Iran: sanctions, economic bottleneck, changing balances

With impending US sanctions, tougher days seem to be ahead of Islamic Republic

Iran: sanctions, economic bottleneck, changing balances

With the U.S. sanctions hanging over its head, the noose around Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Republic’s president, is being gradually tightened. U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have a point when he says that he has left the Islamic Republic struggling for survival at a time when it was about to win over the Middle East. The Islamic Republic, over the last four decades, has proven that it is usually able to ride out crises, yet this time it seems exhausted. The question is, why is the Islamic Republic so desperate? There are at least four reasons we can think of:

Firstly, the economy is abruptly deteriorating, buckling under a triple-digit inflation. But, there is no one to take the responsibility. Instead, all are engaged in a blame game and fabricating conspiracy theories. For instance, on Aug. 3, the mainstream Iranian newspapers ran stories on their front pages about the shortage of diapers in the country. The issue so hot that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, mentioned the crisis in his address, but portraying it as a conspiracy against the Islamic Republic. In the later days, it ended up becoming a laughing stock for the netizens. One should have asked how a regime that boasts of its great power could possibly be destabilized through diapers.

Secondly, the Islamic Republic’s external behavior trends show that the regime initially gallops well but eventually loses very badly. The Islamic Republic has failed in its foreign policy, particularly in its regional politics. In Syria, Israeli attacks on Bashar Assad and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias have become regular, and despite the huge causalities being reported, Iran has never dared to retaliate. In Iraq, the Iraqis are protesting against the Iranian involvement in their country. On Sept. 7, the Iranian consulate in Basra was set ablaze by Iraqi protesters. It should be mentioned that foreign policy is a multifaceted phenomenon involving many national, regional, and systemic factors. Even the best decisions might sometimes fail since no state in the world has all the favorable factors and conditions at its disposal.

However, in foreign policy, especially if the factor of traditional security is at play, national morale is a key determinant. The power of a nation, from the point of view of its national morale, lies in the quality of its government. As put by Hans Morgenthau in his masterpiece Politics among Nations, “free men fight better than slaves, nations well governed are likely to have a higher national morale than nations poorly governed.” The main problem with the Iranian foreign policy is that the regime, on the one hand, does not trust the people to tell them the real story behind its failure in the region. The people, on the other hand, are not supportive of the regime’s foreign policy. For instance, in the case of Syria, the common perception is that Iran has wasted millions of dollars, and now it is playing into the hands of Russia. People also commonly think that their national resources are also being wasted for the Iraqi pilgrims coming to visit the shrines in Mashhad, because Iran is subsidizing those trips.  

The low national morale showed itself particularly with regard to the recent attack on the Iranian military forces in the city of Ahwaz on Sept. 22. Though the incident needs to be thoroughly analyzed in its own right, the point to be made here is that ordinary Iranian citizens seem apathetic toward the incident. Soon after the attack, the netizens were divided, with some even claiming that it was an inside job. It means that the nation is not on the same page even at the time of a national tragedy.

Thirdly, the Islamic Republic has failed ideologically. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, came with the grand mission of exporting the revolution, which in reality meant exporting Shiitism. Over the last four decades, the regime has succeeded well in exporting its ideology across the globe. It has nurtured and won sympathizers to the Islamic Republic throughout the world, from Malaysia to the remote countries of Africa and Latin America. But inside the country, the regime seems to have little of this attraction left. It is generally very difficult to stamp out ideologies; it takes hundreds of years to wipe them out. But Shiitism has long been undermined by its own supposed caretakers.

Qom -- once the most religious city in Iran; though it still is the human hub of Shia in terms of intellectual activities -- is no longer the symbol of Shia religious values. Similarly, these days Shia are mourning the martyrdom of the third Shia Imam, Hussain Ibn Ali, who was martyred in the plain of Karbala on the 10th of Muharram in the year 61 A.H. (Oct. 10, 680 AD). As per Shia religious customs, the Shia men do not shave, and women avoid makeup. All wear black clothes, and practice self-flagellation to recall the ordeal of their imam. But according to news reports, beauty parlors are enjoying a high season in the Iranian megacities these days. The ideological failure of the regime can best be measured by a widely circulated picture of Carlos Queiroz, the coach of the Iranian national football team, showing him dressed in black clothes, and practicing self-flagellation. Resorting to a non-believer to propagate its ideology is a telling sign of that very ideology’s failure. There are gossips already circulating that he was paid to participate in the mourning procession.

