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by Kenneth Pollack

September 26, 2008

Kenneth Pollack is Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle
East Policy, Brookings Institution. He is an expert on national security, military affairs, and the Persian Gulf. He was Director for Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council. He also spent 7 years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst. Persian Gulf from SpacePath out of the Desert

This essay is based on a lecture he gave at FPRI on September 16 as part of the Robert A. Fox Lectures on the Middle East series. At his talk, copies of his most recent book, A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East (Random House, July 15, 2008), were sold by Joseph Fox Bookshop, 1724 Sansom St., Philadelphia (, where the book is also available.

Iran is an incredibly complicated country. There are a whole range of different forces at play, and it is challenging to try to explain the complexity of the different issues involved briefly. In the more than 20 years that I have been following Iran, I have learned that the right answer to virtually every question one is asked on Iran is one of two phrases: it's either "I don't know" or "It depends."

We really know very little about what happens in Iran. It is an extraordinarily opaque system. The Iranians have a penchant for secrecy, which makes it very difficult for anyone outside the innermost confines of the regime to really understand what is going on.[A] But beyond that, the system itself does not lend itself to understanding even by the people inside it. It is a highly personalized system in which who speaks to whom about what on what day of the week often can be decisive on important policy matters. It is a Byzantine, convoluted system.

ayatolla KhameneiAt the center is the Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. Khamenei is a weak man in a very strong position. He is the real arbiter of power in Iran, but he tends to rule by not ruling. He avoids making decisions whenever possible. Whenever there are disputes - and there are endless disputes - he tries as best he can not to intervene. Whenever he is forced to make decisions, his style is to give half a loaf to everybody. This makes no one happy and leaves everyone with a great deal of ambiguity about exactly what the Supreme Leader wants to do and what has and has not been forbidden. Often Iranian leaders are working at cross purposes or pushing the edge of the envelope because no one has told them not to do so, or because their areas of responsibility overlap.

As a result, what the Iranian system is going to do on any particular issue is simply unknowable in advance. We've seen this with figures like Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani falling afoul of decisions because they couldn't predict beforehand how things were going to turn out.

The Iranian regime is possibly the most fragmented political system in the world. They disagree on every single issue under the sun. When Iran analyst Farideh Farhi calls the system "hyper-factionalized,"[1] she is being very kind. The great Persianist R.K. Ramazani once described Iranian politics as "kaleidoscopic," by which he meant that it was divided up into a thousand individual pieces, all of which lined up differently whenever the issue changed. Oftentimes the alignments don't really make sense to outsiders, be they Easterners or Westerners or other Middle Easterners. The Iranian system follows a system of its own.

Iran's political parties coalesce and then fly apart at the speed of light. You can never find the same parties running from one election to the next, even if the elections are only 2 years apart. The parties and alignments change constantly. Some of the parties that were vying for the 2008 parliamentary elections will probably still be there in 2009 when they have their presidential elections: the United Reformist Coalition, the National Confidence Party, the Moderation and Development Party, the Pleasant Scent of Service, which then got subsumed under the United Principlist Front, which should not be confused with the Comprehensive Principlist Front or the Servants of Construction. The list goes on and on.

There is therefore a tremendously wide range of views on any issue. The nuances are critically important and determine who lines up with whom, which coalitions are formed, and who gets more votes. A great deal of it depends on the personalities. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hates Ali Larijani, speaker of the Parliament, and vice versa. On paper, they ought to agree on almost everything under the sun. Before Ahmadinejad was elected president, we thought Larijani was the most hardline person you could find in Iran. Then along came Ahmadinejad, who redefined what a hardliner looks like. Because they hate each other, Ahmadinejad drove Larijani to the center, into the more moderate factions of the Iranian Republic.

There's a tendency on the part of most Americans to look at Iran as being more unified, powerful, aggressive, assertive, and energetic than it actually is. When you look at Iran's foreign policy from its own perspective, things look very different. Our media mostly portrays Iran on the march - the Iranians making gains in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and everywhere. From the Iranian perspective, they're not as formidable as they seem. They are certainly not as unified or strategic as we often give them credit for being. Individual Iranians are quite good strategic thinkers, but they too are ultimately prisoners of their own domestic politics. When forced to make policy together, they present a very different picture, one that looks much less than the diabolical geniuses as which they are often portrayed.

