Iran: The Other Islamic State
Many in the US are jostling to enter Iran’s marketplace as though acquiescence to international demands for nuclear transparency equated to political and economic reform. It did not. The Islamic Republic of Iran remains an Islamic state and a danger to regional stability. Caution is enjoined in any transaction with the country.
Ayatollah means the ‘sign of God,’ Hezbollah the ‘party of God,’ and Hokumat-e eslami means ‘Islamic government.’ These are not rhetorical devices in the parlance of ISIS and neither are they features of Saudi Arabia’s political landscape. These are examples of the pillars the Islamic Republic of Iran is built on and no amount of engagement or rehabilitation, investment or peace declarations can change the fact that Iran is, fundamentally, an Islamic state. Its goals are no less zealous, no less lofty than ISIS; seeking to usurp the Sunni sect as the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines and construct an idealised political entity with a system that reflects the values, legitimacy and power of Iran as the vanguard Shia-theocracy. Where ISIS has its caliphate, Iran has its imamate and while they may conflict over doctrine and influence both are revolutionary states that marry radical Islam to state structures.
Yet many in the US and Europe are ready to gloss over Iran’s pragmatic fundamentalism – which has ensured that the Arabian Gulf and wider Middle East remains in a state of international and sectarian conflict – for reasons that are elusive, but somehow gravitate around energy security and the war against ISIS. With a clipboard of (ostensibly) shared interests, Iran is being rehabilitated. Unfortunately, there is no harmony of interests and Iranian rhetoric does not match its intentions. Instead, Iran is seeking strategic hegemony; it wants unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea, dominance over the Arabian Gulf and Yemen and raw territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. To do so, Iran has had to limit the US and Europe’s presence in the region, which after failing to do so by force has managed through diplomacy. So, with a reduced Western presence Iran can start focusing on consolidating its other goals—with more money (thanks to sanctions relief) and an invigorated Revolutionary Guard Corp.
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. In this case, so is foresight. Iran is an Islamic state and is driven by a logic that solders Shia fundamentalism to geopolitics. Cracking the code of Iranian thinking means looking beyond Iran’s smoke-screens; President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif and Iran’s Majlis (parliament), and peering into the closed-circuit paradigm of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Guardianship Council and the Revolutionary Guards. These are the country’s real powerbrokers. That they have endorsed the nuclear deal has nothing to do with re-joining the international community and everything to do with increasing Iran’s ability to achieve its other goals. Less sanctions means more money and more money means more weapons, more clandestine operations, more instability and greater projection. Iran does not have an open economic system; its ports and infrastructure are controlled by the Revolutionary Guards who are subordinate to the Ayatollah. There should be no ambiguity as to who will gain most with the coming economic surge and what they will do with their newfound wealth.
Take out the crystal ball for 2016 and the wars in Syria and Iraq end with Assad in place in the former and Shia militias in the latter. Iran’s naval presence in Syria will heighten tensions with Israel, Turkey and Egypt and the next round of Israel-Hezbollah violence only needs a trigger. Europe’s migration crisis will peak as Syria’s Alawites and Iraqi Shia take out their frustrations over ISIS on what’s left of those countries’ civilian populations. Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will probably see a return of sectarian violence as Iran supplies embedded terror cells with money bags, weapons and inciting clerics. Yemen will keep inching towards national destruction. All this as Western money pours into the coffers of an Islamic Republic that is not in the throes of reform, but is hunkering down for the long-game.
But there is some good news, however cryptic it may sound. The Iranian economic floodgates will, eventually, slam shut. We have seen it all before. In the 1990’s, a different moderate President, Katami, also promised a new and fresh Iran. He was silenced, shackled and supressed by the Ayatollah and his at-the-ready foot-soldiers. Now as then a lot of Americans and Europeans are going to lose a lot of money on this next Iran rehabilitation project. Court cases will abound, and pressure will be mounted on congresses and parliaments as Iran retracts back into its revolutionary shell and nationalises everything in its path. Those that risked and lost because they trusted the Islamic Republic will cry foul—they always do.
But the saga of Iran is not, and must not, be about the short-term financial gains for a privileged few. It is about the original Islamic state and its regional designs. It is about tying sanctions relief to Iranian behaviour: its ballistic missile programme, its exportation of terrorism, continued occupation of Abu Musa, Upper and Lower Tunb, its instigation in Bahrain and, crucially, its callous stifling of its own people. Sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic is a regional, not a national issue!