Finally, there is a high volume of power politics among the Iranian elites. In the past, the Iranian authorities used to have a single voice at times of national crises, accusing foreign enemies in unison. Now, however, blaming, accusations, victimizations, and blackmailing have become key features of the Iranian domestic politics. Ayatollah Khamenei, on Aug. 13, acknowledged that the sanctions had indeed affected the country; however, he categorically blamed President Rouhani and his government for mismanagement. It indicates that the rift between President Rouhani and the supreme leader still persists.

The supreme leader’s attempt to make a scapegoat out of President Rouhani paved the way for more pressure on the latter from the conservative circles. On Aug. 25,  Mansoor Arzi, a eulogist believed to be in the close circle of the supreme leader, warned Rouhani that he would “drown in a swimming pool” the way Hashemi Rafsanjani was killed. Arzi openly stated: “That guy [Rafsanjani] died finally in a swimming pool, and this guy [Rouhani] will also eventually die in a swimming pool”. Technically speaking, politicians resort to open threat when backdoor diplomacy fails. Therefore, Arzi’s warning shows that the establishment has not been successful in convincing Rouhani over certain issues, and so it has now taken the fight against him into the public domain.

There was a period when the Iranian parliament was referred to as a joint-venture of Ali Larijani and Hassan Rouhani. But this also does not seem to be the case anymore. The relationship between Rouhani and Larijani has become tense. A key indication is that Larijani is no longer using his potential in the parliament to protect the government.  On Aug. 8, the Iranian parliament sacked Labor and Social Affairs Minister Ali Rabiee after interpellation. Three weeks later, on Aug. 26, it removed the economy minister, Masoud Karbasian; and only two days after that, on Aug. 28, President Rouhani was summoned by parliamentarians to answer their questions. The result of a vote held after the questioning shows that the parliament was not satisfied with Rouhani’s explanations. As per Iran’s judicial norms, the case should now be referred to the judiciary. Even though the parliament has not submitted the case to the judiciary yet, it certainly will use it as an unsheathed sword hanging over the head of Hassan Rouhani to blackmail him further.

In the meantime, Ahmadinejad has made a comeback to try and exploit the current public resentment. Although no one supports Ahmadinejad’s activities openly, there certainly are conservative circles who are happy with Ahmadinejad’s new wave of attacks against the Larijani brothers and President Rouhani. But the thing is, though they share Ahmadinejad’s concerns, they do not want him as their representative.

The overall situation suggests that the main problem of the Islamic republic is not the external crises it is facing; it is rather the internal crisis within the establishment. Perhaps that is why Ayatollah Seddiqi, the imam of Friday prayers in Tehran, warned the Iranian authorities once again in his Sept. 14 Friday speech that they would be drowned altogether should any of them make a hole in the bottom of the boat.

Given the above, there are many politicians within the establishment who feel that the Islamic Republic should immediately opt for a new deal with the U.S. Among them, some are hardline conservatives, such as Natiq Nuri and Ali Mutahhari. They have already arrived at the conclusion that the Islamic Republic cannot uphold the nuclear deal (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) without the U.S. As such, the Islamic Republic’s track records show that it does not mind going for negotiation whenever it feels exhausted.

However, there is a serious obstacle for the Iranian regime that is preventing it from making such an attempt. The Iranian leaders want a secret deal, while President Trump believes in open negotiation. The very personality of President Trump suggests that he will disclose any deal with Iran because he needs it for his popularity among the American voters. This being the case, Iran is caught in a real dilemma. But, no doubt, without a new deal, the respiratory system of the Iranian regime is getting blocked. Both President Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25 and a consequent statement from U.S. National Security Advisor John R. Bolton suggest that the Islamic Republic will be going through a pretty rough patch.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 28 Eylül 2018, 17:42