11.10.07

The Iranian public is very happy about...

As a follow-up to the last commentary of our S.I.S. (Savvy Iranian Source), which discussed the victory of Akbar Rafsanjani to head the Assembly of Experts, I posed the following questions:
  1. What indications has Supreme Leader Khamanei shown that he is interested in war with Israel?
  2. Since I suspect the answer to #1 is naught, what is the level of dissatisfaction with the Iranian public about the lack of bellicose actions?
  3. What are the chances for the AOE to challenge the Supreme Leader's authority on foreign policy if there is some kind of dramatic development, like an American targeted attack? Could Rafsanjani be drawn by circumstances into a less pragmatic and more confrontational posture resembling that of Ahmadinejad?
Here are his main takeaways:
  • There has been no indication whatsoever that Supreme Leader Khamenei wants to go to war with Israel
  • When Khamenei saw that Ahmadinejad (through his remarks about Israel) had "delivered the streets" of the developing countries through his actions, he allowed him more leeway to continue
  • Today, with the economy not performing according to his promises, Iran's nuclear program dragged before the UN Security Council and a plethora of domestic criticism against him on various fronts, Ahmadinejad's manoeuvrability is severely limited
  • Iran does not want an open war with Israel, partly since it knows the limitation of its capabilities, but also since this does not really serve any purpose for Iran
  • The Iranian public is very happy about the lack of bellicose action - they don't want another war
  • a great many of Iranian decision-makers, who even fill the boards of many state companies, sit in ministries, etc. are veterans of a war that only ended 19 years ago - these individuals know the real impact a conflict has on a country's economy and they've also seen first-hand the horrors of war
  • If there is a direct American attack on Iranian soil, then all bets will be off and pragmatism, etc. will no longer be a major component of Iranian policy
  • (In the event of a US strike on Iran,) there are likely to be targeted attacks carried out by proxy groups, both against Israel and against US allies in Europe, in addition to US cities themselves - a sizable portion of Iranians living abroad, who have a lot of money and are internationally mobile, would not have qualms in assisting this "defensive" effort
The full S.I.S. response:

(background) The President in Iran does not have the authority to declare war nor does he control the regular Army or the Revolutionary Guards. There may be individuals or groups in both that support him but that does not mean that he commands a major allegiance which would allow him to use the military for his own purposes. Also, the Supreme Leader has used reshuffles in the IRGC and the Army to ensure that people do not remain long enough to establish power bases or to establish alliances with other political actors.

One interesting thing that most people don't know is that the President in Iran doesn't even control the police forces, since the national chief of police is appointed by the Supreme Leader and the law enforcement forces broadly answer to him. This was one of the things that [former President Mohamed] Khatami was trying to change, i.e. to get the police to be accountable to the Interior Ministry rather than to the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

To Question 1:
There has been no indication whatsoever that Supreme Leader Khamenei wants to go to war with Israel. In fact, just a few days after Ahmadinejad first made his remarks about Israel in 2005, Khamenei gathered the main actors of the regime and made a very public speech in which he stated that:
  1. Iran's policy vis-à-vis Israel has not changed (i.e. Iran continues to oppose the "oppression of the Palestinian people" and support their demands for their own rights)
  2. Iran would "never carry out aggressive acts against any country". Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Leader's comments, which carry much more weight in policy matters in Iran, where not widely reported by the international media.

At the same time, however, Ahmadinejad's remarks do serve some purposes for the system (and for Khamenei himself). The Arab/Muslim street appears to have very much rallied behind these statements and his remarks have thus resulted in considerable pressure against other regimes in the region. Just as an anecdote, in trips to both Libya and Egypt, when speaking to people and telling them that I was from Iran, I was greeted with great enthusiasm and there was always supportive remarks about Ahmadinejad's bravery and his willingness to stand up to the West. On more than one occasion, people told me that "if every leader in the Middle East was like him, we would have no problems" and how they respected the fact that he's a simple man who is not corrupt.

