Four scenarios and a nightmare

It is not possible to predict political developments in Iran, even over the short-term. It may be realistic to assume, though, that scenarios for Iran in 2010-11 will still be scenarios for the Islamic Republic of Iran – that, in other words, a replacement of the existing system by another is unlikely. True, changes within the Islamic Republic are to be expected. The precise depth and direction of such changes will depend on a variety of factors originating both within Iran and its external environment.

A scenario is not a prediction; quite the contrary, it provides a picture or story of different possible outcomes. It does not tell policy-makers what they have to plan for, but suggests unexpected developments that they might find it useful to think about.

But even the “best” scenarios tend to be far less complex than reality itself. It is thus with some inevitable simplification that two main variables can be put forward as likely to determine Iran’s political development in the near future:

* “regime strength”, which is largely a function of the regime’s legitimacy, cohesion, and the availability of material resources

* “external conflict”, which is largely (but not exclusively) tied to the nuclear tensions.                                        

These variables can be plotted against an imaginary graph. The “regime-strength” continuum forms the horizontal axis reaching from regime-consolidation to regime-fragmentation, and the “external-conflict” continuum forms the vertical axis reaching from military action to a nuclear agreement and an Iran-United States rapprochement.

If this is done, four scenarios can be imagined in the short timeframe of eighteen months-to-two-years: that is, between early 2010 and the middle or end of 2011. This is a period when all the relevant players may try many possible options. How do these stories unfold?

Scenario one: a circling of wagons

In early 2010, it is clear that the proposed nuclear agreement between Iran and the so-called “five-plus-one” (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) – negotiated in Geneva and Vienna in autumn 2009 – will not come to pass. Some inconclusive negotiations continue, but fail to result in an agreement. No one announces a failure, or an end to the diplomatic process. But the “five-plus-one” are clearly annoyed and disappointed.

In March 2010, a new United Nations Security Council resolution denounces Iran’s failure to respond positively to former UNSC resolutions and to the package supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These in essence stipulate that Iran’s enriched uranium is first processed and then converted into fuel-rods in Russia and France; call on Iran, one more time, to seek an agreement with the “five-plus-one”; and request UN member-states to be particularly vigilant in their transactions with Iran, in order to prevent any breach of previously imposed sanctions (without at this stage imposing a new set of sanctions on Iran).

The United States and the European Union publicly announce that they will further reduce trade and financial interactions with Iran; Russia silently withholds arms-shipments; China declares that all diplomatic options need to be tried before another round of sanctions should be declared. The Chinese oil company Sinopec, however, announces that it will not pursue further an earlier agreement to build an oil-refinery in Iran – solely from business considerations, of course.

In several meetings of the “five-plus-one” in 2010, thresholds for further sanctions are discussed. Iran announces that it has installed a first cascade of centrifuges in its new enrichment-facility in Fordo, and that to mark the occasion of nowruz (Iran’s new year) in March 2011 it will undertake a trial run of the cascade. In response, a new sanctions resolution is tabled and eventually passed at the Security Council. The earlier sanctions (which the advanced powers unilaterally imposed) and the new round together fail to “cripple” Iran or its economy; but they critically hurt its private business sector and increase the weight of illicit trade, the latter predominantly controlled by a group within the Revolutionary Guards.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, had initially intended to make a deal with the “five-plus-one” and the IAEA. But realising that his opponents within the Iranian political elite will not allow this to happen, he again switches course after the negotiations’ failure. He returns to playing the populist card. The closing of ranks behind the government of opposition leaders (Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ali Larijani and Hashemi Rafsanjani) in response to open military threats from Israel, and huge demonstrations in defence of the Islamic Republic suggests that the tactic has succeeded. The opposition’s rallying around the flag is also encouraged by the increasing conviction in Iran that the United States and other western powers are behind repeated violent incidents in Baluchestan, and that Barack Obama’s administration has also failed to achieve progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The number of centrifuges in the Natanz plant that are actually spinning has remained constant, even though the Iranian government had not announced any freeze. The Israeli air force undertakes highly publicised exercises that simulate long-range missions against heavily protected sites – but these stop short of actual attacks.  Washington’s opposition to an Israeli strike is strong enough to prevent it – for now. A sense of confrontation, and that the stalemate will not last forever, remain in the air (see Paul Rogers, “Israel’s shadow over Iran”, 14 January 2010). Iranians feel increasingly isolated as foreigners – visitors and investors – shun the country. But the domestic front is stable.

