Rouhani and the luck of the mullahs
By Hossein Askari
The mullahs in Tehran have lasted nearly 35 years and when you look around the Middle East and North Africa, Iran once again looks like an island of stability in a sea of trouble. Is stability real this time around or is Iran in the same situation it was in 1977, namely, stable only in appearance?
Let's face it: the mullahs have been lucky for quite a while. Will it last?
Let's start at the beginning. Ayatollah Khomeini entered Tehran triumphantly in 1979 and all of the Shah's supporters handed him the country on a silver platter and left. The mass emigration of the Iranian elite to the US and to Europe was a veritable tsunami. Some had stashed their wealth abroad and had no desire to risk
their lives fighting the regime's battles. Others with no significant wealth sought better opportunities, both in work and lifestyle, further afield.
The mullahs took over the country with no civil war or any significant opposition. They quickly executed all those who posed a threat, and then rammed through a constitution that cast aside meaningful democratic values (replacing the constitution of 1906), and consolidating their hold on absolute power.
Then in November 1979, students climbed the US Embassy walls in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The clerical regime soon realized how it might profit from the event. The mullahs came out in support of the students, and focused attention on the events of the 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq to whip up nationalistic and anti-American fervor and further consolidate their hold on power.
This was quickly followed in September of 1980 by the greatest gift of all to the mullahs - Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran. As every amateur historian knows, a foreign invader is sure to unite a nation. Saddam did just that for the mullahs. Iranians sacrificed their lives in a war that saw the world (except for Syria) supporting Saddam Hussein.
The Western powers gave Saddam outlawed chemical weapons to kill and maim tens of thousands of Iranians. This was the cherry on the cake for the mullahs. Iranians witnessed the duplicity of Western rhetoric and paid with their lives. When the war ended after more than eight long years, the Iranian people were grateful to the mullahs that Iran was still intact and ever-more suspicious of the rest of the world, especially the West.
But the mullahs were lucky in other ways. Before Saddam Hussein's invasion, the regime's only real threat was the MEK (Mojahedin-e-Khalq), a group started by leftist Muslim students to fight the Shah's regime. The MEK had collaborated with Khomeini supporters to overthrow the Shah, but after the ascendency of the mullahs, a power struggle ensued. With the onset of the Iran-Iraq War, the MEK sought and was awarded refuge in Iraq.
The MEK then gave the mullahs another big gift. They collaborated with the Iraqis and fought Iranian troops. Perhaps the MEK thought it was taking part in a war to liberate Iran. But that is not the way Iranians saw it. The friend of my enemy is my enemy. Thus the only organized opposition to the mullahs became the enemy of Iranians from every walk of life and was no longer a real threat to the regime.
All along, a frustrated United States imposed half-hearted and ineffective sanctions on Iran. The sanctions were porous. In the late 1990s, economic sanctions became more serious only after a leakage of intelligence from MEK supporters as to Iran's secret nuclear enrichment program. But no matter what, sanctions were unlikely to succeed because they focused on Iran's nuclear enrichment program as the regime's objectionable policy, an initiative that seemed to be supported by the vast majority of Iranians.
Anyone who has studied sanctions can at least tell you two things about them. Sanctions invariably fail to change objectionable policies; and they always fail if the citizenry supports the targeted policy, because in such cases the regime has no incentive to change it ways.
So by targeting Iran's nuclear program (not its human rights record, its interference in other countries, its corruption and more), US and United Nations economic sanctions were not destined to dissuade regime insiders but only to hurt average Iranians and turn them increasingly against the West.
The US gift to the mullahs did not end here. US troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and gave the mullahs a new ally in Baghdad. The "Arab Spring" followed with continuing turmoil in North Africa, the Levant and in the Persian Gulf. All of this makes Iran seem an island of stability, especially to Iranians looking around the region.
The financial turmoil that unfolded in 2007 and 2008, US budgetary problems and war fatigue have weakened the American foreign policy hand. To the mullahs, America's bark today is more evident than its bite.
Thus Iranians, though oppressed and deprived of economic opportunities and prosperity, still see themselves as lucky in comparison with Bahrainis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Tunisians and Yemenis. Everything is relative. Although Iranians are tired after their revolution and the long war with Iraq, they still feel lucky to have a stable country when they look at other countries in the Middle East. The regional turmoil, whether a result of Western support for oppressive rulers or not, makes the mullahs look okay if only they could restore some semblance of economic prosperity.
At the same time, continuing regional turmoil and America's financial constraints make Iran indispensable to US national interests. The US needs Iranian cooperation across the region. The US is ready to make concessions to the mullahs. The only question is how and when. The mullahs know this well and will take full advantage of it. And the powers that be have decided that Hassan Rouhani is the man to do the job. He is portrayed as a moderate who seeks peaceful accommodation.
It is not too difficult to see why the mullahs have lasted so long. The world, especially the US, has unknowingly done more to keep the mullahs in power than have the mullahs! Will the mullah's luck run out anytime soon? Will President Hassan Rouhani, installed in office this past weekend, increase their luck?
As a betting man, I would give them at least another 30 years! Let me explain.
The turmoil in the Middle East will get much worse before it gets better. Revolutions, as opposed to orderly transformations, have been brewing for years. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates) are next in line for disruptions. The US will continue to pander to these corrupt oppressive rulers because short-term US corporate, individual and military interests are at stake and invariably they trump long-term strategic interests. The US will be involved in a number of troubled countries to support unpopular regimes and will need Iran's support to avoid further misfortune. The US may even come to support the mullahs.
All the while, US policymakers have learned little from the region's recent history since World War II. The US bases its analysis on expert analysts who know little of the mindset of rulers and elites in Iran. Many of these experts haven't even visited Iran in recent years. The ones who do go to Iran are carefully chaperoned during orchestrated visits. Iranians arrange meetings and interviews carefully. The experts then repeat their received wisdom in the US. The Iranian manipulators in turn laugh at American naivety.
What about Mr Rouhani? Can he deliver economic prosperity in quick order and further brighten the future of mullah rule? He does not have the financial purse of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to buy Iranians overnight. Iran needs fundamental economic reforms. Such foundational reforms will be problematic in the short run and could possibly pose internal dangers to the regime.
Hassan Rouhani is smart. Although he understands economic issues well, he is cautious. He will appoint to positions of power backers of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. He likes short-term fixes as opposed to long-term reforms. He will do the minimum to keep Iranians happy while avoiding danger for the regime.
Will this be enough? I believe it will for the next few years but not for the longer run. Iran needs to develop very broad and integrated policy reforms, which will need to be implemented for the country to become economically competitive in a globalizing world. This is the only way to re-engage the Iranian youth and bring them back into the fold.
But who knows, with regional turmoil, US ineptitude and just a little bit of random luck, the mullahs may outlive all other regimes in the region.
Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.
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