'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 16 May 2011

Iran and the Skype of Civilizations

A stone thrown at the right time is better than gold given at the wrong time
-- Iranian Proverb

The Iranian revolution is not exclusively that of Iran, because Islam does not belong to any particular people
-- Ayatollah Khomeini

On the surface, the state of Iran since the 1399AH revolution serves only as an instrument of the belief system. It is however the material interests of the regime which dominates its foreign policy choices, though often they can be cloaked and couched within cultural terms.

Since Iran has identified itself with a world ummah, this would suggest that the main foreign policy goal would be to promote Shi’a elements within neighbouring states and further afield. In fact, the geostrategic aims of state preservation and projection dominate. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it the independence of six muslim-dominated states bordering or close to Iran’s Eastern and Northern borders. In a demonstration of the fluid nature of culture, Iran has voiced Persian, Iranian and even Turkic concerns in order to appeal to identities, in support of state interests.

Chechen Muslims’ battle for independence from Moscow has not damaged excellent relations enjoyed between Russia and Iran, and when the situation became particularly acute, Iranian military personnel were dispatched to Moscow to assist in formulating strategy against the Chechens.

The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict that broke out in 1408AH between predominantly Christian Armenia and predominantly Shi’a Azerbaijan saw Iran support Armenia. Tehran adopted anti-Armenian rhetoric only during periods when escalation (1413AH) in the conflict directly threatened Iranian interests. To keep Azerbaijan focused elsewhere relieved pressure from its border.

In Tajikistan’s civil war (began 1407AH), Iran initially supported the Islamic Renaissance Party but switched support to a peace process and integration, in line with Moscow.

Many analysts have seen the initial interference by the Islamic Republic of Iran in other states as a signal of its intent to export Islamic revolution to the region. It supported agitation in Shi’ite towns in Saudi province of Hasa (late 1399AH and early 1400AH), also in Bahrain, and funded a terrorist campaign in Kuwait. In neighbouring Iraq, Iran sought to topple the Ba’th regime under the new ruler, Saddam Hussein and supported the Kurdish revolt in the North. So concerned was Iraq about the growing Iranian influence, that Saddam, backed by the United States, launched an attack on Iran (the war became known in Iran as the ‘imposed war’ and ‘holy defence’, in order to suggest a defence of Islam) starting a war that was to last 8 years, the longest conventional war of the century, which included strategic bombing, and cost 500 000 to 1 million Iranian lives and 300 000 Iraqi lives.

After Saddam, the Shi’a population in Southern Iraq seem less interested in Iran than with their own country. A universal ummah, voiced by leaders of the Iranian revolution has failed to become a popular regional narrative. The majority of the muslim world is Sunni. So what is Iran really doing geopolitically, behind the rhetoric and with what consequence for Arabia in its rebellions?

Iran uses Islam instrumentally to pursue state interests both at home and abroad. The ruling regime espouses a hard-line Islamic creed in order to subject its population to a tyranny created by controlling the monopoly on violence, as witnessed by the suppression of the uprising in 1430AH. It enjoys best relations with Christian populated Armenia and secular Turkmenistan. Enemies are determined by material interests and strategy rather than an apocalyptical vision of religious battle but the rhetoric, the justification, is religious. The United States serves as the Great Satan, being blamed for Armenia expelling hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees, Russia attacking Azerbaijan and attacking Chechnya.

Recently, the regime in Bahrain has attempted to paint the protests there as inspired and supported by Iran. The protestors are mainly Shi’a and the regime is Sunni, as is the Gulf Bloc that condemned Iranian interference yesterday. The bloc also condemned an alleged Iranian spy network in Kuwait. But wikileaks disclosures have noted an absence of Iranian intervention in the country amid continued unrest between the Shi’a population and the Sunni regime. Bahrain is wary of the threat according to a US diplomat, ‘While keeping close to their American protectors, Bahrain's rulers seek to avoid provoking Iran unnecessarily, and keep channels of communication with Iranian leaders open.’ American diplomats meanwhile see no evidence of Iranian weapons or funding in the country for over two decades.


