities in nearby countries. But it also wields a big stick, which it wants to make bigger. A more authoritarian Iran will probably pursue the country's nuclear programme more aggressively while trying to undermine some rival governments through various proxies on the ground.

In the short-to-medium term, that makes a confrontation with Israel ever more likely. Israel regards Iran as a mortal enemy. It is terrified of the prospect of a nuclear Iran. The odds of it bombing its foe in the hopes of retarding its nuclear development grow ever stronger.

However, in the long term - albeit a term that might be quite long indeed - an authoritarian Iran may prove untenable. Because of the extent of economic interests held by the Revolutionary Guards, it has proved itself incapable of managing economic growth. Yet the defence of its interests will make it circle the wagons and defend its gains, at popular cost.

And in a people who have shown their willingness to rebel, that is a dangerous course to chart.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to