Mehdi Kia: In the first part of the interview we talked of the evolving line-ups in the Middle East in the backdrop of recent massive changes in the global order brought about by the end of the US-led unipolar world. Can we turn now to the challenges facing the Islamic Republic of Iran today and the various remedies it is seeking to escape, or at least lessen, the challenges to its very existence?
Ardeshir Mehrdad: The Islamic Republic is entering one of the darkest periods of its nearly 40-year history. Before going further it might be useful to step back and reflect on the very nature of the regime we are talking about.
The essence of the Islamic Republic can be seen an amalgam of a totalitarian state; armed with an ultra-reactionary ideology that is incompatible with the social and cultural structures governing contemporary capitalist societies; an economy that is exploitative and plundering (one of the most corrupt examples of a neoliberalism integrated into the global economy); and pursuing an adventurist, expansionist and tension-provoking policy in its foreign relations.
Ardeshir Mehrdad is a scholar and veteran political activist. A former editor of Iran Bulletin-Middle East Forum, he has written extensively, in Farsi and English, on the nature of political Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Such a regime finds itself inevitably continuous crisis. In the closed-circuit existence it has moved in its nearly 40 years of existence, any attempt at escaping one crisis has landed it in another, deeper, one.
Today, however, it is surrounded on three sides by greater challenges and tensions than ever. Its ability to manoeuvre is limited and the usual escape routes are closing up.
First, the challenge posed by its external enemies, and specifically the US with its regional allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. We have already discussed this in the first part of our interview.
Second, the challenge posed by the increasing pressures from its own society. This is a challenge from the widespread protests of the lower layers of society that on the one hand are constantly on the increase, both in number and dimensions, and on the other hand, are daily driven into deeper poverty and deprivation. This is a huge mass of people, which has lost all trust in the promises of the regime and has no hope of any improvement if present conditions pertain. The pressure of these people on the regime is increasing at a time its social base is rapidly melting away and more and more of its supporters are joining the opposition.
Third, we have the challenge arising from divisions in the ruling bloc and the power struggle among the rival factions. In recent months the depth and extent of this predicament were greatly amplified by the crisis in foreign relations and the escalation of discontent from below.
MK: Why don’t we look at the last two in a bit more detail? What are the economic or political causes that explain the rise in poverty and deprivation among the various strata of Iranian society? In particular how much of that can be due to Trump’s imposition of economic sanctions spreading dissatisfaction among the people and fanning the uprisings and unrest in recent months?
AM: There is no doubt that Trump’s sanctions were an important cause in increasing discontent and provoking social tensions in recent months. But there are, undoubtedly, other factors that are also instrumental in the social and political unrests.
The deepest roots for the spread of poverty and destitution in the various sectors of the people of Iran lies in the economy. We are talking of one of the most rabid and exploitative forms of neoliberalism whose backbone consists of four interconnected projects: namely, commodification, deregulation, privatisation, and militarisation. Its execution was given to a state structure that was corrupt to the bone, and a parasitic, speculator, and rentier bourgeoisie.
Moreover resistance to Washington’s sanctions is in the hands of an economy that is deeply entwined in the global economy and where a large part of the conditions for its reproduction takes place outside its geographic borders. At the same time this same economy must carry the heavy burden of a vast military machine with involvement in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan and a number of other regional countries.
In normal conditions the social consequences of such an economic model would be chronic unemployment, lowering of wages, a rise in poverty and continuous increase in the wealth gap. Naturally, under the kind of pressures arising from the severe sanctions that Trump had initiated, the economic disorders and their social consequences can take on a different nature. Unsurprisingly the rise in unemployment now and the deprivations occur by giant leaps and the social and political crisis associated with them take on explosive features.
However, there are additional factors that are operating in Iran, some of which I will summarise.
Firstly, just at a time when a persistent and effective intervention by the Islamic Republic is needed more than ever, the regime is least able than ever to make political decisions or to carry them out. The multiplicity of centres of decision-making in the structure of the ruling system, and the paralysing confrontation between the official government (executive and legislative institutions) and the shadow government (military and security organs) not only render decision making increasingly fragile, but also reduce the effectiveness of the state to interfere in the reproduction of the general conditions of production. The clash of interests, and the conflicting inclinations and approaches of the ruling bloc not only renders impotent the legal and legislative means of improving the arena of production, distribution and exchange, but has resulted in conditions where the effectiveness of monetary and credit mechanisms have shrunk to the lowest level possible.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani receives the presidential mandate from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during an endorsement ceremony, in Tehran, Iran August 3, 2017. President.ir/Handout via REUTERS
Secondly, the sanctions have hit manufacturing, especially those that were dependent on imports, either directly, or by difficulty in accessing foreign exchange. The direct effects of disruptions of these kinds are reduction in supply, am imbalance in the market and a massive rise in prices whose main effect is to pass on the weight of the crisis in the shoulders of the most deprived sectors of the population.
