Monday, June 24, 2013

On the Iranian elections

There has been a good deal of commentary on the recent Iran elections.  My take, published in The Economic Times on June 12, is that this election will not be consequential irrespective of who wins.  The piece was published before the elections but though Hassan Rouhani -- the most moderate and prudent candidate in this limited field -- won convincingly, I would still stand by my original analysis.  Indeed, he might be even more of a challenge than Ahmadinejad both because he is and perceived as more moderate (but who is unlikely to give up Iran's nuclear weapons program) and because he is quite crafty.  Dr. Raja Mohan has a somewhat similar take in the Indian Express, obviously presented much better.  

The inconsequential election of Iran could only spell further doom

By Rajesh Rajagopalan

The results of the Iranian presidential elections this Friday should be important because Iran is central to the stability in the region. Unfortunately, the heavily controlled election, in which religious leaders have barred any candidate who would present an alternative path, means that irrespective of who wins, there is unlikely to be a major change in Iran's policies. 

Consequently, Iran and the region are slowly sliding into open conflict and chaos. Among the many conflicts, two are most immediate. Both require serious reconsideration in Tehran because they have the potential to hurt Iran and the region. But no such fundamental reassessment is possible with the severely limited set of candidates in the fray. The first is the increasingly powerful vortex of the Syrian civil war. Whatever might have been the original intentions of the rebels, it is becoming more sectarian with each passing week. Though many players are now involved, Iran was first off the block, supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime as it cracked down on its own citizens.

Iran's involvement has not been without its downside. Tehran might have been supporting Assad because of strategic necessity, but it is unable to shake the perception that the Shiite state is coming to the support of the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, for sectarian reasons.

Another Battle
As Iran increased its support for Assad, the Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have propped up the rebel forces with significant material assistance, and other Sunni groups are joining in, including terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. The Syrian civil war has become a proxy battle between Iran and every other Sunni power in the region. Though Israel and the West have not extended much direct assistance to the rebels, this could change. Iran could become even more isolated and might be looking at its own little Vietnam.

Iran is facing another risk. Despite being a Shiite state, Iran has recently received support from the Sunni Arab street, as opposed to the wariness it has faced from Arab governments, because it was seen as standing up to the West and Israel. But its support for Assad is draining this sympathy since it is seen as siding with Shiite/Alawite regime against the Sunni majority. This Sunni backlash is also threatening Iran's proxy in the region, the Lebanese Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. The Hezbollah had won admiration for standing up to the might of the Israeli war machine. For Tehran, the Hezbollah had been an important instrument both as a deniable covert force that did Iran's dirty work and a deterrence against a possible Israeli or American attack. But Hezbollah's involvement in the fighting in Syria is leading to its criticism among Sunni Arabs, in addition to the possibility of a spillover of the war into Lebanon. That would be disastrous for the Hezbollah and Iran because it will spoil the Hezbollah's image as a resistance force against Israel.

Will Iran Force US Hand?
It is not just Iran's involvement in Syria that needs reconsideration. The next president will also need to consider how to proceed on the nuclear issue. Iran has been increasing its nuclear capabilities and the latest IAEA report suggests that the agency is getting ever more frustrated with Iran's behaviour, with the IAEA head describing the talks as "going around in circles".

While US President Barack Obama has been resisting using military force to solve this problem, Iran's intransigence might finally force his hand. Tehran also needs to worry about how the Syrian issue will affect Iran's nuclear stand because one of the reasons Washington has been deterred from considering a military strike is the consequence for American standing in the Muslim world. If Iran's support to Assad reduces Iran's popular appeal, that might make it easier for the US to consider a military option. Tehran has more to lose the longer the Syrian war continues and spreads. 

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