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Reaping the political rewards of the Iranian nuclear crisis

Both Iranian and Israeli governments mutually benefit from the threat of war, as they both use the excuse to polish their propaganda and to silence internal opposition.

Arash Falasiri
14 May 2012

Although on the surface it would seem that the tension between Israel and Iran over the Islamic state’s nuclear programme is currently at its peak, a direct military response by Israel and the United States seems from all the evidence available not to be imminent. Instead of speculating whether Israel and the US will fulfil their military goals, one ought to examine the ways in which the Israeli and Iranian governments both benefit from this tense military situation, while ultimately their people pay the price.  

Both governments faces a plethora of socio-political problems and, specific to Iran, an economic crisis; for each then, it is currently highly beneficial to direct the attention of their populations outside their own borders. Precisely how long such a policy will last depends largely on both domestic and international developments.     

The domestic benefits of the Iranian nuclear crisis

Contrary to most reports, the clash between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become quite transparent in the last thirteen months. This is evident not only in their rhetoric but from their growing disagreement on a political level. While in the past few months the supreme leader has attempted to impose his will on the government, just last week Ahmadinejad declared that his administration will suspend those laws that are not of benefit to his government.

Since the 5+1 group (the UN Security Council permanent members and Germany) recommenced nuclear negotiations with Iran in mid-April in Istanbul, the interior conflict has escalated to a higher level. Last month an editorial article in the government’s official newspaper, IRAN, accused the supreme leader’s allies of sending a separate and different message to the west in its coverage of the negotiations. It is crucial to register that, for the first time, Istanbul’s summit took place under the supervision of the supreme leader’s special representatives rather than the Iranian government. Although there is no doubt that Iran’s nuclear strategy is determined by the supreme leader and top-ranking Revolutionary Guard generals, it seems that there is a general consensus among Iranian decision-makers that Ahmadinejad’s ambitions should be curbed. Despite the fact that Ahmadinejad’s government has been elected and shaped by the Revolutionary Guard (almost all of his ministers including himself are members of the militia) and backed by the supreme leader, Khamenei nonetheless attempts to curtail his influence in both interior and exterior affairs.  

The ongoing tension between decision-makers has filtered down into Iranian society. On the one hand, the socio-political situation has spurred resistance from the Iranian people. Iran maintains the highest rate of execution and imprisonment of journalists in the world. As Ahmed Shaheed, the UN human rights advisor has reported , hundreds of Iranians have been sentenced to execution for thoughts and gestures construed as oppositional, many without court hearings or access to lawyers. On the other hand, the economic crisis has increased the discontent of the people and placed the Islamic state in a critical situation. While the green movement represents the middle class opposition, economic difficulties facing the lower class have the potential to unite working class desperation with the green movement’s political ideals. In an attempt to quell popular resistance, the Islamic regime is searching for a new model to control both domestic and international unrest.   

This amalgam of middle class socio-political opposition and economic dissatisfaction among the working class has prompted the supreme leader and his allies to send a new message to the west. What the Islamic regime currently pursues is (i) the reduction of conflict between top level decision-makers, (ii) the shift of the world’s concerns about Iran to its nuclear programme, and (iii) the suppression of domestic opposition in the name of the possibility of war. This is perhaps why they responded positively to the west in the Istanbul meeting and hinted at a possible change to their nuclear policy. Indeed, the main agenda of the late May summit in Baghdad is the halt or reduction of uranium enrichment within a given timeline. And yet in spite of the seemingly yielding stance taken by the Islamic regime as of late, Khamenei stated in his last speech on Thursday that the regime will never trust 'the West'. To quote Major General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr on the subject of North Korea (an enduring model for the Islamic state): “North Korea never halts its nuclear programme, thus their political system remains intact. Libya, however, has ceased its unclear programme and look where Muammar Gaddafi is now.”

