by Shireen T. Hunter
The United States and Iran just avoided a military confrontation that could have degenerated into an open conflict. If allowed to escalate, this conflict would have led to an all-out war with devastating consequence for all involved, especially Iran. But the risk of war by accident or design is still high.
Many commentators have rightly criticized the Trump administration for its misguided policies towards Tehran, notably withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) as well as reinstating old sanctions and imposing new ones. The latest U.S. actions have included sanctions against Ayatollah Khamenei and possibly also its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who was the key negotiator during the nuclear talks. In fact, the United States is rapidly running out of economic sectors , institutions, and individuals to sanction.
More seriously, the policy of relying on sanctions and other punitive measures without offering any incentives has not yielded the result that the Trump administration had hoped for, either Tehran’s surrender or the internal collapse of the Islamic Republic. Instead, it has resulted in President Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei facing each other like two gunfighters, waiting to see who will draw first.
This situation is fraught with serious dangers. As anyone who has watched a Western movie knows, any minor or suspicious movement on the side of either of the fighters would trigger a shootout that ends in the death of one or both of the fighters. More to the point, in any such confrontation revenge, pride, and maintaining and/or restoring one’s honor play key roles.
The Trump administration’s ill-conceived policies toward Tehran have been largely responsible for the current phase of the long-running, albeit often dormant, crisis in U.S.-Iran relations. However, the present standoff is also the result of the contradictions and anomalies inherent in Iran’s Islamic system as well as the characteristics and skewed priorities of the hardline economic, political, and military mafia that runs Iran.
The biggest problem in Iran, which has progressively gotten worse, is its contradictory and double-headed economic and political system. On the surface, Iran is a religious republic, itself a contradiction in terms, with legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. It holds periodic elections for president and parliament. Beneath the surface, however, it is a clerical elite headed by the supreme leader and supported by a military arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) , that establishes the perimeter around what can and cannot be done in the country.
Iran’s president has all the responsibility but little of the power to decide policy. Most recently, President Hassan Rouhani alluded to this reality by demanding extra powers. As a rule, the president gets blamed for all the shortcomings and the supreme leader gets praised for anything good that happens. In addition, following the partial destruction of the state structure in Iran after the revolution, parallel organizations were set up often haphazardly. Their existence now complicates the effective running of the state system and, by extension, the country.
The most pernicious of these organizations was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Their sole purpose, as its leaders never tire of saying, has been to perpetuate and defend the revolution against “internal and external enemies,” and to achieve its goals within Iran and without. Thus, from the beginning, the IRGC was not a national organization. Its loyalties are not to Iran and the safeguarding of the country’s interests. For the IRGC, Iran is valuable only as a base from which to pursue its revolutionary activities and to implement Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist vision.
Khomeini’s lack of commitment to Iran is well known. Recently, in an interview, Ali Motahari, a member of parliament and the son of the late Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahari, a close associate of Khomeini’s, said that for the ayatollah, “everything was Islam and for Islam. He wanted Iran for Islam.” In other words, he saw Iran only as an instrument at the service of Islam. This is the approach of the IRGC and other hardline institutions as well. The supreme leader sees himself first as the leader of the world’s Muslims. He is often referred to as Vali e Amr e Muslimin, the leader of all Muslims. Iran is his second or perhaps even third priority.
Within Iran, the main goal of this elite is to maintain its own control over key sectors of the economy. Hence its opposition to the presence of foreign investors and economic and commercial concerns in Iran, and even more so to overseas Iranian entrepreneurs. One reason the IRGC opposed the nuclear deal was precisely because of the fear that it could lead to the greater presence of foreign economic concerns. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the late Iranian president who tried to rationalize Iran’s state structure, saw the risks involved in a double-headed military and wanted to incorporate the IRGC into the regular army, but he was prevented from doing so. This is potentially a very dangerous situation especially in the case of a military conflict.
The number of organizations involved in developmental matters is also mind-boggling. In addition to the IRGC, the Basij has its own developmental arm, as do various committees and foundations over which the government has no control. The adverse consequences of this managerial disarray were in display during the recent flood rescue operations. Some more thoughtful politicians, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, criticize these “parallel operations.” But no one dares to question why this situation exists.
Even worse, instead of focusing on maintaining Iran’s security and territorial integrity and ensuring its prosperity, these revolutionary groups have pursued objectives, especially the anti-imperialist struggle and Palestine’s liberation, that have no direct relation to Iran’s national interests and are clearly beyond its abilities to achieve. In the process, these groups have impoverished and isolated Iran. They‘ve sabotaged every effort at domestic reform and the normalization of Iran’s relations with the world.
The Crisis of the Revolutionary State
One of the hot issues discussed in Iranian media in recent months has been whether the revolution and the revolutionary state is at a dead end. This debate, however, is indirect and comes in the form of attacks on those who are supposedly conveying this idea and denials that the Islamic state has reached this impasse. But the fact that the media feel compelled to deny it shows that the revolution is indeed at a dead end. It is incapable of providing economic well-being. Its so-called religious democracy is dysfunctional, and its ideology’s appeal has seriously eroded.
The regime’s only remaining argument in its own favor is that it has restored Iran’s independence and dignity by challenging America and refusing to submit to it. Thus, talking to America would eliminate the last bastion of the hardliners’ legitimacy. The question seldom asked is how weakening Iran economically and risking its national survival enhance its dignity. American sanctions have exacerbated the inherent dichotomies of the Islamic state and deepened its crisis.
There is no easy and rapid solution to the crisis of Iran’s revolutionary state. But there is a way to at least prevent the crisis from getting any worse: accepting talks with the United States despite all the uncertainties involved in this option. Given how shabbily the Trump administration has treated Iran, this would be a bitter pill for its leadership to swallow.
But Ayatollah Khomeini’s behavior during the Iran-Iraq war sets a good example to follow. Despite his reluctance to deal with the evil Saddam Hussein and the humiliation that coming to terms with him implied, he agreed to a ceasefire in 1989 and saved the country from further destruction. With this decision, he was helped by the influence of Rafsanjani, perhaps the most national-minded of revolutionary leaders.
There is no such figure today to influence the supreme leader. The question is: can Ayatollah Khamenei overcome his pride and his aversion to compromise in what he has characterized as “Iran’s sanctities,” which includes the Palestinian struggle, to save Iran from either a hot war or a war of economic attrition and slow destruction. Ultimately, keeping Iran secure is the responsibility of its own leaders and not Donald Trump.