[Amil Saikal, Iran Rising: The survival and Future of the Islamic Republic. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2019. 344 p.]
RESEÑA / Ignacio Urbasos Arbeloa
Desde su constitución en 1979 la República Islámica de Irán ha sido un actor conflictivo, aislado e incomprendido por la comunidad internacional y en mayor medida por sus vecinos regionales. Su origen, de carácter revolucionario y antagonista del modelo pro-occidental del Sha, cambió por completo la geopolítica de Oriente Medio y el papel de EEUU en la región. Tanto la Crisis de los Rehenes como la sangrienta Guerra contra el Irak de Saddam Hussein dejaron heridas muy profundas en las relaciones de Irán con el exterior. Más de 40 años después de la Revolución, el país sigue en una dinámica que imposibilita la normalización de sus relaciones internacionales, siempre bajo la amenaza de un conflicto armado o sanciones económicas. En este libro, Amin Saikal describe en profundidad la naturaleza ideológica y política del régimen de los Ayatolas con la intención de generar una mejor comprensión de las motivaciones y factores que explican su comportamiento.
En los primeros capítulos se desarrolla el concepto de gobernanza ideado por el Ayatola Imam Jomeini, conocido como Velayat-E Faqih o Gobernanza del Guardián del Islam. Un modelo defendido por una facción no mayoritaria de la revolución que logró imponerse por el carisma de su líder y la enorme represión sobre el resto de los grupos políticos. El sistema político resultante de la Revolución de 1978 trata de confluir las enseñanzas chiitas del Islam y un modelo representativo con instituciones como el Majlis (parlamento) o el Presidente que en cierta medida simula la democracia liberal occidental. Este modelo es único y nunca ha sido imitado a pesar de los esfuerzos de la República Islámica por exportarlo al resto del mundo musulmán.
En la práctica, el sistema ha demostrado someter la política iraní a la esquizofrenia, con una lucha constante entre el poder de los clérigos –Líder Supremo y Consejo de Guardianes– frente al poder ejecutivo y legislativo elegido por medio de elecciones. Esta tensión, denominada como Jihadi-Itjihadi (conservadurismo-flexibilidad) por el propio Jomeini, ha resultado ser un rotundo fracaso. La falta de claridad en las funciones que los grupos religiosos juegan en el sistema deriva en un poder ilimitado para reprimir y eliminar adversarios políticos, como el arresto domiciliario de Jatamí o Moussaoui demuestran. Esta lucha genera duplicidades a todos los niveles con la omnipresencia de la Guardia Revolucionaria Iraní (IRGC) en las fuerzas armadas, inteligencia, servicios sociales y empresas públicas. La falta de transparencia política genera corrupción e ineficiencias que lastran el desarrollo de una economía que no carece de capital humano y recursos naturales para prosperar.
En los capítulos 2 y 3 se trata la evolución del sistema tras el fallecimiento del líder Jomeini en 1988 y el fin de la guerra contra Irak. Este nuevo contexto permitió la entrada de nuevas ideas al debate político iraní. El polémico nombramiento del ultraconservador Alí Jamenei en 1989 como nuevo Líder Supremo supuso reforzar el autoritarismo y la rigidez del poder religioso, pero ahora sin el indiscutible liderazgo que ejercía Jomeini. La presidencia de Rafsanjani, un conservador pragmático, supuso el comienzo de una tendencia dentro de Irán que abogaba por normalizar las relaciones internacionales del país.
Sin embargo, fue Jatamí el que desde 1997 apostó por una reconversión del sistema hacia una democracia real que respetara los Derechos Humanos. Su apuesta personal por mejorar las relaciones con EEUU fracasó al encontrarse con una desconfianza desmesurada por parte de la Administración Bush. Ni tan siquiera la respuesta modélica de Irán a los atentados sobre las Torres Gemelas de Nueva York con una condena oficial al atentado y hasta un minuto de silencio respetado por 60.000 personas en Teherán el 13 de septiembre de 2001 fue suficiente para que G.W. Bush reconsiderara a Irán como parte del famoso Axis of Evil que constituía junto a Siria, Corea del Norte y Sudán. A pesar de lograr un crecimiento económico medio del 5% del PIB bajo su presidencia, la falta de reciprocidad por parte de la comunidad internacional generó una ruptura total entre el presidente reformista y la facción conservadora liderada por el Líder Supremo.
