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dimanche 27 février 2011

The Iran question

One of the big questions in the air right now is the Iran one. What consequences will current events in the Arab world have on the Islamic Republic? On this matter, two schools of thought compete:

- Team realism: whatever comes out of the current turmoil, Ahmadinejad will be a big winner. A recent Foreign Policy paper makes this case quite convincingly and predicts that a year from now, Iran will be in a stronger position both domestically and internationally than it is today. At first glance, that Iran should benefit from popular uprisings in the Arab world makes little sense. After all, the regime nearly crumbled not too long ago when people took it to the streets to protest against the rigged re-election of President Ahmadinejad. The country's economy is in the toilets, inflation and unemployment are rampant and the regime has gotten more authoritarian over the last few years with the Bassidjs and Revolutionary Guards playing an increasingly important role in the political and economic spheres. However, as the aforementioned paper stresses, the Green Movement may not be as representative as we hope and the regime still enjoys widespread popularity. Most importantly, its followers are hard core fellows that are ready to die protecting the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, nearly all of the countries experiencing turmoil have long maintained staunchly anti-Iran positions to satisfy their Western backers. With these puppet-governments gone, the Iranian regime will be able to extend its networks of allies, isolate Israel and strengthen its position at home.

- Team optimism: with Mubarak, Bin Ali and Kadhafi gone, Ahmadinejad is next in line. Protesters in the Arab world have set an example that their Persian counterparts will dutifully follow. George Sorros is maybe the most famous promoter of this narrative. On the last edition of Global Public Square on CNN, the billionaire investor told host Fareek Zakaria that a year from now, the Islamic Republic would be gone, swept away by the unstoppable wave of popular uprising that is hitting the region. Deposed dictators may be replaced by somewhat less anti-Iran regimes but let's not forget that the current protests are remarkably non-ideological in their nature, making a repetition of the 1979 scenario impossible. It may takes weeks or months, but the mullahs will quickly be sent packing.

I think that there is some truth in both scenarios. Right now, it is absolutely impossible to predict how the Jasmine revolutions will affect Iran. There are two many unknowns in the equation:

- What is the real level of Ahmadinejad's internal support? Bin Ali, Mubarak and Kadhafi went down in large part because they could not rely on widespread popular support. Will Ahmadinejad follow the same path? Many in the western world tend to see him as a textbook dictator that survives only thanks to brute force and the squashing of opposition groups. Things are more complicated. The president enjoys very real, and extremely fervent, popular support, especially in rural regions. How big that support is is another question. I think nobody can accurately gauge how popular the regime really is. Furthermore, the regime's supporters are not the type to defect or keep their heads down. Even if they are greatly outnumbered, they will fight until the very end and it will take an equally fired up opposition to confront them. My personal position is that Ahmadinejad's mishandling of the economy has strongly eroded his support. Don't count on large crowds to support him. If he ever were to be threatened by popular revolts, he will rely on his core of fervent, baton-wielding supporters to defend him.

- Is the Green movement really representative? Being skeptical about the regime's real popularity does not lead me to overestimate the real representativeness of the green movement. One of the reasons why it didn't manage to overthrow the regime in 2009 was that its could not claim to represent a majority of Iranians. The movement is young, mostly urban, liberal and centered on Tehran. I believe that even though Ahmadinejad is unpopular, many Iranians are still uncomfortable with explicit attacks towards the Islamic Republic itself and supreme leader Khameini. I don't think that a revolution that has the Green movement as its primary representative can gather the necessary popular support to be successful.

- Will new regimes in the Arab world be as pro-Iranian as we fear? Short answer: no. To be sure, whatever government comes to power in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen will start developing normal relationships with the Islamic Republic. Is that such a bad thing? I don't think so. We should look forwards to more governments in the region starting to emulate Turkey's attitude towards Iran (engage in a realistic manner). Such governments could help find realistic solutions to the region's problems (akin to the Iran-Turkey-Brasil nuclear fuel swap proposed in May 2010). The revolts in the Arab world are non-ideological, I don't believe that they can give birth to ideology-driven governments that would support Iran's reckless behavior and nuclear ambitions.

- Does the Islamic Republic enjoy real popular support in the Arab world? I strongly doubt it and always have. Alarmists often point to the fact that opinion polls in the region show that Iran enjoys a better image than the US. This may be true but you don't see many Arabs immigrating to Tehran. People that live under western backed autocrats may support the general idea of a somewhat Islamic state that counterbalances western influence in the region. But being vaguely in favor of an abstract idea does not mean wanting to import the model at home. In the latest edition of GPS, one of the participants likened Arab support for the Islamic Republic to that of western intellectuals for the USSR during the cold war. Sure, Sartre and the likes were ardent defenders of the Soviet Empire but you didn't see them emigrate to Moscow. As regimes propped up by the West crumble and are replaced by democratic and diplomatically independent governments, I am convinced that the Islamic Republic will loose its appeal.

- Will the west intervene? If the west intervenes in Lybia or any other country, chances of a popular uprising in Iran will be completely destroyed. Western meddling in the region is a key part (if not THE key element) of the Islamic Republic's narrative. The more the western powers are active in the region, the stronger the legitimacy of the Iranian regime.

So what's my take on the question? In short: I don't believe in an Egyptian scenario in Iran. I think that the regime might crumble in the next year or so but wouldn't place a large bet on it. Most importantly, if the regime falls, it will be worsening economic conditions that will give a popular uprising the necessary amplitude to have a real impact.

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