The Islamic Republic of Iran finds itself grappling with new realities in a Middle East that has been turned upside-down by an unprecedented wave of revolt and rebellion. While Tehran has almost always had somewhat troubled relations with its Middle East neighbors, it now faces an entirely new paradigm – one that seems to be changing by the day, by the hour.
International Business Times spoke to Mideast expert Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., about Iran and the “new order” in the Middle East.
IBTIMES: What do you think is Iran’s view of the revolutions spreading across the Middle East and North Africa? Does it frighten the Iranian government or does it inspire them?
ACHILOV: It is a little bit of both. It is fair to say that Iran is more excited than frightened to see the rapidly evolving political change in the Arab Middle East.
Although Iran is not an Arab country; its fate is closely interwoven with the Arab world.
The Iranian regime is selectively supportive of the uprisings. It praised the pro-democratic rallies against the “tyrants” in Egypt and Tunisia. At the same time, Iran is highly concerned about a possible regime change in Syria -– Iran’s closest strategic ally in the region.
Iran’s excitement and fear both depend on its regional security interests. While the collapse of Iran’s old foes, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were viewed positively; the possible fall of Bashir al-Assad’s regime in Syria is causing serious concerns and troubles in Tehran.
In principle, having virtually no positive diplomatic relations with the Sunni Muslim world, the change of political leadership is promising for Iran to re-evaluate its bilateral relations (with the new emerging Sunni leaders).
At any rate, nonetheless, Iran is vehemently against any Western interference in any of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) countries. In fact, NATO’s military intervention in Libya alarms Iran.
At a domestic level, Iran is frightened that these events could strengthen and embolden the Iranian opposition structures to challenge the hard-liner regime.
IBTIMES: Iran, which is dominated by Shi’a Muslims, also supports the revolt in Bahrain; but not the anti-government protesters in Syria. Why such a contradiction? Is it that Iran seeking to support their fellow Shia Muslims (against the Sunnis)? Or are there other strategic factors at work?
ACHILOV: Iran is committed to increasing its regional security across in the Middle East. This contradiction is a result of Iran’s geo-strategic interests. Iran does not have many friends in the Middle East. The only potential allies are those with a considerable Shi’a Muslim population, in which case there are only three countries: Bahrain, Iraq and Syria.
While Shi’as are the majority in Bahrain and Iraq, the Alawite sect of Shia’ism (which Assad and his cronies belong to) is a minority ruling class in Syria. From this perspective, Iran’s regional political and strategic calculations revolve around religious ideological identity.
IBTIMES: The Iranian government has brutally cracked down on its own opponents and detained anti-government protesters. But why have we not seen the kind of rebellion in Iran that we have in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, etc.?
ACHILOV: There are two major explanations.
First, the legitimacy of the Iranian regime has been comparatively strong. While there is indeed a vibrant opposition movement, it has not gained the “critical mass” needed to successfully challenge the clerical rule.
The incumbent Iranian regime still enjoys significant popular support. Hardliner conservatives draw political support primarily from the rural population, while the citizens in urban areas are generally less supportive of the regime. It is changing, however. Day by day, the legitimacy of clerical hard-liner rule is decreasing.
There are also growing dissent against the theocratic hardliner elites. The US-sponsored international economic sanctions have significantly crippled the Iranian economy (and continues to damage it as we speak).
These hardships are brewing tensions which can erupt at any time. If the economy continues to decline, the Iranian regime is going to face tough questions about its legitimacy in the near future. From this vantage, a massive political uprising in Iran is becoming more and more likely.
Second, the Iranian regime has made a successful case for “unity” against the enemies of Iran. Often, anti-Western sentiment is used to unite people against the common enemy. Strong anti-Western sentiment often resonates with the majority of Iranians. National pride is an important element of Iran’s political culture. Yet, it is also shifting. Increasingly deteriorating economic conditions is taking a heavy toll on living standards inside Iran. This is also likely to contribute to a massive upheaval and unrest in Iran.
IBTIMES: How does the state of personal freedom and human rights in Iran compare with the Arab nations? Is Iran “freer” or just as repressive?
ACHILOV: Iran has always had a unique socio-political context. In many ways, Iranian citizens enjoyed far more political rights compared to their Arab counterparts who predominantly live under dictatorships.
