Friday, July 17, 2009

Wings beating against a web, III: Iran's frozen-out elite

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has distinguished himself as one of the best-informed analysts of the post-election situation in Iran. His 7/16 q-and-a includes several crucial points about the coterie now in control, the opposition's prospects, the likely course of nuclear negotiations and the regime's vulnerabilities.

In sync with those who have detailed the militarist takeover that has progressed over the course of Ahmadinejad's four years in power, Sadjadpour stresses that not only the Iranian masses but large swaths of the country's elite, are now beating their wings against the tightly spun web of the current ruling coterie:
First of all, the idea of the Islamic Republic of Iran is now over. It has lost any claims of being a ‘republic.’ Past Iranian governments didn’t necessarily represent a wide swath of Iranian society, but they certainly encompassed a fairly wide swath of the Iranian political elite. Now the country is being run by a small cartel, which I would argue, reflects not only a very narrow swath of Iranian society, but also a narrow swath of Iran’s political elite. It’s a cartel of hardline clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen who have benefitted tremendously from the oil bonanza of the last few years. They made nearly $300 billion in oil revenue the last four years and don’t want to share power. They are self-proclaimed ‘principlists’ but in reality their only real principles are power and money.
This duality runs throughout Sadjadpour's exposition: the regime lacks legitimacy, and the means to sustain the economy and social peace -- but as of now it has the guns. Some key points on both sides of this equation:

On who's really in control (after acknowledging opposition to regime among top-level clergy):
What we’ve seen in Iran over the last decade, however, is that the institution of the Revolutionary Guards has eclipsed the institution of the clergy, in terms of their political and economic clout. So while the cleavages amongst clerical elite is certainly significant, what would be a far more fatal blow to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would be open dissent amongst the Revolutionary Guard elite, which we haven’t yet seen.
On the prospects for "cracking" the Revolutionary Guard:
The senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards were handpicked by Khamenei, they owe their positions to Khamenei, and at the moment at least I think they’re unlikely to challenge him. But there’s a lot of anecdotal and some empirical evidence to show that the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards is more reflective of Iranian society at large. They are not simply 120,000 radicals who are ready to martyr themselves to retain Ahmadinejad’s presidency, as one of the senior commanders recently alluded.
On negotiating with the current regime:
...I understand the Obama administration has decided that the nuclear clock is too urgent an issue to delay negotiations. But we should be clear about something: The problem we have with Iran has far more to do with the character of the regime than their nuclear program. The reality is that as long as Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and company are in power, we’re never going to reach a nuclear accord which sufficiently allays our suspicions—and Israel’s suspicions—that Iran is pursuing a weapons program. Any such accord would not only require Tehran to significantly curtail enrichment and agree to an intrusive inspections regime, it will also require them to modify their hostility toward Israel and alter their relationship with groups like Hezbollah. The chances of this happening as long as Ahmadinejad is president and Khamenei is Supreme Leader are very slim
On oil as arbiter:
But the country that has the greatest potential to influence internal Iranian affairs in the short term is Saudi Arabia. The Iranian economy is heavily reliant on oil revenue, and each one dollar drop in oil prices is nearly one billion dollars of lost annual revenue for Iran. If Saudi Arabia—whose relations with Iran have deteriorated since Ahmadinejad became president—were to quietly increase output in order to provoke a price drop it could prove devastating to Iran, far more damaging than any sanctions that are now being deliberated.
That last point is pretty arresting. It lead me to dream of political impossibilities: suppose the Obama Administration and Congress could get its act together and impose a hefty tax on oil whenever it hit a given price floor - say, $60/barrel? That would cut consumption and keep the price of oil down, which also "would be more damaging than any sanctions that are now being deliberated."

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