Scenario two: a dysfunctional system

The nuclear standoff continues, and there is no deal. In this scenario, however, Russia and China agree to a new UN Security Council resolution in May 2010 that imposes a new round of sanctions. Both countries’ diplomats had made some efforts to rescue the IAEA-brokered draft agreement and moderated it in Iran’s favour; Moscow and Beijing now feel offended by Iran’s inability unambiguously to accept any of the new proposals.

Indeed, Iran has engaged in new provocations: a missile-test, incendiary statements about Israel. A US navy frigate stops a ship loaded with arms of Iranian origin and allegedly destined for Gaza just outside Sudan’s territorial waters.

The new sanctions imposed by the Security Council limit financial transactions with Iran and insurance for Iranian ships. G20 countries refuse to open letters of credit for trade with Iran, and Iranian imports collapse. The economic situation deteriorates visibly; sanctions hurt; in September 2010, the official inflation-rate reaches 37%. A delegation from Tehran’s bazaar demands an urgent meeting with the president, but is rebuffed.

At the beginning of the new school year, protests erupt in universities across the country against stricter basij controls on campuses and the expulsion of activist students and professors. The students are joined by merchants; violent suppression fails to quell the outbreaks of civil disobedience. The police manage to re-establish public order in the universities and the cities after each new wave of protest, but the intense effort this costs leaves the security forces unable to contain unrest in Sistan-Baluchestan and Kurdistan.

There is no Israeli military strike against any nuclear installation. But there is an unexplainable explosion at the conversion-plant in Isfahan during a moonless night in October 2010, which causes an interruption of the uranium-hexafluoride (UF-6) supply to Natanz. A similar explosion in February 2011 at an electrical plant in Tehran that is known to manufacture centrifuge parts raises questions – even in the official Iranian media – about security at important sites.

The political elite is increasingly unhappy with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The majlis (parliament) foils the president’s budget-proposal for the new-year beginning in March 2011. Ahmadinejad threatens to press his budget plans regardless; parliament delivers no-confidence votes to the ministers of finance, economy and energy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, seems annoyed by the president’s mismanagement; he does not make any public statements to that effect, but TV shows him more frequently in the company of the speaker of parliament (Ali Larijani) and the head of the experts’ council (Hashemi Rafsanjani). The president appears increasingly weak: unable to deal with dissent in Tehran or instability in the peripheral provinces, where power visibly slips away from government control.

The European Union’s high representative for foreign and security policy makes some attempts to return the nuclear issue to diplomatic engagement, but failed to get a response from Iran’s foreign minister and national-security advisor. The regime seems more and more dysfunctional; both Iranian and foreign observers seem to be waiting for an event that could break the stalemate.

Scenario three: a tightened fist

There is a waning of international attention on Iran as a result of the crisis in North Korea. Iran’s nuclear programme seems to have stalled, partly through a mix of technological problems. The domestic economic situation continues to deteriorate, and there are constant protests by students, merchants and public-sector workers.

The opposition prepares for major demonstrations in June 2011, to mark the second anniversary of the presidential elections of June 2009. Two leaders of the opposition are arrested, and an assembly of clerics in Qom denounces the political repression. A group of basiji storms a gathering of clerics at Mofid University in the holy city; several clerics have to be hospitalised; the police do not interfere. A number of spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity erupt in Tehran and in other cities; prominent clerics ask the supreme leader to intervene and dismiss the leadership of the basij. Ayatollah Khamenei is silent.

The rumours that Khamenei is seriously ill, even that he has died, spread. An open power-struggle erupts. Hashemi Rafsanjani convenes the experts’ council in order to prepare for the election of a new supreme leader; a detachment of Revolutionary Guards seals off the council building in order to prevent the meeting from taking place and Rafsanjani from engineering his own succession to Khamenei. The commander of the guards announces the establishment of an Interim Committee for the Rescue of the Islamic Revolution which temporarily, and as a collective body, assumes the functions of the leader. Parliament is dissolved, and president Ahmadinejad leaves for an urgent medical treatment in Venezuela.