Iran has certainly made some real wins over the past 5 or 6 years. Hezbollah is a clear win for Iran. After the 2006 war, when the prisoners returned from Israel, it was a victory parade for Hezbollah. Every major figure in Lebanon showed up, saluted Hezbollah and the prisoners, and declared victory. Hamas is also doing well in Gaza and reasonably well in the West Bank. That's also helpful to Iran, because Hamas are also allies of the Iranians.

Khamenei might have thought of Georgia as a big win for Iran. The Iranians and the Russians have been working hand in glove in the Caucasus over the last 10 years. What happened in Georgia is a huge setback for Russia's relations with the West. That's very helpful to the Iranians. In the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, you can say, as many Iranian hardliners will, that the international community hasn't come close to applying the kind of pressure on the Iranian regime that would actually force them to change what they're doing on the nuclear front. In particular, China and Russia have been very resistant to allowing the U.S. and most of the European countries to allow the kind of pressure on Iran that they'd like to.

Those are all positive developments from Iran's perspective. But there have also been some losses or draws that weren't terribly favorable to the Iranians. While it's true that the international community hasn't put anything like the kind of pressure on Iran that it could, it has nonetheless exerted quite a bit of pressure. The Iranians are isolated internationally, and the sanctions are hurting. The Iranians will in the same sentence say that the sanctions aren't hurting them and that they need to be lifted immediately. Those 2 things don't go together. Many Iranian economists indeed believe that the sanctions
are having an impact on their economy.

5 to 6 and particularly 7 to 8 years ago, the Iranians had several allies in the region. That alliance is quickly falling away. Libya, formerly one of its staunchest allies, is lost to Iran. Syria and Sudan are now flirting with the West. Whatever the Syrians may be up to with the Israelis, the Iranians don't like it. Afghanistan is very much up in the air. Iran may play the spoiler there, making trouble for the U.S. But Iran's proxies still aren't the ones in charge. It now seems to be a fight between 2 groups, neither of whom much cares for the Iranians: America's allies and the Taliban.

Even the Gulf states are starting to push back on the Iranians in ways they hadn't in the past. They're very concerned about Iran's nuclear program and its assertiveness. They've been pushing back on the Iranian nuclear program economically, diplomatically, and even rhetorically, announcing that they're going to start looking at nuclear energy just as the Iranians are, as a not so subtle hint to the Iranians that if they go nuclear, they may be confronting nuclear-armed Gulf states across the water.

In Iraq, Saudi and Kuwaiti businessmen are for the first time showing up in southern Iraq and looking to make investments there, having finally realized that they needed to compete with Iranian influence for Iraq's Shia.

Indeed, the biggest loss the Iranians have taken was in Iraq. When Iraq's Shia prime minister Maliki stood up and drove Iran's most important proxies, Jaysh al-Mahdi, out of the southern cities, and did it with enormous popular support, it indicated that the Iraqi Shia certainly don't want to be under Iranian control. This resurgence of Iraqi nationalism handed the Iranians a tremendous defeat in at least theoretically the most important of Iran's neighbors.

To the average Iranian, foreign policy is out there as an issue. They care about their place in the world and want Iran to be strong, powerful, influential and well-liked. They don't like that Iran is isolated and that it's seen as a pariah by so many countries. But foreign policy is very far down their list of priorities. The thing that really looms large to them is the economy, which is not doing well at all. If foreign policy is a mixed bag, it's very hard to find any silver lining in the dark cloud of Iran's economy.

Iranian oil production, on which their economy is heavily dependent, is declining. At least one oil economist suspects that the Iranians may wind up being a net importer of oil within the next decade, because their production is declining while their consumption continues to increase.[2]

Production is declining so badly that the Iranians can no longer even fill their OPEC quota, which is astounding given that when the Shah was in power, they were the second largest oil exporter in the world. It will require huge amounts of investment and Western technology to repair the damage done to Iran's oil industry and the bolster its oil production.

