Democratic changes are of greater importance than the drumbeats of war
The general debate on how to deal with the Iranian nuclear programme frames it as one of the most alarming and complex issues in one of the worlds most volatile regions
An Islamic revolutionary regime has ruled Iran since 1979,but Iran is a much different society than it was 33 years ago when the revolution happened. Then,Iranian society was united around a charismatic leader by the name of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Today,young Iranians suffer from a lack of romanticism about the concept of revolution in general. This is one reason,among many,why there has been little appetite in the Iranian society for revolutionary uprisings. Analysts of Iranian politics would correctly argue that the revolutionary Islam of 1979 has produced widespread disenchantment among Iranians three decades later.
However,despite the low number of true believers in the utopian ideas of 79,even among the many architects of the regime,Irans leadership apparently is still practising coercive strategies to maintain its lost moral and political legitimacy. Let it be stressed again that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has succeeded in recent years to create for himself a cult of personality which has found more echoes among the Iranian para-military groups than among the quietist Shiite clergy and the Grand Ayatollahs. Indeed,perhaps the most important change in the Iranian political structure over the past three decades has been the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) from an ideological institution into an expansive socio-political-economic force that controls every corner of Iranian society.
As a force in Iranian politics,the IRGC is less of a traditional military entity than a multidimensional player with influence reaching deep into Irans foreign policy. The IRGC also controls Irans Basij force,an all-volunteer paramilitary group,which has about a million conscripts. In April 2011,the United States imposed sanctions on the IRGCs Quds Force for supporting the Syrian regimes crackdown on protesters. In this respect,the IRGC has stayed true to its original mandate of safeguarding the foundational principles of the revolution and exporting them to other Muslim countries. More broadly,the Pasdarans growing strategic economic control (which ranges from telecommunications to oil) must be acutely examined,next to its control of all of Irans strategic military assets,including the countrys increasingly sophisticated long-range missiles programme.
As such,the Islamic Republic is increasingly a military oligarchy with a clerical face. Nevertheless,the IRGCs socio-political profile is set to grow even more in the months ahead. The reason behind this change has less to do with the domestic situation in Tehran than with Irans geopolitical profile and the increasing possibility of a military confrontation with the United States and Israel. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are fully aware of possible Israeli threats against Irans nuclear facilities and the US military capabilities in the Persian Gulf. The ultimate question,of course,is how Iran would retaliate once Israelis have completed their strikes. Would the attack persuade Iranian leaders to cease their pursuit of nuclear weapons or does the Iranian regime start a long-term war with the US and bear the costs of regional chaos?
Given the worldwide interest on the issue and the aggressive stance of Iranian and Israeli government officials,it would be wrong to turn a blind eye on the possibility of ruling out an attack. It is true that the Iranian regime is showing few signs of flexibility over its nuclear programme and the military branch of the Islamic system would accept the risk of a military confrontation with the American forces as a reliable way of consolidating its power,but looking back at the absence of military rule in contemporary Iranian history,it would be difficult to imagine how the IRGC could mobilise different social categories of the Iranian society in favour of a nationalistic war,regardless of the survival of the Islamic regime.
Moreover,the nuclear programme is not an issue of life and death for Ayatollah Khamenei,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or any of Irans Revolutionary Guards. If we accept the fact that Iranian leaders are not suicidal and they use the nuclear power status as a way to keep their power alive,there is good reason to believe that the June deadline invoked by American Defence Secretary Leon Panetta for Israeli attacks against Iran is in part to give Obama and the P5+1 enough time for diplomatic leverage on Iran.
The White House has successfully fended off pressure to go to war,or at least to be more confrontational,by touting sanctions and their international allies. However,no one has any expectations at all that in an election year Obama will make concessions to Iran,even in exchange for Iranian concessions.
It goes without saying that the basic problem in regard to Irans nuclear issue is that there is no diplomatic relationship between Washington and Tehran. While a lot of talk of war can be dismissed as simple psychological rhetoric,the notion of the possible necessity of war with Iran rests on a perception of the Islamic Republic of Iran as an irrational actor that can never be trusted with having nuclear weapons and should be deterred from ever using them. However,as everybody knows,Iran is not as strong or effective a military presence in the Middle East as is commonly believed or feared.
As the Arab Spring spreads across the Middle East,new partnerships and allegiances have shaped the shifting political landscape of the region. While Turkey and Saudi Arabia are considered as the main winners of the Arab Awakening,Iran has emerged as the big loser of the recent uprisings in the Middle East.
It is clear that in many ways the Islamic Republic is in a transition where many of its fundamental domestic and foreign policies are being called into question. At a moment when Iran has lost its ability to influence developments in Bahrain and Syria,the whole aim of the sanctions by the EU and the US against the Iranian regime is to pressure the Iranian authorities to negotiate and compromise. Regardless of the relative weakness of Iran in many respects,the best way to find a solution to the Iran problem is to think of the democratic future of Iran,thus making it clear to Iranians that their country is an actor in the region that must be heard and dragged out of its condition as a pariah state.
This indicates not only the real costs of a military attack for the future of Iran in particular and the Middle East in general,but also that democratic changes afoot in Iran are of greater importance for the political development of the country than the drumbeats of war which keep silencing the voice of human rights activists and civil society actors in Iran.
The writer is an Iranian political philosopher and associate professor,Centre for Ethics,University of Toronto,Canada,firstname.lastname@example.org