An Emerging Power in Perspective

Tehran Skyline
Iran : An Emerging Power in Perspective - Gary Sick


Iran remains the one significant unsolved problem for the United States in the Persian Gulf. Over the course of the past decade, US policy has inadvertently allowed Iran to become the dominant power in the region. The best US policy might be to avoid seeking to control events in Iran, instead, leaving the various factions in Iran to fight amongst themselves. (From a lecture delivered at the Bologna Center, November 11, 2010, adapted by Shirin Mohammadi and William J. Burke)

Iran: A New Regional Power

The United States has either a formal or informal military alliance with every Arab country in the Persian Gulf. In many cases, the United States maintains bases in these countries, although some of them are not acknowledged. This is a delicate issue for some of the Arab governments, who would prefer the facilities simply to be forgotten, but they are there, and this is a fact. Because of its diplomatic relations and military facilities, the United States has access to countries in the region while also placing these countries in a position to influence the United States—it is essentially a double-sided coin. While these patterns hold consistent throughout much of the region, Iran remains the one significant unsolved problem for the united States in the Persian gulf. Iran represents one side of a polar rivalry that exists in the region. The other pole is Israel, the dominant military power in the region and the only country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons. These two emerging powers set the agenda and dominate regional policymaking in this region.

There are some peculiarities about this rivalry. Neither of these countries is Arab. Neither is Sunni Muslim. As a result, the countries that have been left out—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and many others accustomed to seeing themselves as the dominant powers in the Middle east—are upset by what is only now emerging in the region.

Israeli statements claiming that Iran and its policies constitute a threat to “Israel’s very existence” are exaggerations. Yet the strong line and heated reactions underscore the rivalry between the two.

Escalating dialogue also reflects the stakes at hand. Who is going to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East? If the issues are examined in this sense, rather than in radical terms of right or wrong, or good or bad, and if the situation is accepted as a rivalry between two emerging powers breaking the traditional mold of Middle Eastern politics, it puts a different perspective on the current situation in the region.

Considering this emerging bipolar rivalry, we must ask ourselves, how did Iran suddenly become a major power? Simply put, the United States made it one.

The United States responded to the September 11th attacks by attacking Afghanistan. In the process, they scattered the Taliban, who also happened to be Iran’s worst enemy to the east. However, prior to finishing that undertaking, the United States changed gears and attacked Iraq, removing Saddam Hussein, Iran’s worst enemy to the West. After these foes had been defeated or incapacitated, Iran had no natural enemies left in the region. For the first time in centuries—due to no action of its own— Iran began to emerge as a truly significant power in the region. And, the United States did it for them. The Iranians did not have to lift a finger.

While Iranians are certainly pleased with these results, the developments have not been lost on other players in the region. There is an element of irony when a country like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Jordan voices their concerns about the Shia explosion and the fact that Iran is now becoming the dominant power in the Middle East. They do not go ahead and finish their complaints by saying that the United States was responsible.

Recently, I attended a meeting with a senior US government official who had been very involved in policymaking during that period of time. He denounced Iran for all the terrible things that they were doing—terrorism, subversion, and the building up of their military and nuclear programs. At the end of the meeting, there was a Q&A session, and I told him I agreed with his commentary, but, I asked, “Weren’t we the ones who actually made this possible by our own behavior?” He thought for a second and replied, “Well, we didn’t mean to.” this exchange says a great deal about US policy.

In the Middle East, nobody in the Arab countries believes that the United States was unaware of what it was doing. Most countries do not believe that the United States acted in a fit of momentary absentmindedness in making Iran the single most powerful country in the gulf. Arab countries believe that the United States must have had a reason for its action. This type of omnipotence attributed to American policy is common, and of course it is wrong. Yet Iran was empowered, and since there always needs to be somebody to blame, the United States is the culprit. To the Arabs, recent developments suggest that the united States must be getting ready to return to its old relationship with the Shah, when the united States identified Iran as the principle force in the region and sided with it.

That is also false. Absolutely. Unequivocally. But the fact that the United States so deliberately put Iran into this position of power leads Arabs to believe that there must have been logic behind it.

Thus, if the United States decides in the future to have serious discussions with Iran, which I hope it will, it must first talk to the Arabs. They will most likely retort that their worst suspicions are now being realized—that the Americans are in fact cutting a deal with the Iranians. The United States will have to convince Arab leaders that this is not true. This scenario is a future diplomatic problem that will have to be overcome, and I am not sure that the US government—at least those officials with whom I have spoken—understands this. Government officials do not seem to grasp that the United States is seen as the progenitor of Iran as a regional leader.

