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Is the West Close to Checkmating Iran?

by RICK ZAND

18 Jan 2011 02:45Comments
ca8677c2f5fb1eee1493f172ab79-grande.jpgRegime under pressure from every side -- and within.

[ opinion ] If you're a chess player, you are familiar with the occasional realization that your strategy has failed. You've lost too many vital pieces and the opponent is slowly closing in. At that stage, there is nothing to do but play to inevitable defeat. If you stopped to visualize it, you could probably predict the number of opponent moves to checkmate.

One wonders if in the recesses of the minds of Iran's leaders today there exists an unarticulated sense of the same inevitability. Are they secretly, perhaps behind the veil of closed doors, contemplating imminent failure? Have they suffered too much damage in too many ways against too strong an opponent? Iran's leadership may be simply playing to defeat.

First, the sanctions. Sanctions alone have often proved ineffective in toppling a government. After all, Fidel Castro has endured 50 years of unilateral U.S. sanctions. However, in concert with other efforts, and given the U.N. and E.U. endorsements of sanctions against Iran, the blockades are having a discernible impact. As can be expected, ordinary Iranians are the primary casualties. Denied food and merchandise imports, raw materials needed for production and manufacturing, they suffer skyrocketing inflation and unemployment that has left the economy in shambles. The infrastructure, too, is deteriorating. Resources are seriously depleted, and the price of gasoline has risen as countries obeying sanctions no longer export it to Iran. Even Iran-friendly Turkey has increased its price. Planes built nearly 40 years ago cannot be adequately serviced without access to replacement parts, leaving Iran with a reputation as one of the most dangerous places to fly. Just last week a plane crashed in northern Iran, killing at least 78 and spurring protests against the sanctions, but also underscoring the impact of the government's resistance to compromise. Hospitals and medical treatment suffer from lack of equipment and medicine, preventing Iranians from receiving proper everyday treatment and even life-saving medical care.

While a profound lack of humanity exists in imposing sanctions at the sacrifice of the lives of innocent people, they are nevertheless weakening the foundation of the current regime. The government has tried unsuccessfully to hamper sanctions by subsidizing; unfortunately, purchasing materials through secondary or tertiary sources has proved very expensive, as they are often paying three-fold for items once acquired from the West. Even Russia and China have begun to cut back on their oil purchases.

Iran is also losing its nuclear battle. Despite rhetoric from Ahmadinejad proclaiming the peaceful aim of the country's nuclear program, inherent risks come with enrichment of uranium, and there is no guarantee of Iran's intentions. And as reported by the New York Times, the program appears to have been undermined by a complex system virus -- Stuxnet, introduced by Israel in cooperation with the United States, has set Iran's nuclear ambitions back years, although it has failed to disable the program completely. And there may be more to come, as the virus may contain embedded codes set to strike at a later date. Iran has thus been outmaneuvered in its nuclear game. And the government may not be capable of fulfilling the pronouncement General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, made in a Frontline interview: "You will not find a single instance in which a country has inflicted harm on us and we have left it without a response. So if the United States makes such a mistake, they should know that we will definitely respond. And we don't make idle threats."

The arguably ingenious approach taken by Israel outsmarted those who predicted its strategy would come in the form of military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. Stuxnet had the same impact without dropping a single bomb. So how is Iran left to respond to a disabling virus? Then there are the assassination of a key nuclear scientist and an attempt on the life of another. Iran is charging Israel with responsibility for both. But aside from an inconsequential lawsuit, does Iran have the capacity to respond either in kind or otherwise?

Perhaps retaliation will come through other branches, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, which recently withdrew from the country's cabinet, resulting in the collapse of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's coalition government. But can an assault by Israel's enemy based in southern Lebanon effectively challenge the force that, in 2006, decimated their efforts even as they lobbed missiles over the border? While Hassan Nasrallah may have visions of grandiosity, if he is Iran's arm against Israel, the response will be weak and no doubt short-lived. And it won't reverse the damage done to Iran's crippled nuclear program.