ShellConocoChevronExxonThe technocrats in Iran's oil industry are very good and sharp, and they know that. They'll take the Chinese technology if it's all they can get, but it's not what they want. They're desperate for Exxon, Conoco, Chevron and Shell. That's one of the reasons the sanctions are so painful to them.

There is massive corruption in Iran, despite repeated campaigns by different Iranian presidents to try to get at the heart of it. In fact, if anything, it seems to get incrementally worse from year to year. Together, the problems in the oil industry and the corruption have crippled Iran's economy.  Unemployment is now somewhere around 30%.

Because of the boom in oil prices, inflation is now somewhere between 20 and 30% as well. So the average Iranian has to deal with both unemployment and inflation.

Ahmadinejad knows nothing about economics but was elected by the Iranian people in 2005 to fix the economy. His answer to these problems have been more subsidies and more price controls. As a result, he has touched off a virtual revolution among Iran's economists.

The director of their Central Bank has stood up and publicly excoriated Ahmadinejad for these policies that are further destroying the economy rather than helping at a time when it desperately needs to be reformed.

Ahmadinejad has also practiced a form of populist politics. He has in many cases literally gone out into the countryside and handed out money. He has set up a whole series of programs for the poor, to provide them with a whole variety of services, funded by nothing other than sheer oil revenues.

There is absolutely no financial foundation for any of these programs, and at
some point very soon when the money runs out, they're going to have to either start printing more money, which will make inflation worse, discontinue the programs, or start robbing from other parts of the economy, which simply can't afford it. Thus Iranian economists, knowing about the deep structural problems and what the current regime is doing to deal with them, believe the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever gets better. It's going to require a very different government with a very different approach to economics for Iran to even start to dig itself out of its deep morass.

Behind all of these problems lie Iran's politics. Politics potentially hold the solution to the problems, but Iran's are equally problematic. There are effectively 4 coalitions or broad groupings among Iran's numerous  political parties.

The reformists are those people most devoted to change. In many ways these are the people closest to what most Iranian people seem to want. They favor a technocratic form of government, and they're not terribly interested in the revolutionary ideology. In fact, it seems most of them would be willing to jump the revolution altogether. They're looking for good government, solutions to the country's economic problems, and a change in the social controls imposed by the revolution to allow Iranians to lead normal lives. That reflects what, as best we can tell, most Iranians seem to want.

A little bit to the right of the reformists is a group we can call the pragmatists. They are associated with people like Rafsanjani or Hassan Rowhani, one of the Ayatollah's two representatives on Iran's national security council. They also favor a technocracy, but they are committed to the revolution in the sense that they know it was the revolution that put them in charge of the government and the economy, and they don't want to lose their control of either. They know that the way that they're going to maintain their legitimacy over the course of time is by delivering good governance and prosperity to the Iranian people, and so try to show the people that they know how to govern and can make their lives better than the Shah did.

At the far right end of the spectrum (we'll come back to the one we skipped) are Iran's hardliners, people like Ahmadinejad, who grew up on the revolution and really believes in it. The hardliners don't care about the economy or good governance, they are all about realizing the Ayatollah's vision of the Islamic republic. The imam was famously uninterested in economics. One famous story has it that Khomeini, when badgered by one of his economic ministers about the economy, finally just turned on this minister and said "We did not make the revolution to change the price of melons."

That is Ahmadinejad's approach, too. They don't care about the economy. For them the ideology is everything.

The group in the center is the conservatives, or mainstream conservatives. They're the ones caught between the hardliners and the pragmatists, but maybe even the reformists as well. They care about the ideology, believe  in the revolution, and understand what the pragmatists understand, which  is  that it's good to be in charge. They don't want to lose their control  over  Iran, its economy, and all of the good things that it's brought them.

