Iran, sanctions and war: fuel of crisis

The international sanctions on Iran reinforce conservative rule. The threat of a military attack by the United States or Israel offers no aid to democratic advance. The result is a standoff on the edge of escalation, says Rasool Nafisi.

Beneath the noisy protests and the quiet remembrances that surrounded the 9/11 anniversary in Washington and across the United States, there is also hard calculation about a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. A striking fact at this stage is that proponents of an attack in America seem to prefer that the job were done by Israel, whereas their Israeli counterparts favour a US operation.

But if there is increasing momentum behind the war option among decision-makers in Washington and Israel, many both in and beyond the inner-policy circles still argue cogently that a military assault will create more problems than it solves (see Paul Rogers, "Israel vs Iran: fallout of a war", 15 July 2010). A close look at current internal Iranian realities can only strengthen this conviction.

A network state

What makes the present situation even more complicated than it seems is that the preferred alternative to military action, namely sanctions against Iran, carries its own problems and contradictions. Barack Obama administration’s sanctions policy towards Tehran seeks to do several things: satisfy the US Congress, persuade (or force) Iran to make concessions on its nuclear programme, and postpone or prevent outright an Israeli attack on Iran. So far, however, the escalating sanctions - backed after intense diplomatic efforts by the United Nations Security Council - have been unable to divert Iran from its course of uranium-enrichment or more generally from making a priority of its nuclear policy.

Indeed, the occasional signals towards compromise that Iran has made, such as the suggestion in early September 2010 of new negotiations, are reactions to the danger of war rather than to the reality of sanctions. An Iranian regime which makes a virtue of intransigence and is concerned about losing face can compromise only with great difficulty and at the margins. Moreover, the regime needs the foreign threat to continue with its unannounced state of emergency (see Omid Memarian, "Iran: a political calculus", 6 September 2010).

There is a further element in this complex game, namely that material interests and national pride are intertwined. In Iran, for example, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is a complex military-intelligence organisation which operates nationwide businesses; and a large network of former IRGC officers is purportedly the main beneficiary of illicit trade involving Iran.

In this respect, significant powers in Iran have a vested interest in the international sanctions continuing. The tightening control of such clientelist networks over the economy squeezes even further Iran’s middle class, which is the bastion of political opposition. A sanctions regime that pleases the United States and its western allies thus inadvertently also helps the cause of the hardliners in Iran.

This linkage between international politics and domestic realities highlights the key weakness of analyses that see the conflict between Iran and its major adversaries (United States and Israel) solely through the prism of international relations. The role of internal politics in all the relevant states, including their impact on how important actors influence state behaviour, is too often ignored.

A hybrid state

This point is relevant to understanding current Iranian politics, both in relation to the sanctions regime and to the threat or reality of a military attack. If sanctions are operating to reinforce the power of regressive forces such as the IRGC, it is plausible that a strike against Iran will have the same effect by enabling it to mobilise the population behind the patriotic cause of defence of the nation’s territory. The alternative view is that an assault could inflict a humiliating military defeat on Iran’s security forces (particularly the IRGC), and demonstrate both the regime’s impotence in face of the “forces of arrogance" and the failure of its brinkmanship diplomacy, thus emboldening the opposition forces.

The response of the opposition to a military attack will depend very much on its scale. If the human and physical damage is minimal, the regime’s critics may be able to seize the moment as an opportunity to demonstrate against the regime; but extensive destruction would leave no option for the opposition but to gather around the flagpole.

In any case, two factors make it hard to sustain the argument that a military attack on Iran would undermine the regime and enhance the democratic cause in the country.

The first is Iran’s current political balance of forces, fifteen months after the fixed presidential elections` of June 2009 and the months of protest that followed. The regime’s ferocious repression, backed by the systems and networks of patronage that enable it to reward and buy the loyalty of important sectors, has allowed it to consolidate its power and prepare to survive an external assault.

The second is the evolution of Iran’s state itself, which from its inception has been a hybrid. The Islamic Republic of Iran was born of the popular uprising of 1978-79 against the Shah’s absolute monarchy, and this legacy endures in the “republican” language and forms of democratic legitimacy that it espouses; at the same time, the clerical rulers have sought in principle to impose on Iran (or return it to) an imaginary, pure Islamic polity and community based on Sharia law.

But this dual character, which has survived three tumultuous decades since 1979 and is still discernible in the constitution after two major overhauls, is now coming to an end. During the reformists’ period in office (under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, 1997-2005), the republican elements if the state were emphasised; but increasingly since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and even more since his re-election in 2009, the archaic vision of an Islamic state has been rigorously pressed by a new and powerful political coalition of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad, and the IRGC.

In present conditions, this process will not be halted or even slowed by either sanctions or a military attack. In fact the response to a strike - depending on its magnitude and length - may allow the regime to use the resulting atmosphere of phobia and raw emotion to engage in even more repression of civil society and the opposition.

The Iranian regime thrives on chaos. A series of raids on the facilities at Isfahan, Arak, Natanz and Bushehr would create great loss of life, fear of nuclear contamination and mass evacuation; there might be riots and temporary anarchy, and minorities in Iran’s east and northwest might seek advantage from the crisis. But many Iranians will turn towards rather than away from the regime, whose most important firepower will be intact. If sanctions are in key respects working in favour of the Iranian regime, a military attack would equally give it another injection.

A military state

At the same time, Iran is if attacked unlikely to engage in major retaliation, for two reasons: the government would fear greater internal unrest if the war became protracted, and its limited arsenal could not seriously counter its major and well-resourced adversaries. The regime's retaliation would most likely be restricted to symbolic gestures such as the few missiles Saddam Hussein fired at Israel during the United States-led Desert Storm operation in January 1991.

A military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a disaster. Yet even were Iran left to acquire a nuclear-weapon capability, this could become more of a hazard to itself than to the outside world. A small nuclear arsenal cannot guarantee the safety of a regime, and can create new dangers (by making it a more attractive target to terrorists as well as states, by encouraging proliferation in the Arab world, and by diverting resources from more important social goals).

Even independently of the stance of the United States and Israel, therefore, Iran’s regime has an interest in ending its brinkmanship, engaging with the international community, and focusing its energies on developing the country’s economy and improving the lives of its people. A wise leadership would also extend a hand to leading reformists such as Mohammad Khatami and Mir-Hossein Moussavi, and seek to bring them in to a broad-based government.

But Iran’s current balance, and the end of the dual character of Iran’s hybrid state, make such a change of course hard to imagine. It is more likely that a toxic mix of corporate and group self-interest, national ideology and emotional power, will continue to drive Iran - and its adversaries - nearer to the brink.

About the author

Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. His website is here.

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Rasool Nafisi teaches the sociology of development at Strayer University in Virginia. He contributes to various news agencies, including the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France International. Rasool Nafisi is co-author of The Rise of the Pasdaran (Rand Corporation, 2009). His website is here

Also by Rasool Nafisi in openDemocracy:

"The meaning of Ramin Jahanbegloo's arrest" (16 May 2006)

"Ramin Jahanbegloo: a repressive release" (1 September 2006) 

"Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007)

"Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008)

"Iran: revolution beyond caricature" (7 August 2009)