Internal threats further weaken Iran's position. While the strong-arm tactics of the government effectively stifled the Green Movement, there is no rescinding the revolt that took place following the 2009 presidential election. It's doubtful that minds have changed regarding the state of the government under the current Supreme Leader, and the potential for a resurgence of the insurrection always exists. Even with a rash of imprisonments and accompanying harsh sentences, it is likely impossible to squelch the reform movement entirely. And no doubt others will take the place of the exiled and executed. Demonstrations that proved the largest rebellion since the Revolution still reverberate not only within Iran, but in the shattered perception of Iran's government as monolithic, as the drama played out on the international stage.

But internal strife may be coming from the government's rank and file as well. As Reza Aslan reported in the Atlantic, Ahmadinejad may be more centrist than Westerners have imagined. Aslan draws from WikiLeaks documents that reveal Ahmadinejad as a potential willing partner to the West, looking to use Iran's nuclear program as leverage to cut a deal. His efforts, however, may have been undermined by hardliners like Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, who refused to negotiate and branded Ahmadinejad as "fooled by the West" when the president backed the Geneva deal that would have stripped Iran of the enriched uranium needed to create a nuclear bomb. Now that Iran's nuclear program is suffering, Iran's key negotiating tool has been significantly diminished.

Further, Newsweek reported nearly a year ago that Ahmadinejad had distanced himself from the clerical establishment that rules Iran. Overlooked, perhaps, is Ahmadinejad as a political animal, having seen in the Green Movement the failures of the regime, and ironically empowered by those chanting "death to Khamenei." By aligning himself as a willing partner to those wishing to loosen strict cultural mores, Ahmadinejad has shown himself more as an opportunist, looking to cash in on the post-election zeitgeist, never mind that his reelection was the catalyst of the uprising. But Ahmadinejad may have weakened the government with his enlightened ways. If the clerics are not in control, then who is? Or is the government beginning to fracture internally in ways that may prove permanently damaging to the regime?

Perhaps, as with former President Mohammad Khatami, the hardliners could push Ahmadinejad out and replace him with a leader in line with their crackdowns and moral policing. But unlike with Khatami, the clerics put their full support behind Ahmadinejad -- the one-time religious zealot who in 2007 participated in the hajj pilgrimage -- when he officially won 2009's disputed election; they are irrevocably tied to his administration. No doubt Ahmadinejad, realizing this, has used it to his advantage when playing to the left. And unlike with Khatami's beleaguered reformist administration, given Ahmadinejad's statements dressing down clerical rule -- he stated, for instance, that "administering the country should not be left to the [Supreme] Leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]" -- and the rebellion fueled by reformists and the Green Movement, this time there may be no recourse for the hardliners.

With diminished support from its powerful allies, Russia and China, who recently snubbed Iran when invited to tour the nation's nuclear facility for a show of rejuvenated support and last year backed the imposition of further U.N. sanctions, the walls around Iran are closing in. These once faithful champions of Iran's cause have left the Islamic Republic vulnerable and isolated. The government's international policies seem less and less consequential, like the denials of a chess player refusing to accept that his vital pieces are now missing from the board.

Once the endgame has played out, it's difficult to determine what Iran may look like. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, whose regimes were completely overthrown, Iran's internal politics may remain largely the same for some time, although rendered impotent, its campaign as an up-and-coming superpower (although existing primarily in its own hubristic imagination), completely disabled, no longer the gadfly of the international community. Meanwhile, reformists may begin to make some inroads, and the rigid theocracy, having lost even more of its legitimacy beyond what was squandered after the 2009 election, may be forced to compromise out of fear of another resurgence, the next perhaps unstoppable. This process may eventually lead to an end to homogeneous cultural edicts, as the appealing aspects of the West begin to freely filter in -- a slow-motion version of the kind of velvet revolution the clerics have long feared. Whatever the outcome, the victory of the West will take the form of an Iran rendered irrelevant, its king cornered from all sides.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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