The Iranian Threat

In order to understand the implications of Iran as regional leader, we must consider the so-called Iranian threat, an issue that is used as ammunition by opponents of US policy or people who would like to reshape US policy.

What exactly is the Iranian threat? Iran is a middle level power with a largely unpopular and dysfunctional government headed by a firebrand populist president who has very limited power. Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) is about the same as the state of Florida’s GDP. Eighty-five percent of its hard currency revenue comes from oil, a commodity subject to price fluctuations that bedevil attempts to predict future budgets. Iranians have mismanaged their finances. Inflation is officially running anywhere between twenty to thirty percent. Job creation is so low that many of its youth—its very best and well-educated citizens—have left the country to find work elsewhere. Iran’s annual defense expenditures are about uS$19 billion or 2 1⁄2 percent of GDP. That is less than half of Saudi Arabian defense expenditures. Iran’s entire defense budget is equivalent to about three months of US expenditures in Iraq. Most of this money goes towards defensive systems such as air defense. They are not buying heavy lift aircraft, heavy armor, or any long-range strike aircraft of any significance. They possess no naval amphibious forces. They fought Iraq for eight years, and at the end, they had to sue for peace to save themselves.

Iran has borders that have not changed for about 200 years. They have not invaded anybody— with the exception of their counterattack against Saddam Hussein after he had invaded them. Even then, they still did not succeed in taking any territory inside Iraq. In fact, Iran has almost no capacity to project power outside its own borders and has not done so for some 200 years.

In this light, I believe the Iranian threat needs to be put in perspective. Yet, this is not to dismiss Iran’s significance. Even weak and bankrupt states like Pakistan and Afghanistan, can be, and are in fact, dangerous on occasion. Though Iran cannot project conventional force, they have asymmetrical warfare techniques that they are often quite good at implementing. There have been unacknowledged attacks in the Persian Gulf by small boats. Although Tehran claims ignorance and no involvement, everyone knows that the attacks are Iranian.

These capabilities are dangerous, and they must be taken seriously, but they must be kept in a realistic perspective, rather than talking as if Iran could strike the united States in the near future or take over the region. The United States is currently building up a huge missile defense capability against Iran. It does not publically claim that the defense armament is for Iran, but it is. It is not against anybody else. The United States is putting both its own money and a large amount of political capital into building this missile system that would stop the terrible threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. Yet the best experts estimate that it will take 10 to 15 years for Iran to fully develop the missile technology and fit a warhead on it capable of anything more than just creating a very large bang at the other end.

Because US policymakers have adopted this exaggerated threat as a reality, costly policies are now pursued. These policies will demand political efforts to address this “threat”—but the threat needs to be kept in a realistic perspective.

Internal Power Dynamics: Who is in Charge?

Meanwhile, if Iran is an asymmetrical threat to be taken seriously, the internal dynamics of the country must also be taken seriously. The way they make decisions must be understood. We need to know who is making decisions and what is going on inside in the country.

Inside of Iran exists the most complex analytical environment since the days of the revolution. At a minimum, it is possible to say that a new order is being created in Iran. The revolution is over. Of course, the Iranians do not admit as much. They do not say that most of the things that they fought for during the revolution have been lost, but this is the case. That is what the green movement in Iran is really all about—total disappointment with this regime, its conceptual approach and the way the country had been governed. There is no consensus, but the palpable sense of disappointment is unmistakable.

The election of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—the first president after Ruhollah Khomeini died— was not so unusual. He wanted to reconstruct a country that had been destroyed during the Iran-Iraq War. Subsequently, the election of Mohammad Khatami ushered in a man who ran against the system. Critical of recent developments, Khatami won more than 70 percent of the vote twice, but of course managed to accomplish very little because the regime itself was scared of what would happen if the props supporting it were removed.

Finally, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power. Curiously enough, his election in 2005 almost certainly represented a vote against the system as well. He ran on an anti-corruption platform—as a candidate who was going to come in and fix the system, enabling it to operate more efficiently. He has not done that, but that was his platform. The most recent election demonstrated a clear indication of the disappointment that people had in Ahmadinejad and the system as a whole. Iranians’ votes for the reformist candidates showed they were trying to vote against the system. Depending on which side you listen to, these votes were either counted or not counted, but by any interpretation, votes for the government were over-counted and votes against it were under-counted.

All of the different forces in Iran are in motion, which makes the current situation rather opaque. The final outcome is not just unknown to foreign analysts, but it is also unknown to the leaders of Iran. They know they have got a tiger by the tail, and they cannot figure out what to do about it.