For instance, in the wake of the Islamic revolution, Iranians acquired rights to participate in the political process (e.g., universal suffrage to elect the President (similar to western standards, Iranian President can only serve two terms, elect their local government and more).
In stark contrast, 90 percent of the Arab world was under either monarchy or a dictatorship -– with limited political rights.
After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini used to harshly criticize neighboring Arab states by arguing that “monarchy rule is against Islam.” (This is one of the reasons why Arab dictators hated Khomeini and newly established Islamic Republic of Iran).
Since 1963, women have had the right to vote in Iran. On the contrary, women’s suffrage is comparatively constrained in the Arab world. Only recently, some Arab monarchies (broadly defined as hereditary political systems) allowed limited voting privileges to women (Oman in 2003, Kuwait and Qatar in 2005, and the United Arab Emirates in 2006). On the other hand, some Arab states, including Egypt, Lebanon and a few others, have long permitted women to vote or run for an office since the 1950s and 1960s.
IBTIMES: At a glance, might one conclude that Iran is more democratic?
ACHILOV: Well, not exactly. Two institutions undermine the traditional democratic pillars of free governance: (1) The Supreme Leader who holds the ultimate veto power (even over the President), and (2) the Council of Guardians who appoints the Supreme Leader and approves all political candidates (including the candidates to the Iranian Parliament).
This institutional arrangement controls and censors the elections in Iran. All candidates for high posts must be approved by the Council of Guardians (who can eliminate any potentially “unfit” candidate from running). Even though Iranian citizens vote and elect their representatives to legislate, the Iranian parliament is the least powerful legislative body in the Republic. In terms of civil liberties, both Iran and the Arab world have long been embroiled in systematic repressive policies.
IBTIMES: Is there a vital opposition movement in Iran? Or has the regime destroyed it?
ACHILOV: Politically, Iran is polarized into two major opposing ideologies: (a) reformist moderates and (b) hardliner conservatives. The opposition in Iran is still intact. The incumbent hardliner conservatives have not eliminated the opposition. In fact, the opposition is growing in scope and scale.
The main opposition movement are Iranian reformist moderates led by Mir-Hussein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami and other like-minded reformers. Ideologically, the reformists defend free market economy, privatization, international cooperation (reconciling bitter relations with the West), higher civil and political liberties (e.g., eliminating police-enforced dress codes for women), higher standards for freedom of expression, etc).
They also use a carefully-crafted, vague, and mildly negative tone toward Israel.
IBTIMES: Iran recently re-established diplomatic relations with Egypt. Will this help Iran’s status in the Arab world?
ACHILOV: This is really hard to predict. The Middle East is going through a major public-driven, bottom-up restructuring. A fifty-year old status quo of the Arab world is changing on a daily, if not on an hourly basis. The newly emerging political composition of the Arab Middle East will re-shape, and probably re-assess, the Arab-Persian relationship.
The Arab states realize that Iranian regional influence is too important and too powerful to ignore. Thus, “managing” Iran is (and will be) necessary. It is highly likely that both Iran and the Arab League states will seek cooperation and reconciliation by attempting to re-set bilateral relations.
It will not be easy, however. Let’s recall that, after Mubarak fell in Egypt, Iranian military ships passed through the Suez Canal (for the first time since 1979) en-route to Syria to join in a naval military exercise. While this move was cited as provocative by Israel, it provided a symbolic strategic advantage for the Iranian regime.
I think the major Arab-Persian differences of opinion will persist in the long term. Both spheres will be wary and treat one another more as a “rival” than an “ally” in the long run.
IBTIMES: As Persians, do Iranians “look down” on the Arabs? Or do they view themselves as an essential part of the Muslim world?
ACHILOV: I would say that, on average, the Iranians do not “look down” at Arabs on ethnic lines; rather, they take pride in their own Persian heritage and view their own Persian culture as more superior and rich compared to Arab traditions.
This sentiment has deep historical roots. According to multiple survey data analysis of Iranian public opinion, an average Iranian citizen views him/herself as more Iranian (Persian) than a Muslim. There is fairly consistent empirical evidence that suggests that national (and ethnic) identity surpasses religious identity in Iran.