Thirdly, the native bourgeoisie is given a freer reign in disrupting the normal functions of the market and in profiteering and plundering. In such a market, and protected by a severely corrupt judiciary, this bourgeoisie is able to put into use its astronomical liquidity (a figure near 1.6 trillion tomans) 3 to take total control over the
market for gold, foreign exchange, land, property, and durable goods. Moreover it can turn hoarding and smuggling of essential goods into its daily activity, create artificial shortages, pocket the difference between official and black market exchange rate and use all these once again as a conveyer belt to offload the burden of sanctions onto the shoulders of the middle and lower layers of society.
Fourthly, the ideological weapon of the regime is more than any time impotent against the combined enormous machinery of psychological warfare of the Washington-Tel Aviv-Riyadh axis. This machine has easily succeeded in multiplying the corrosive effects of sanctions many fold. With the aid of a wide network of 24-hour TV and virtual media fan the general anxiety uninterruptedly. Under such an onslaught the regime’s apparatus for creating illusions have been turned against itself. In fact the actions of the ideological tools of the regime reality-denying and based on deception and obfuscation and spreading superstition have over many years not only lost their ability to deceive, but have in themselves become elements in fanning discontent, and disquiet.
In short: a conjunction of these elements can be an explanation for the existing discontent among the people and the unrest and protests of recent months.
MH: We are indeed seeing unprecedented levels of open defiance of the regime in the streets, factories and offices.
AM: Yes. The Widespread protests began last December and have been unprecedented in involving those sections of the population that had, until then, been active or passive supporters of the regime. Moreover the geographic spread into all corners of the country and even smaller towns and cities was unprecedented. I have already discussed the pivotal implications of these protests for the future of the regime in a previous article.
But it must be stressed that while such protests are almost daily occurrences in the country, they remain dispersed, unfocused and without any specific program or aim.
MH: How is the regime responding to these challenges? How do you see the various factions responding?
AM: The threats to the Islamic regime by the Trump administrations and its regional allies are a combination of economic pressures and non-economic pressures.
In response to the economic challenges, and in particular to the upcoming escalation of US sanctions in November, the regime is making plans. The main focus is to keep oil and gas exports to at least 50% of what it was before the Trump administration tore up the nuclear deal.
To achieve such a goal, the regime’s best efforts are to reach an agreement with Europe, forcing Germany, France and Britain to open the way to circumvent US sanctions and ensure that Iran’s oil exports and sales continue at a certain level. The regime’s main reliance on bargaining with the three countries is nothing but the threat of a withdrawal and a resumption of the nuclear program.
But the question of the extent to which such a threat is real is more than one answer. One of the two main factions, the more pragmatists one, within the regime will not endorse the exit from the nuclear agreement under any circumstances. Regardless of the usual rhetoric, this faction is ready to retreat to avoid the danger of a military conflict and to ensure the survival of the regime, even at the cost of accepting some of Trump’s new conditions and to sign a new treaty.
On the opposite side, radicals close to military-security institutions consider any retreat to be a serious threat to the existence of the regime. They are of the view that if the Iranian regime withdraws from Iran Nuclear Treaty (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and resumes its nuclear program, the Trump government will not be in a position to take a military action. It is enough for the regime to resist the pressure of sanctions for a short time as it continues to strengthen its military power and expand its sphere of influence in the region. In this way, you can be certain that the Trump government will have to revise its policy towards Iranian regime and recognize it as a major regional power.
Between these two approaches, another group believes that the best policy is to tolerate the current situation, neither withdrawing existing treaty, nor signing a new one for next two years and the next US presidential elections. In this period, the regime first could continue to negotiate with the EU to reach a more secure agreement, keeping oil exports at a certain level. And second, finding a way to bypass the US Treasury to banking relationships and transfer revenue from oil sales.
It is still uncertain whether one of these tendencies is viable and can be the basis for the decision-making of the regime. But what is certain is that the regime is looking for a way to guarantee its survival. In trying to achieve this goal, there are no limits to what it may do. Just as this regime is able to once again drink the poisonous cup, give it a heroic flexibility, and subjugate the Trump pressures, entering a new round of negotiation and accepting his terms and demands, it may intensify the existing tensions and advance the military conflicts. However, in the present moment, it can be said with certainty that the attempt of the regime is first and foremost summed up to find some remedies to overcome the oil boycott or mitigate its effects and finding outs to overcome the problems of foreign trade.