The principal force at the present time is the revolutionary guard. Khomeini created the revolutionary guard at the very beginning as a force that would be loyal to the revolution and protect it. The revolutionary guard was competing with the regular military and won that competition. It now dominates the military situation. The old professional military corps is never heard about anymore, and they have largely disappeared from sight.

Furthermore, the recent political encroachment of the revolutionary guard is astonishing. When Khomeini created the revolutionary guard, he clearly said that the military should not get involved in politics. Today, the revolutionary guard is the politics of Iran. The guardsmen are involved at every level. Every significant political candidate and anybody of importance within any of the ministries is a veteran of the revolutionary guard. Part of this is due to a generational change. In many cases, people who were in the revolutionary guard during the Iran-Iraq war have “graduated” and they became the body of people drawn on to run the government. This will not be unfamiliar to students of American history. You could not run for high office in the United States for 25 years after World War II unless you were a veteran and could show that you had fought.

The revolutionary guard makes no bones about the fact that it does not heed Khomeini’s cautionary words to stay out of politics. In fact, the guard denounced his words outright, arguing that the guard needs to be involved in politics if the revolution is to be protected.

So what is the revolution they claim to protect? It is the rather cozy status quo that has been established by a tiny group of leaders, both on the political side and on the military side, who have found a comfort zone for themselves, where they dominate the government. They want to have things their way, and anybody who interferes with that in any way is threatening the revolution.

In the past, the legitimacy of the regime was based, first of all, on Islam. But, it was also based on the voice of the people. Khomeini said that you had to have both Islam and the assent of the people. The voice of the people had to be heard.

The 2009 presidential election was perhaps the last free, or semi-free, election that will be seen in Iran. People actually did come out and vote. They did say what they thought and anybody who disagreed with the regime was promptly persecuted. The two leaders of the green Movement, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, have been consistently subject to intimidation. A good number of their followers have been thrown in jail as well. Many others have been killed. Today, the legitimacy of the Islamic republic is derived only from god, and the regime is actually proposing openly, clearly, and unequivocally the concept that the present rulers are representatives of a divine force—that god has nominated them to watch over the revolution. If god has put them there, what can the people do? How can the Iranians argue with god? If god decided that these are the rulers, and these are the responsibilities that they should have, why is an election needed at all?

The Islamic republic was always a peculiar hybrid. Islam and republic did not seem to fit together very neatly, but the government tried. Khatami and a number of others really believed in this approach. But in the last two years, the Islamic element has driven out the republic element. It is a regime that is essentially reverting to the concept of the divine right of kings.

Revolutionary unity had been the strength of the regime: all factions of society came together to overthrow the Shah and to stand up for a particular point of view. Today, that is no longer true. You have a small group of individuals clustered around the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and they are effectively in competition with the senior clergy, who constitute the vast majority of the religious leaders in Iran—from the smallest mosque, right up to the people who teach in the seminaries of Qom. Most of these individuals are not enthusiastic supporters of the current regime and the concept of divine right. They believe it undercuts Islam, and it does. They argued from the beginning that when an individual has authority to rule, he has to make compromises. Islam is a religion. Religions are absolute. They do not split the difference, they do not compromise. It is right or wrong, and that is what religion expresses. The bulk of the religious clerics and the regular clergy in Iran actually feels that this “Islamic republic” is potentially harmful to Islam.

The regime is also a rival of the bazaar—the merchants who paved the way for the revolution and are now unhappy with the way the country is run. The regime is completely at odds with industrial workers, who say they are not getting paid and whose conditions are terrible, as they are not allowed to form unions or express themselves. The regime is, of course, at odds with the reform elements at all levels, and it has completely broken with Rafsanjani’s pragmatist interests, which actually promoted a sort of commercial freedom in Iran.

There are differences even within the revolutionary guard itself. At the top, there is a little clique of hardliners, but the vast bulk of the revolutionary guard is composed of ordinary citizens, many of whom have actually voted against revolutionary guard leaders and candidates in the past.

Given these circumstances, it is sometimes difficult to assess who is actually running the country. Ahmadinejad has served a couple of purposes. He helped replace all of Rafsanjani and Khatami’s loyal supporters who were scattered throughout the bureaucracy with revolutionary guardsmen. These men frequently have no real background or experience in the positions in which they are placed. Their only qualification is their loyalty. They currently hold nearly all of the key jobs. Ahmadinejad has also served well as a noisemaker, but one could argue that he does not actually make many decisions. He stirs up trouble, attracting quite a bit of publicity, which he loves, but he does not, in fact, determine the policies that Iran will follow. One of the exceptions is the economy—he does have influence over economic policy. He has actually taken on the old subsidy system and has attacked it quite forcefully—and that is a tough job. I give him high marks for that. On just about everything else, however, he is wrong.

