Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

Trump’s Assertiveness vs. Rouhani’s Resistance

by Amin Saikal

President Donald Trump has acted to diminish the Iranian Islamic regime over its nuclear program, missile industry and regional influence. He has given Tehran an ultimatum either to succumb to his demands or face unprecedented punishment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has rejected Trump’s actions to withdraw from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), and to reimpose sanctions as “psychological warfare.” The US and Iran are now locked in a diplomatic confrontation that could lead to a confrontation with devastating consequences.

Ironically, this is the first time in the history of US-Iranian hostilities since the advent of the Iranian Islamic regime nearly 40 years ago that Washington, rather than Tehran, is isolated in world politics as a result of an American president’s actions. Not only the other signatories to the JCPOA – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – but also most of the other states in the world have sided with Tehran. The European signatories and America’s traditional allies have taken extraordinary steps to salvage the JCPOA. They have gone so far as to invoke an old “blocking statute” to protect their countries’ businesses dealings with Iran and have instructed their companies either to defy American sanctions or run the risk of being sued by European Union member states. They have also opened a mechanism to enable those businesses affected by sanctions to sue the American government in the national courts of member states.

Whatever the European powers’ measures and the degree of sanction defiance by Russia and China as the other two strong supporters of Iran, as well as the Iranian government’s efforts to circumvent the sanctions, as it has in the past, Trump’s actions can still entail serious economic and political implications for Iran. The Iranian economy was in a fragile state prior to the reimposition of sanctions; it is now bound to receive more hard blows. This in turn is likely to increase public disenchantment with and protests against the Islamic regime.

However, the Islamic regime is unlikely to be brought to its knees, for four important reasons. The first is that Iran has endured soft and hard sanctions since the early days of its transformation into an Islamic Republic following the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. The regime has vigorously diversified Iran’s economy and trade. It has succeeded in making the Iranian economy less dependent on oil exports, and has expanded trade relations with friendly powers, including China, which has become Iran’s largest trade partner. It has engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and mastered different methods of sanction-busting, including barter trading, and transactions through third countries where it wields influence, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The second is that despite its theocratic and administrative shortcomings and corrupt practices, the regime is well entrenched. It has built sufficient coercive instruments of power to deal with any widespread public uprisings. The clerical forces and their associates that dominate the power structure have done everything possible to guard themselves against a revolution similar to the one that caused the Shah’s downfall and brought them to power.

The third is that the regime has successfully used the “threat” from the United States and its regional allies, Israel in particular, for public legitimation and mobilisation, and this factor remains at its disposal. Many segments of the Iranian society are unhappy with the regime and may well desire a better alternative, but when Iran is threatened by an outside force, a majority of them have rallied behind the government of the day. The more that Trump pressures and threatens Iran, the more he plays into the hands of the regime to invoke a combination of historically fierce nationalism and Shia Islamic devotion among the Iranians.

The fourth is that in the unlikely event of the Islamic regime crumbling through popular uprisings, this will not serve the interests of the United States and its regional allies. It could produce uncontrollable outcomes for not only Iran but also the region. The regime’s removal without a smooth power transition could generate a much worse national and regional situation than did the overthrow of the Shah’s autocracy.

The Trump leadership, egged on by Iran’s arch enemy, Israel, and backed by another regional rival, Saudi Arabia, has touted the use of force as an ultimate means to change the behaviour of the Iranian regime. However, Tehran has secured a strong deterrence against such an option as well. It has garnered adequate prowess though a combination of hard and soft power within an asymmetrical warfare strategy to make an attack very costly for its perpetrator. It has secured a network of regional protégé forces that includes most importantly the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses some 120,000 rockets of all kinds, capable of hitting targets in Israel and across the region. This deterrence factor should make the US and Israel think twice before they resort to the use of force.

Trump has sought to subdue the Iranian regime, but at the cost of America’s isolation from even its traditional European allies. The US has become an oddity in world politics. This had never happened since the rise of the US to globalism following the Second World War.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of the forthcoming book Iran Rising: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Princeton University Press.