Needless to say, these are simplistic reactions by average Joes (or average Hassans, when talking about the Middle East), but they nonetheless highlight that Iran has through its recent actions managed to get the support of a large portion of the world's "down-trodden" to support its cause. Ahmadinejad's remarks about Israel, which he later adjusted to more of a moral issue regarding occupation, rights, etc., as well as his comments about the Holocaust all served to change the paradigms of the debate. This was not necessarily in Iran's favour when dealing with Western powers or Western audiences, but these were not the main target-groups of Ahmadinejad. When Khamenei saw that Ahmadinejad had "delivered the streets" of the developing countries through his actions, he allowed him more leeway to continue.

In addition, when Ahmadinejad was making these comments (you may have noticed that their frequency has gone down significantly), he was riding high on a hugely important election victory and was in a period where Iran's more aggressive foreign policy (which, again, he does not control but can influence through his actions and bargaining in the consensus process) in fact seemed to be paying dividends. Today, with the economy not performing according to his promises, Iran's nuclear program dragged before the UN Security Council and a plethora of domestic criticism against him on various fronts, his manoeuvrability is severely limited.

On a general level, Iran does not want an open war with Israel, partly since it knows the limitation of its capabilities, but also since this does not really serve any purpose for Iran. The Iran-Israel struggle is a wider strategic one and not one concerned with territory or things of that nature. Also, both sides need the prospect of an external "existential threat" for their respective identity formations and going to an open war would not be valuable to either. I am firmly of the opinion that the Israelis don't want a war either and that the media (as well as a lot of analysts) are blowing this threat out of proportion. Israeli decision-makers are neither stupid nor ignorant of political/military realities. However, they will use the threat of a "nuclear holocaust" to serve their specific needs and purposes and to push for an internationalisation of what is in essence a manufactured crisis.

The proxy wars being fought through the various Palestinian groups and Hezbollah is a much better option for Tehran, since the battleground remains far from Iran and the costs remain very low (the financial support given to these groups is minuscule compared to what a war would cost).

To Question 2:

I would say that the Iranian public is very happy about the lack of bellicose action. They don't want another war.

One of the interesting things that are often missed in the analysis of Iranian behaviour is that a great many of Iranian decision-makers, who even fill the boards of many state companies, sit in ministries, etc. are veterans of a war that only ended 19 years ago. These individuals know the real impact a conflict has on a country's economy and they've also seen first-hand the horrors of war. This does not mean that they will not defend their country in case of an attack – and I am willing to bet that even a lot of the older veterans who now live comfortable lives would join the fight – but that they are not going to pick a fight unnecessarily with anyone. If you read the statements of military commanders in Iran, they never talk about attacking any country, but simply that they will "strike blows to any aggressors" or how they changed their defensive doctrines to deal with modern threats (for example, saying that they would widen the theatre of action to Western capitals through "asymmetric actions", if necessary). But it's all defensive and never offensive.

To Question 3:
If there is a direct American attack on Iranian soil, then all bets will be off and pragmatism, etc. will no longer be a major component of Iranian policy. There will of course be those who will call for restraint or to handle things in a more diplomatic manner, but the greater majority of decision-makers, and the public at large will no longer care for politicking but will want "revenge" and retaliation. Even Rafsanjani could not under those circumstances argue for diplomacy, but would have to fully back retaliatory actions.

Since there is a clear understanding that the Iranian military cannot conventionally match that of the US (especially if they only do surgical strikes and don’t actually invade, which would be a different story altogether), the focus would turn to asymmetric responses. My guess is that the main focus would be in Iraq but also against US-related targets in the city-states around the Persian Gulf, as well as possibly against Saudi Arabia (although I'm a bit sceptical about this one). In addition, there are likely to be targeted attacks carried out by proxy groups, both against Israel and against US allies in Europe, in addition to US cities themselves. I'm pretty sure a sizable portion of Iranians living abroad, who have a lot of money and are internationally mobile, would not have qualms in assisting this "defensive" effort.

1 comment:

inthefreezer said...

George-
Where's the juicy NJ political commentary a month before the idiotic incumbency faces re-election? I don't think Iran is ever fixable but New Jersey is!