It is plausible to view Iran as as ‘Iranic’ civilization, at once part of, but distinct from, the broader Islamic civilization. Many elements of the population, which is a cultural composite, reject notions of Persian identity, or indeed a state-centred Iranian identity. Iran’s bipolar disorder, as at once a self-proclaimed vessel for a trans-state interest (the ummah) but also the state itself, leaves it open to multiple cases of contradicting policy and rhetoric. Policy choices can be made that contradict official rhetoric without damaging the credibility of the regime, suggesting that cultural norms can be remade under pressure without serious consequence. In fact, the name Islamic Republic of Iran suggests conflicting identities – as part of a world Islamic faith, as being a republic respondent to the needs and desires of the populace, and of being the state of Iran, a geographically shackled entity with commensurate state interests. The Iran-Contra affair of 1406AH, in which Iran was supplied arms from America, via Israel, is a case where material interests dominated the anti-Western rhetoric.

President Ahmadinejad, for all the immensely negative portrayals of him in the West is a shrewd politician. Even as a hard-liner, he was propelled to victory on the back of an election that painted him as a man of the people. He has ostensibly sought to engage the youth, pushing for allowing women to enter football stadiums and to lower the voting age from 18 to 15. He is also astute in the field of foreign policy, arguing against human rights abuses in other countries. His controversial speech at Columbia University in 1428AH, preceded by Lee Bollinger’s emotive outburst, was an unqualified propaganda triumph.

The discrepancy is that hard-line rhetoric which expresses the most anti-American sentiment of any ruling regime covers a remarkably young and pro-American population. America contains a significant Iranian diaspora and a remarkable grass-roots activist community (for example, lissnup.com). As such, there exists an internet-enabled dynamic between the population in Iran and in the United States that flies in the face of the axis of evil versus the great satan. The positive future for America must, ironically, be seen in Iran above all other countries in the region. Close ties are already being forged between Iranian academics, journalists, students and activists and there American counterparts. Intrigue might not change Iran, demographics and time will do so, inevitably. 

Given the military might of the Iranian regime, international condemnation over its actions, particularly domestic repression is muted at the highest political levels. The young demographic, itself a product of the revolution, when the rulers closed family planning clinics and praised large families, will ultimately enact the change against the regime. 66% of the population are under 30, 40% are under 18. The social prospects for this generation will be poor, as the economy will not be able to provide enough socially mobile jobs. There are places for only 400 000 of the 1.5 million university applicants. Lack of material prosperity and lack of recognition will be the two great drivers of change in the coming years. The internet demonstrates the world that Iran can have, but does not yet have physical access to.

The regime understands the problem. It has purged the universities of its opponents (for instance the case of Hashem Aghajari) and created policies that favour students with pro-regime leanings. The primary student group is the Office for the Consolidation of Unity, a regime-backed entity that promoted Islamic ideology evolved rapidly to become autonomous. A spin-off group, the Union of Islamic Associations was formed with similar radical activist composition. Since media outlets and journalists have been subjected to harsh penalties, censure and the latter with imprisonment, the Internet is the ideal medium through which the youth and anti-regime voices can regroup and articulate themselves. Some sources suggest that there are 80 000 female bloggers in Iran. Up to 150 000 to 200 000 people leave Iran each year through legal or illegal means, contributing to the immense ‘brain drain’ in the country.

Whilst the Qu’ran is a document which appeals to the poor, Iran is a country where 10% of the population controls 76% of the resources. 12% of the population live in absolute poverty. Iran is a wealthy country, with $70 billion in oil revenues in 2008 so its poverty is a direct result of political negligence. Radical egalitarian theories espoused by Mahmud Talequani and Mohammad Baqer Sadr have grown in popularity, as they expound a redistribution of wealth. Job creation would need to stand at 800 000 yearly in order to quell discontent. The demographics do not add up and a point will be reached where the prospect of continued poverty and unemployment will be outweighed by the potential gains of a mass uprising.

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