In July 1988, Khomeini, in his words, “drank the chalice of poison” and accepted a truce mediated by the United Nations to end the Iran- Iraq war. The question pertains in mind of most observers today is at what point, if at all, the sanction pressure will break the single minded resolve of Ayatollah Khamenei to drink his own chalice presented by the U.N. and to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Many hoped it would be when the Iranian central bank and the oil industry are heavily sanctioned and rampant inflation drives millions of Iranians to poverty as Iranian currency loses fifty percent of its value in the space few months. While such scenario has already taken place, the nuclear train of Iran has not stopped, at the heavy expense of all other sectors of the economy tanking. To explain why the increasingly draconian sanctions seem to be ineffective, we need to remind ourselves of the nature and history of the current Iranian theocracy.
While sanctions as a principle have many advocates, their success lies not so much in stopping a rogue nation from nefarious activity, which is seldom achieved, but to foster internal pressure in a given regime. The economic hardship splits the loyalty of supporters and increases public dissatisfaction, leading to an eventual crumbling of the regime. South Africa is one of the best examples of sanctions achieving this objective. Where sanctions have not been effective, in countries such as North Korea and Cuba, a key element is missing.
That is a coterie of influential supporters of the regime whose international business activities are seriously hampered by the sanctions. In dictatorships without such cabal, it is replaced by a strong cult of personality. Such is the case with Iran.
A key authoritarian element of a pseudo-fascist regime, which Iran has become, is its endorsement of a prime ideological leader. A cult of personality is created, with supra-political mythology built around him. In Iran and North Korea he is known as the Supreme Leader, but other monikers have now reached historical folklore: Il Duce, Fuhrer, Turkmenbashi, etc.
Ayatollah Khamenei is the symbol of the political ideology of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who in turn exert indiscriminate political, economic and social power in Iran; they are answerable to no one, except to their Supreme Leader. While the Revolutionary Guards mismanage and plunder the nation’s wealth, the Supreme Leader and his aligned Mullahs preach to the society to endure suffering and hardship. In the last Teheran Friday prayer, the hard-liner Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami took to the podium, shunned the ‘satanic’ nuclear negotiations, and preached to spectators dominated by the Basij militia: “Don’t say ‘Ah’ under the rampant inflation, or you will make the west happy.” The crowd, fists in the air, chanted “Death to America, Death to the great Satan and Death to Israel.”
In June 2009, millions of Iranians voted for the second presidential term, given a choice of four candidates by the Guardian Council. In the hotly contested election that followed, the public found their vote to be rigged and watched on anger the election of a president by the voters turn into selection by the Supreme Leader. Khamenei could not even tolerate for the Iranian people to pick one man from four of his own choosing.
The protests which followed were brutally quashed, which showed the world that this regime is neither Islamic nor a republic, has total disregard for human life, and fears its people the most.
After a three-month conflict, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed he could exploit his position and special relationship with Khamenei to appoint his loyalists to key cabinet posts. He used his position, with its constitutional rights, to challenge his master and attempted to dismiss those he saw as political foes.
He managed to oust the Foreign Affairs Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, but stalled with the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, a few days later.
Moslehi was re-instated after three days by the Supreme Leader.
The events were swiftly followed by the President’s eleven days’ disappearing act to demonstrate his anger at the Supreme Leader. Never before had someone dared to defy the absolute will of the Supreme Leader and still survive. Khamenei, who had placed his full weight and legitimacy behind Ahmadinejad when it appeared his re-election in June 2009 was rigged, found himself in an inauspicious rock and the hard place; between a president whom he has shed so much blood for or a U-turn in ousting him. A battle of Khamenei vs. Ahmadinejad would lead to a blood bath and the implosion of the Islamic Republic.
While there is now a conflict between the two faces of the regime, both sides see the nuclear armament as a key to achieving their respective aims. They have successfully deceived the international community to adhere to negotiations knowing full well they will never give up on the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Every nuclear negotiation has been a winner for this regime. The talks give them legitimacy and buy them precious time. Economic sanctions have impoverished the Iranian people, but more importantly in terms of grand strategy, created a black market bonanza enriching the pockets of the Revolutionary Guards and government-linked cronies. The permeability of the sanctions regime, given Iran’s geo-political situation, is achieving the un-intended consequence of increasing illicit profit margins.
At the same time, the PR aspect of the sanctions helps the regime to prolong its life and maintain credibility at home, blaming the stagnant economy and rampant mismanagement on the “Great Satan America” and the “Zionist conspiracy.”
Given a choice of being a North Korea, which has nothing but nuclear weapons, or a South Korea who has everything but nuclear weapons, it is clear that the choice of this regime would be the former. The current president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the advocate of the belief that bringing in a state of chaos would quicken the coming of the apocalypse, and hasten the return of the messianic Imam, the prophesied future redeemer of their Islam. They are not afraid of alienation; they welcome it. A limited air strike will only enforce their resolve and justifications to further quash dissent.
The world is willing to live with non-nuclear weapon Iran, but the Iranian regime cannot live without the atom bomb. Iran with the atom bomb will play a far greater threat to world peace than is tolerable. Israel will not wait to play the game of Russian Roulette with the nuclear weapon Iran.
The fanatical ayatollahs have attempted to link their own faith together with the Iranian people, even the region as a whole.
However between an undesirable impending all out war or a possible nuclear Armageddon, there remains a third option. Indeed, this is what we are hoping for, it is the most preferred way out of this explosive standoff. It is the support and active engagement of the Iranian people for democracy. The only threat to the current system is the one this regime, like all autocratic dictatorships, fears most, is the brave people of Iran. This regime's aim of religious and social indoctrination through propaganda in education, the media and culture, along with its censorship of all other cultural outlets in order to turn the Iranian society into worshipping fanatics of the ‘Khamenei Islam’ has miserably failed.
Any blame for hardship has to fall squarely at the regime and its all-too-obvious failings; not directed at sanctions imposed by Western democracies. We have a good chance at the third option would be on the table, and the regime would be toppled from below. Too little has been done, but it is definitely not too late.
(The writer is the Founder of the Council for a Democratic Iran.)