The Interim Committee sends interim foreign minister Saeed Jalili on a lightning tour to Riyadh, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna to reassure regional and international leaders that Iran is under control, but that the temporary government will need a couple of months before it can resume diplomatic action to deal with outstanding questions.

Scenario four: a dual détente

The “five-plus-one” and the IAEA hold a new round of negotiations with their Iranian partners in February 2010 in the attempt to rescue some sort of deal with Tehran. They introduce some minor changes to the procedure envisaged in the nuclear package that was negotiated in Geneva and Vienna in 2009. A revised agreement allows for Iran to deliver two batches of low-enriched uranium (600 kilos each) in direct exchange for French-manufactured fuel-rods for the Tehran research reactor. The Iranian government pledges that, once the deal actually implemented, it would recommit to the rules of the additional protocol of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). French and American officials declare that the new package is flawed, but that they would accept it in order to build some confidence and start multilateral cooperation with Iran on the nuclear file.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convinces Ayatollah Khamenei that a nuclear deal with the IAEA is actually in the best interest of Iran. It represents an implicit acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment and the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme; it will lead to a freeze and probably a lifting of international sanctions and will thus ease the economic situation; it will reduce external threats to the regime.

A phone-call from the Russian prime minister to the supreme leader, in which he reportedly announced that Russia would be obliged to halt deliveries of conventional arms to Iran if no agreement was reached over the nuclear issue, also helps to convince the leader that a compromise may be necessary. Barack Obama’s state-of-the-union address contains two messages to Iran: first, that the United States would seek and implement stronger sanctions if no deal was reached on the nuclear file within the next month; second, that Washington was prepared to solve all “other issues” with Iran (including the dispute over frozen Iranian assets in the US) if some confidence was restored.

An agreement is signed at the beginning of March 2010. Soon after, experts from the United States and Iran meet and begin to establish Iran’s financial claims on the United States; and to discuss procedures for the establishment of a US visa-section in Tehran by the end of 2010. President Ahmadinejad, in a speech at Tehran University, declares that the engagement with the United States has to be seen as another achievement for the revolution.

Iran’s opposition leaders, unable to stop the president from achieving a diplomatic coup, jump on the train to share the presumed success of a rapprochement with the United States. Ali Larijani announces that the NPT’s additional protocol would be tabled in parliament for discussion (and probably ratification) by autumn 2010. Hashemi Rafsanjani announces that Mahan Air would apply for a licence to fly the Tehran-Los Angeles route.

The external détente is accompanied by attempts to achieve reconciliation within Iran’s political elite. Most of the prisoners that condemned for their part in the post-election unrest of 2009 are freed. In a speech at the private Azad University in Tehran, Ahmadinejad states “our internal disagreements are over.” he adds: “Those who relied on foreign support have had to realise that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has defeated all conspiracies and has thereby convinced the America, Great Britain, and France to seek friendly, productive relations with Iran.”

Some students carrying anti-Ahmadinejad placards are removed from the auditorium by force, but overall the president’s appearance at a university so closely linked to his opponents is seen as an attempt to heal wounds. Many long-term green-movement supporters are not convinced that the regime’s interest in domestic détente is genuine, or will guarantee fair parliamentary and presidential elections in 2013. But these dates are still distant: for the time being, most opposition leaders and many activists are prepared to forgive Ahmadinejad for still being president – as long as he now delivers better political and economic relations to the west and easier access to visas.

All bets are off

This last may be the most unlikely story of all – but only because it assumes that Iranian as well as western leaders will be prepared to accept compromises they have so far refused. In that it offers a more peaceful path for Iran the region than the three others, it is also the most hopeful scenario.

Behind all four, however, lies an extreme one that envisages all-out war between Iran and Israel and/or the United States. The danger of this wildcard scenario could arise within 2010-11, or beyond it. Its mere existence should be an incentive to all relevant actors: think, act, and move in a direction that makes the best outcome possible a reality.

First published in OpenDemocracy.

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