Ahmadinejad’s general economic policies tend to be harmful for the economy. His answer to the problem of disparity between the wealthy and the poor is not to create jobs, but rather to hand out money, and to essentially distribute free loans. If you wanted to get married, could show that your bank account had insufficient funds and could prove you were looking for a new position, then you could take out a loan from the bank. Banks were forced to loan at very low rates, and, because of inflation, the interest rate on the loan was effectively zero. Free money was handed out left and right, including at his rallies, which attracted large crowds in the provinces. At the end of his speeches, his cronies would walk through the crowds and hand out packets of money. It is a political technique that has certainly been practiced in the United States in the past, but it has never been done to the magnitude that Ahmadinejad has been practicing.

Contrary to popular opinion, Iran’s foreign policy has been on cruise control since Ahmadinejad has been president. The actual policies that he is now following, as opposed to the noise that he makes about them, are the same ones that were in place under Rafsanjani and under Khatami. Iranian policy has changed little. In that sense, with the exception of the economy, Ahmadinejad is definitely not in charge.

What about the Supreme leader Khamenei? Nominally, he is in charge of everything. Nothing can get done and nothing is supposed to happen without his approval. On the other hand, he seems unable to contradict the revolutionary guard when they act, even if the move is contrary to what Khamenei has said earlier. If the revolutionary guard, in effect, has a veto power over the Supreme leader, who is really in charge?

The Mystery of the Revolutionary Guard

The revolutionary guard now controls access to Khamenei. He is surrounded by people who make decisions about who can see him and who cannot. That bubble, which was created in the name of security, controls what he can do and where he can go. The revolutionary guard now controls the intelligence service, the security service, the judiciary, and large portions of the economy. They run the cell phone system. They are contractors for the oil industry. They are building the underground railway system in Tehran. The revolutionary guardsmen are some of the main beneficiaries of the sanctions regime that the United States and others have imposed on Iran. Anybody who goes to Tehran will tell you that the shops are full of goods—a patron can buy just about anything he is looking for. Products are a little more expensive than they might be elsewhere, but they are there. How did they get there with all of these sanctions in place? Most were smuggled. Who controls the smuggling routes? Who controls the ports where those things come in? And who takes a cut to get those goods into the country? The revolutionary guard does.

The revolutionary guard is making a substantial amount of money. They have a huge business now. A colleague once said, imagine if you asked your military chief of staff for advice, and he responded, “Well, let me check my portfolio first.” that is the situation in Iran today. They have such a large stake in the economy that any potential economic disruption affects their willingness to carry out a program.

So who forms the revolutionary guard? Who is actually calling the shots? The answer is unknown. There is a collective leadership at the top—the hardliners remain at the top of the structure. Through some mysterious process, they produce decisions and ideas. But, as to naming an individual, I do not think anybody in the world can identify one right now. We probably do not know and perhaps have not even met the individual or individuals who are the strongest and most charismatic in this particular group. It is likely that we will not know the answer to that question until there is some kind of a shakeout and a new leader emerges from that process. Consider President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He was a member of the free officers Movement, and nobody had heard his name until after the coup that ejected the monarch. Suddenly, he emerged and became the dominant name, feature, and power in Egypt. The best intelligence did not predict this in advance.

It is worth asking about the type of shakeout that would bring this individual or group of individuals into the open. There are several potential scenarios that could cause the requisite chaos. One is that Khamenei, who is the Supreme leader and around whom all power is allegedly centered, could die. But that is not the only thing that could upset the status quo. A financial breakdown in which Iran could not meet debt liabilities, and in effect, could not pay insiders, could also trigger a shakeout. There is even the possibility of an earthquake taking place in Tehran. Tehran lies right on a major fault, and it is not built to be earthquake-proof. A large earthquake in Tehran could kill millions of people and would destroy the government.

In any of those circumstances, one possibility is that political chaos will emerge, and there will be calls for somebody to get the system under control and establish order. That is how military leaders step into vacuums. The late Shah’s father was a fairly junior military officer, and in a period of great chaos, emerged as a completely unexpected leader. In time, Reza Khan crowned himself Shah. It is easy to imagine a similar process happening again.

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan and is a Captain (ret.) in the US navy. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on US-Iran relations. He was the deputy director for International Affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1982 to 1987, where he was responsible for programs relating to US foreign policy.