In this way, you can be certain that the Trump government will have to revise its policy towards Iranian regime and recognize it as a major regional power.
These remedies include selling oil below the market price, and facilitating payment, transport and insurance to the those major purchasers of Iranian oil who have agreed to stand by the Islamic regime, such as China, India and Turkey. Of the main buyers, Japan and South Korea have followed US directives and have found alternative sources for their oil imports.
There are attempts to circumvent sanctions for vital imports for the agricultural and manufacturing sectors by paying higher prices on the world market; bypassing the dollar zone by dealing in other currencies or through barter. The regime is also trying to attract smaller firms to invest in Iran in place of larger firms that have bowed to Trump’s pressures and pulled out of the country.
The military threat is also treated as real. There has been a concerted effort by the Iranian regime to show that the military option would be at a heavy cost for its opponents. The rocket attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party base in Iraqi Kurdistan while the KDP leadership was holding a Plenum, simultaneously boasted of the accuracy of its missiles and the ability of its intelligence services.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami stands next to a Fatah Mobin short-range ballistic missile during a ceremony in Tehran on Aug. 13, 2018.
The announcement of a new missile with 2000km range by the head of the Revolutionary Guards, testing an anti-ship missile, boasting of further missile development, and the construction of a military aircraft, modelled on the US- built F5 were attempts to boost Iran’s military standing in the region. Similarly the announcement of supply of ground-to-ground missiles to its allied militias in Iraq, insisting on its military presence in Syria (while reducing the pressure in pulling back somewhat from the imminent assault on Idlib province) were forms of muscle flexing. Iran’s foreign minister’s recent trips to Russia, Syria, China, and Turkey and many other similar acts, great and small, have all to be seen in this light.
MK: What about the home front? Normally when threatened, the regime ratchets up the repressive arm.
AM: That is exactly what has taken place. In the face of possible, and imminent, military engagement the regime faces two sets of challenges. On the one hand, conflicts within the ruling block make the adoption of any clear policy for dealing with the crisis in foreign relations impossible. On the other, there is the need to break the slow encirclement from below, from its own people, threatening its very existence and survival.
The current crisis has sharpened the divisions among the ruling elite. In order to unify the decision-making apparatus above, reigning in President Hassan Rouhani’s executive powers was given a priority. The majles (parliament) delivered a vote of no confidence to two of his senior ministers – labour and economy and finance, and threatens impeachment of the minister of education. Rouhani himself was hauled in front of the majles to answer five questions on the management of the economy. The majles voted the answers as unsatisfactory. He was even threatened with referral to the judicial authorities – a sword of Damocles over his head and the same strategy adopted with ex- president Bani-Sadr over three decades ago.
Meanwhile, down below, we are witnessing a huge increase in the repressive arm of the regime, as shown by the execution of a number of political prisoners who have been given a death sentence many years ago, and the dishing out of heavy sentences on women, student activists, judges, Derwishes, civic activists, and ….many of whom were called back to prison to face these unexpected heavy sentences. The atmosphere of repression is distinctly darker.
Other factions within Iran are also being intimidated. Two allies of former president Ahmadinejad, himself from the security branch of the Revolutionary Guards – head of his office Hamid Baghaei and friend and advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, both security personnel – have been given long prison sentences. You could say what we are witnessing is a creeping coup d’état by one section of the regime.
MK: How do you imagine the developments in Iran and the inside and outside pressures on it will unfold in the future?
AM: The continuation of the current situation is unlikely. The near horizon presents one thing: fundamental changes. If we accept that the developments in the political scene of Iran are the reciprocal interactions of three major players, namely the imperialist powers, the regime and the people, then we must also accept that the future political situation will also come out of the trends and potentials of these three and their mutual interactions. This becomes a murky and mysterious space from which can arise one of three possible structure- breaking end points: imperialist intervention or civil war; Revolutionary Guards coup d’état; popular uprising or revolution.
In this Iranian political scene we have the following paradox: for the first two perspectives, the historic limitations the key players, both those inside and those outside the country, face are totally out of proportion to the resources they have at hand and the effective levers they can use.
In contrast, the third option, the revolutionary perspective, appears to have all the objective potentials working in its favour. Yet is held back by the inadequacy of its vision, the narrowness of its horizon and also by its internal contradictions, as well as its vacillations and hesitations. And all the while it is being squeezed on both sides, between the rock and a hard place of two opposing arms of an ultra-conservative, counter-revolutionary terror: imperialist and Islamic.
It is this incongruous line up that defines the Iranian political scene. The road ahead for Iran that I can see is an unpredictable mixture of fear and hope, a road that is rapidly driving the country to an uncertain future.