However, this does not mean that they do not consider themselves in part of global Muslim world. Yet, there are vivid differences in interpreting the concept of the Global Muslim Ummah (Global Islamic Society) between the Shi’a (10 percent of the Islamic world) and the Sunni (90 percent of the Islamic world).
IBTIMES: Who are Iran’s greatest allies in the Middle East? Who are their biggest enemies in the Middle East?
ACHILOV: Syria is the closest regional ally of Iran. Shi’a-majority Iraq and Bahrain (over 60 percent Shi’a in both countries) are two other strategically important states in which the Iranian political interests are highly vested.
Even though Turkey would not completely qualify as an ally, Turkish-Iranian relations have strengthened over the years.
Iran is also actively trying to increase its ties with the post-Soviet Central Asian states (especially the Persian-speaking Republic of Tajikistan) and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, Israel remains Iran’s chief adversary. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some other Sunni Arab states are also viewed as adverse rivals in the region: Saudi Arabia and Iran have long had bitter relations which continue to date.
IBTIMES: How does Iran stand economically?
ACHILOV: At the time the reformist President, Muhammad Khatami, was leaving office in 2005, the unemployment rate in Iran was about 11 percent. According to official government statistics, the unemployment in Iran today is more than 15 percent (the actual figures could be even higher than official estimates).
This means that unemployment rates rose by at least 40 percent from 2005 (during the tenure of hardliner conservative leadership of Mahmud Ahmadinejad).
Oil revenues are essential for Iran’s economy. But Iran is a big country (population of 73 million) with a sizable industrial base. In a highly complex global economy, US-led financial and trade isolation will hamper the Iranian economy by taking a heavy toll on economic growth and job-creation.
IBTIMES: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to be having a dispute with Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad recently “boycotted” parliament sessions. How will this play out? Is Khamenei the real power in Iran?
ACHILOV: Ali Khamenei is the Supreme Leader and highly powerful. The Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians (which elects the Supreme Leader) hold the ultimate veto powers in Iran.
According to the Iranian constitution, the Council of Guardians consists of six clerical and six non-clerical jurists. It can block any legislation passed by the Majlis (Parliament). To this end, the Council is a powerful watchdog of the Iranian regime.
The Majlis (Iranian Parliament) is the least powerful legislative body. While tensions were (and are) common between Supreme leaders and elected Presidents, there are virtually no records of any tensions ever experienced between the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians. Ultimately, Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians will make the final calls (all else being equal).
IBTIMES: Are Ahmadinejad’s repeated verbal attacks on Israel genuine? Or are they designed to strengthen his popularity among Iranian Islamic hard-liners?
ACHILOV: Ahmadinejad is an ultra-conservative hardliner who often uses arrogant and inflammatory language. His verbal attacks on Israel and the U.S. help his appeal to the conservatives. This rhetoric also shows a strong stance against the so called “enemies” of the Iranian regime: Israel and US.
Ahmadinejad’s speeches are designed to draw an image of a strong Iran that can stand up against the mighty West – which, in turn, increases him popularity among the hard-liners.
Let’s consider Ahmadinejad’s notorious statements about wiping Israel off the map. Iran knows very well that any attack on Israel will destroy Iran as well. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, it is highly unlikely that it will ever use it against Israel – because any nuclear attack on Israel would also destroy the holy sites of all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Moreover, any nuclear attack would also pose existential threats to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.
Of course, Iran itself could be erased off the map if Israel retaliated with its own nuclear arsenal. Therefore, Ahmadinejad’s “wiping-off” statements are more populist and political than a real possibility. I call it a “big-mouth” politics. It does not mean that the Iranian threats should be taken lightly. Even though an all-out nuclear war is a distant probability, Iranian threats against Israel’s existence should be addressed seriously.
The issue is not that Iran will launch a nuclear attack, rather, where these weapons (if ever built) may end up (the fear that they could end up in radicals’ hands).
In any case, nuclear power would give Iran a powerful deterrent shield and a strong political and diplomatic leverage in the region. Not only Israel but all other Sunni Arab states vehemently oppose and would not tolerate Iran’s nuclear capability.