And  they do care about managing the economy, because they understand with  the  pragmatists that the people can't eat ideology. But they also worry  about  not deviating too far from the imam's revolutionary goals. So they tend  to  be the balancers. Khamenei is their chief. This explains why he takes  his  peripatetic approach to Iranian politics, sometimes siding a little bit  more  with the hardliners, sometimes with the pragmatists, and often just  trying  to give half a loaf to each side.

When you take all this into account - the opacity of the system, its  fragmentation, the divisions, and Khamenei's own problematic style of  leadership - what you typically get from Iran's political system is  paralysis. Iranians will tell you that their government rules by  inertia.  Whatever it was doing, it will keep on doing. If it isn't doing  something,  it won't start it. Change does come, but it tends to be very  incremental.

IraniansIranians' unhappiness with the economy and their social circumstances, coupled with the inertia of the government, predictably combine to produce a desire for dramatic change that never seems to be quite realized. 

This  has been going on at least since the middle of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq  war,  when the Iranian people first seemed to realize that the war wasn't  getting  them anywhere. Time after time, the movements took on different names,  the  ideas sounded a little bit different, but it was always about wanting to do something different - fix the economy, have normal lives, and repair  Iran's  relationships with the rest of the world. It never was delivered.

Iranians voted for Rafsanjani and then Mohammed Khatami and even  Ahmadinejad  as president because they all promised change. None of us thinks of  Ahmadinejad this way, but in 2005 he was the candidate of change. He  was  the right's version of change at a time when the left's and the  reformists  had been completely discredited. Iranians thought that Khatami had been  a  terrible failure because he didn't have the courage of his convictions.

So they went to the polls and voted for Ahmadinejad not because they  thought  he was going to go to war with the U.S. and Israel or do the other crazy  things he's spoken of or tried to do, but because he promised economic  reform and an end to corruption, neither of which he has delivered.

Iranian students protestIn 1999 and again in 2000, you even saw the students of Iran take to the  streets to try to bring about that dramatic change and a new revolution.  The problem was that the forces of the government were too strong and  the  inertia was too powerful. As much as the Iranian people want dramatic  change, they were sick of revolutions after 25 years. So they didn't  come  out onto the streets, and the students in both cases failed.

So on the one hand there is tremendous pressure on the regime to change  and  a tremendous amount of unhappiness with the regime's inability or  unwillingness to change, but on the other hand, the people who reflect  these  viewpoints have very little ability to actually force the government to  change. Iranian public opinion and its impact on policy is  fascinating.

The U.S. government has played war game after war game of regime change in  Iran, every scenario you can imagine. In every single one, the regime wins.  They know that the reason they were able to overthrow the Shah is  because he wasn't willing to kill enough people to stay in power. They won't make the same mistake. Whenever it looks like there might be a revolution, they  call out the Revolutionary Guard, the Basij and anyone else they need to make sure they stay in power. They make it very clear that they are willing  to kill as many people as it takes to stay in power.

One would think that a regime that has demonstrated this enough times  wouldn't care too much about public opinion, but they do. This may be  because, like the pragmatists, other elements in the regime fear that if they really don't deliver on good government and prosperity, at some  point  in time enough people will decide to revolt that they won't have enough  bullets for all them.

Another issue is Iran's elections. There's a huge debate among Iran analysts today over how much the regime can rig elections. Of course the regime rigs elections, the question is how much. One school of thought is that they only rig the elections when it gets close. If the results are close, then they stuff a few ballot boxes and do what's necessary to get  their candidate, but if it's a big margin, they don't touch that. 

Another school of thought is that no, they do whatever they need to:  disqualifying  candidates, intimidating others, stuffing ballot boxes, disqualifying  ballots after the fact. These are all things we have seen them do. 

