OpinionIran in the World PressDon't underestimate the weakness of Iran's theocracy

Don’t underestimate the weakness of Iran’s theocracy

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Daily Telegraph: In the confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons, there is much talk of the dangers that the West would run in imposing sanctions on the regime, let alone attacking it militarily. The heirs of Ayatollah Khomeini have a long reach, as demonstrated in the assassination of political opponents exiled in Europe or the car-bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina. The Daily Telegraph

By Simon Scott Plummer

In the confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons, there is much talk of the dangers that the West would run in imposing sanctions on the regime, let alone attacking it militarily. The heirs of Ayatollah Khomeini have a long reach, as demonstrated in the assassination of political opponents exiled in Europe or the car-bombing of a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina. Nearer to home, they sponsor terrorist groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and are well placed to cause havoc in Iraq. To move the crisis beyond words to punitive action would be to court grave risks.

Yet, in assessing these risks, insufficient attention is paid to the fundamental weaknesses of the opponent. The first is ideological. In the 27 years since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has come full circle. The religious fervour of Khomeini gave way to Rafsanjani’s economic pragmatism, which was in turn succeeded by mild liberalisation under Khatami.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became president last August, is attempting to turn the clock back to 1979 at a time when the ayatollah’s fanaticism is discredited and the population, two thirds of which was born since the revolution, hates its leaders for their oppression, corruption and incompetence.

The second weakness has to do with political legitimacy. Loss of faith in the revolution calls into question the system of velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the religious jurist, by which ultimate power lies not with elected representatives, but with the clergy. The mullahs’ dominance seriously compromises Iran’s democracy. For example, in parliamentary elections in 2004, the Council of Guardians, a clerically appointed body, barred about 2,500 reformist candidates from participating. A year later, the second round of the presidential poll was marred by widespread accusations of fraud.

The third weakness, veiled by the near-doubling of oil revenues over the past two years, is economic. The revolution has failed to provide work for an overwhelmingly youthful population; unemployment is running at about 30 per cent. The regime clings to an outmoded model of import substitution through industrialisation, and things are likely to get worse under Ahmadinejad. Members of a supposedly pliant parliament have criticised the current budget as likely to bring higher inflation and joblessness and slower growth.

The defiant rhetoric of Iran’s leaders thus belies manifold fragility. Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has likened the regime to a vase balanced on a mantelpiece. How best, then, to tip it off?

The obvious answer is from within, and here it is worth listening to a brave opposition voice recently forced to leave the country. Speaking to me by phone before his exile, Amir Abbas Fakhravar said the referral of Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council had been a cause of street celebrations in the capital and other major cities. And the riot police had not dared intervene. Such was the hatred of the regime, Mr Fakhravar said, that people were prepared to put up with economic sanctions, including an oil embargo, and even military strikes, if they led to its overthrow.

Asked how this might be brought about, he said there was as yet no dissident leader within the country. However, he spoke of a well-organised underground student movement and of the increase in strikes and demos against the government.

Mr Abbas, 30, was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2002 for defaming the supreme clerical leadership in a book, This Place is Not a Ditch. Last year, he was allowed out of Evin jail to take a university exam. He went on the run and has recently escaped to a neighbouring Arab country.

His assessment of the internal situation in Iran points to the wisdom of increasing foreign funding for propaganda. He said the extra $75 million requested by the Bush Administration from Congress for this purpose could best be spent on setting up a television station in a neighbouring country. It could also be used on scholarships for overseas study to help young Iranians understand the principles of democracy.

That would target the mullocracy’s ideological and political weaknesses. As for the economy, Ahmadinejad’s call last October for the destruction of Israel has already led to a flight of private investors from the Teheran stock market, and foreign capital will be deterred while the political situation remains so unstable. Even if Russia and China block sanctions at the UN, Iran would be hurt were the EU and Japan to join America in applying them; this vulnerability explains the vehemence of its reaction.

Military strikes, by contrast, would be likely to rally people to the leadership, which would play on the long-held Iranian belief that all the country’s misfortunes are the result of foreign conspiracy.

America and its allies face a long and difficult struggle in preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed, Islamist Iran. But in pursuing it they need to look behind the aggressively nationalistic rhetoric of the regime to the rocky foundations on which it rests.

Removing the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and beyond requires the scalpel rather than the bludgeon, a graduated set of responses that would take us beyond 2008 into a new American presidency.

In planning them, it is essential to work as far as possible with the internal opposition; that much Iraq should have taught us. As Mr Fakhravar reminds us, the ground is fertile. The revolution is bankrupt. Dr Clawson’s vase is wobbling.

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