To comprehend the whole picture, though, it is necessary to consider Iran’s economic situation in some detail. While the past five years of the UN sanctions on Iran have been to the detriment of Iranian society more so than the state, new term sanctions by western countries targeting Iran’s oil industry and international finance system have put the regime itself in a more fragile condition. The consequence of the three devaluations of Iranian currency over the last two months, according to the Central Bank of Iran’s report , is a 156% increase in the cost of living. This has for the first time led the supreme leader to publicly demonstrate his dissatisfaction with his former ally Ahmadinejad. Contrary to the Islamic state’s claims, almost all studies and statistics underline the depth of the impact on Iran of the UN sanctions. Last week, Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh, Ahmadinejad’s former financial adviser, confessed  that the impact of the economic situation on the Iranian people was dramatic. The outcome of government policy, he claims, is a chasm created between the small sect tied to the government and its oil revenue, and the rest of society that cannot hope to survive under these conditions.

The situation of the working class is under the most pressure since the 1979 Revolution as a direct result of Ahmadinejad’s administration. Contrary to some western reports, his policies are not and never were in favour of the working class. Based on Iranian Labour News Agency’s, ILNA, report , more than more than 80% of workers live under the poverty line. During the last ten months alone, 44,525 workers were dismissed from factories; more than 56% of factories have declared bankruptcy . Over 1200 workers' protests have been reported. Human Rights Watch states that in 2012, the Iranian working class and its activists face more suppression than ever before. While the Islamic parliament declares that the rate of inflation has reached its greatest height since the Revolution at 40%, and the rate of unemployment is almost 23%, independent researches suggest that the actual numbers are in fact much higher.

The Islamic regime may well benefit from a resonating Israeli threat in these circumstances. While sending a new and more amicable message to the west to reduce the “actual” military threat, they retain the rhetoric of war in order to take advantage of any effects that this “threat” may have on the people. There is a Persian phrase that lies at the heart of the Islamic regime’s policy: to export your crisis you need an enemy. Although of course any threat of war or other military option is very serious, at this moment the Islamic state may be keen to reduce the level of military threat but not eliminate it completely. The shadow of war allows the regime to sidestep its internal responsibilities just a little bit longer.              

Similar gains for the Israeli government?

While last week Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, accused both Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak of exaggerating the effectiveness of a military attack on Iran and suggested that a strike might actually accelerate the Iranian programme, interestingly his criticisms were entirely ignored not only by the Israeli government but also by the Islamic regime. “They are not the people that I personally trust to lead Israel into such an event” Diskin said. Although this has been welcomed, if cautiously, by activists, it seems that the main reading of this message from official figures in both countries is to reduce this criticism to the level of personal opinion. An almost identical reaction occurred when last month Shaul Mofaz, former military chief and defense minister, stated that threats of an imminent military strike are actually weakening Israel. Although what he proposes is that any military option against Iran must be fully coordinated with the USA, it seems that Obama’s policy in his last months of presidency do not support an immediate military operation. A recent survey , conducted by the Israeli Dahaf agency for the University of Maryland, suggested that 81 percent of Israelis oppose a solo attack on Iran. Therefore, as some analysts suggest , although the people of Israel are constantly subjected to their government’s propaganda, they do not currently demand a war with Iran.   

To comprehend Iran-Israel relations after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, one should consider the Shah’s stance toward Israel as an illegitimate nation. There is no doubt that this propaganda aims to unite Iranians and Arabs as guarantors of Muslim rights in the Middle East. Iran’s support of both Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Bashar al Assad’s government is in keeping with this policy. More than twenty years after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) there has emerged some vague but significant evidence, as articulated by some top-ranking Revolutionary Guard generals as well as high level officials' memoirs, which suggest that Iran was assisted by the Israeli government to win that war. Documents show that during the last few years Iran has in fact traded with Israel on several occasions. Tons of fruits with Israeli labels filled Iran’s marketplace two years ago. The Islamic parliament initially reacted to this matter but ultimately ignored the case. Last Wednesday the judicial system accused some officials in government of a secret and illegitimate contract worth more than € 100 million with one of Israel’s transmission companies. Yet most Iranians who witnessed Ahmadinejad’s first term campaign still remember that his major promise centred on Iran’s economic situation and his top issue was the previous governments’ financial corruption. In spite of this supposed focus, immediately after his election he organized an infamous international conference on Zionism in which he attacked Israel and denied the Holocaust.

To maintain their supremacy and impose their sovereignty with minimal opposition, both the Islamic state and Israeli government choose same tactic: widespread propaganda about a powerful enemy who threatens to annihilate their country, notwithstanding the fact that this may affect the precarious balance of power and transform the potentially lethal situation at any moment.

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