One more complicating factor is demographics. 10 years ago, I would have said that it was just a matter of time before change came to Iran because  the young people who made up the largest component of the population wanted  change, and at some point in time, the Rafsanjanis and Khameneis are going  to die; then we'll have a new generation and change. But a funny thing  happened since then. Iran's neocons (as Iranians themselves call them)  came onto the scene. Many of them came out of the Revolutionary Guard  and  the Basij. They're people like Ahmadinejad, in their 40s and 50s, who grew up in the days of the revolution, who really believed in what the  Supreme Leader had to say. They seem to be a tiny portion of the  population, but there are enough of them to fill those leadership  positions.  All across the government you see leadership positions being vacated by  the  generation of the revolution that we assumed they would go to younger  people who would be more progressive, but they're going to younger people  who are more regressive, who come out of this same movement, who are  Iran's  hardliners.

While there is still a tremendous desire for change among  Iranians, there is this segment of the younger population that is even more  hardline than their predecessors. Someone like Ali Larajani can look at  Ahmadinejad and feel moderate compared to him. So over the long term we probably will get movement toward change in Iran, but it will be very  slow, halting, and difficult to discern.

The nuclear issue sits in the midst of all of this. Washington has failed to understand that the nuclear issue ironically has the potential to break the logjam of change in Iran, because it is intertwined with every one of these other issues. For Iranians who care about their economy, the nuclear issue has the potential to actually make their economy much worse if harsher sanctions are imposed, or much better of those sanctions get lifted or if the U.S. were able to provide economic benefits - investment guarantees, trade credits, etc. It's very important to all the factions. The pragmatists would desperately like to give up the nuclear program because they want that better relationship with the outside world. The hardliners do not want to give up that nuclear weapon under any set of circumstances. That is their guarantee for independence, for the regime, for its continuity, the ability to stand up to the Americans, their ability to do pretty much anything they want. In particular, what the nuclear issue could do in Iran is to force a debate that Khamenei doesn't want to have and force him to make a decision that he never wanted to make. Because if the Iranians were presented with a real deal that promised them, if they gave up the nuclear program, not just to integrate them back into the international community, but to help fix the economy and do everything in our power to make their lives better; but if they don't take that deal, to impose real sanctions that would shut off all investment in Iran, that would be a very dangerous offer from the Iranian perspective.

It would divide Iranians between those who wanted to accept the deal and those who wanted to turn it down. Khamenei would be forced to make a decision, to choose between one side and the other, and he wouldn't be able to give half a loaf to each one. There would be a winner and a loser. The winner would get to determine Iran's course on all of these different issues. If Khamenei decided right, wonderful. If he decided wrong, the rest of the world would know where Iran stood and we could act accordingly.

The key there is that the U.S. needs to do the right thing. We need to put that deal on the table. So far, we have not been willing to do so. We have been niggardly about the carrots that we've been willing to promise the Iranians. That has allowed the Russians and Chinese, even the Europeans, to be rather stingy and reluctant about their willingness to apply real sanctions. That's why this nuclear issue is so important, not just because nuclear weapons produced from the Middle East in the hands of the Iranians can be so destabilizing, but also because it could create the potential to break open the deadlock in Iran in a way that almost nothing else really can.



[1] Farideh Farhi, "Iran's 2008 Majlis Elections: The Game of Elite Competition,"
Crown Center for Middle East Studies Middle East Brief No. 29, May 2008.

[2] Roger Stern, "The Iranian Petroleum Crisis and United States National Security,"
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, December 26, 2006.
{My own notes:

[A] " 'You never show your intention or real identity,' said a former Iranian political prisoner now living in France. 'You're making sure you're not exposing yourself to danger, because throughout our history there has been a lot of danger there.'" - National Geographic August 2008 issue article       "Persia, Ancient Soul of Iran", page 46
and in reference to the Arabs... " Echoing commonly stated (though disputed) lore, 'They burned our books and raped our women and we couldn't speak Farsi in public for 300 years, or they cut out our tongues.'" - ibid. page 62 Then too, Shiite Islam was suppressed by the Caliphs who were Sunnis, and Turkish Sultan Selim the Grim made war on the Shiite Safavid dynasty of Persia in the 16th century because he considered them heretics. As a consequence, a Shiite is allowed to practice "Taqiyyah" or calculated deception in defense of his/her faith.

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