El periodo comprendido entre 2005 y 2013 estuvo marcado por la presidencia del ultraconservador Ahmadinejad, que terminó sin la confianza de Jamenei al fracasar en materia económica y llevar a Irán al borde del conflicto armado. Durante esta etapa el IRGC creció hasta dominar buena parte de los ministerios y el 70% del PIB de Irán. Su controvertida reelección en 2009 con acusaciones de fraude por parte de la oposición generó el movimiento verde, las mayores protestas desde 1979, que fueron duramente reprimidas.
La llegada de Rouhani en 2013 podría haber sido una ocasión histórica al alinear por primera vez desde 1988 la visión de un presidente moderado con la del Líder Supremo. Rouhani, un moderado pragmático, asumió el cargo con los objetivos de mejorar las condiciones de vida de los iraníes, reconciliar las relaciones con Occidente, incrementar los derechos de las minorías y relajar el control sobre la sociedad. En materia de política exterior, el Líder Supremo asumió la necesidad de alcanzar un acuerdo sobre el programa nuclear a sabiendas de que, en su ausencia, una mejora económica en Irán sería muy complicada. El JCPOA, aunque imperfecto, permitía acercar posturas entre Occidente e Irán. La llegada de Donald Trump hizo volar por los aires el acuerdo y con ello la sintonía entre el Líder Supremo Jamenei y Rouhani, que ahora afronta una creciente oposición conservadora al considerar su política exterior un fracaso.
Para el autor, es imprescindible comprender la batalla entre las instituciones electas y las instituciones religiosas. La política iraní funciona como un péndulo entre el dominio de las facciones conservadoras protegidas por los religiosos y las facciones reformistas aupadas por las elecciones. Si se ofrecen beneficios a los moderados reformistas cuando están en el poder, las opciones de generar un cambio político en Irán son mayores que si se trata con la misma dureza que a los conservadores, defiende Amin Saikal en el cuarto y quinto capítulo. Además, existe una correlación entre aquellos que conocen Occidente y los que no. Jamenei y Ahmadineyad, principales representantes de la línea dura jamás visitaron Europa o EEUU, mientras que Rouhani, Jatamí o Sharif dominan el inglés y la cultura occidental.
Con una población menor de 30 años que supone el 50% del total y una creciente modernización de la sociedad en Teherán, las demandas de reformas parecen imparables. Según Amin Saikal, una política intransigente con Irán cuando existe voluntad de apertura solo genera desconfianza y refuerza las posiciones más conservadoras. La política de Trump con Irán, concluye, demuestra la falta de conocimiento y comprensión de su sociedad y sistema político.
Iran Strategic Report (July 2019)
This report will provide an in-depth analysis of Iran's role in the Middle East and its impact on the regional power balance. Studying current political and economic developments will assist in the elaboration of multiple scenarios that aim to help understand the context surrounding our subject.
J. Hodek, M. Panadero.
Report [pdf. 15,5MB]
INTRODUCTION: IRAN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
This report will examine Iran's geopolitical presence and interests in the region, economic vulnerability and energy security, social and demographic aspects and internal political dynamics. These directly or indirectly affect the evolution of various international strategic issues such as the future of Iran's Nuclear Deal, United States' relations with Iran and its role in Middle East going forward. Possible power equilibrium shifts, which due to the economic and strategic importance of this particular region, possess high relevance and significant degree of impact even outside of the Iranian territory with potential alteration of the regional and international order.
With the aim of presenting a more long-lasting report, several analytical techniques will be used (mainly SWOT analysis and elaboration of simple scenarios), in order to design a strategic analysis of Iran in respect to the regional power balance and the developments of the before mentioned international strategic issues. Key geopolitical data will be collected as of the announcement of the U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran on November 2, 2018 with a projection for the upcoming years, thus avoiding a simple narration of facts, which transpired so far.
First part of this report will be dedicated to a more general analysis of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, with a closer attention to Iran's interests and influence. Then, after a closer look on the internal dynamics within Iran, several scenarios will be offered out of which some will be categorized and selected as the most probable according to the authors of this report.
From Iranian strategic perspective the Sunni-Shi‘a divide is only part of its larger objective of exporting its revolution.
▲ Escena militar de un altorrelieve de la antigua Persia [Pixabay]
ESSAY / Helena Pompeya
At a first glance it may seem that the most important factor shaping the dynamics in the region is the Sunni-Shi’a divide materialized in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over becoming the main hegemonic power in the region. Nonetheless, from the strategic perspective of Iran this divide is only part of its larger objective of exporting its revolution.
This short essay will analyze three paths of action or policies Iran has been relying on in order to exert and expand its influence in the MENA region: i) it’s anti-imperialistic foreign policy; ii) the Sunni-Shi’a divide; and iii) opportunism. Finally, a study case of Syria will be provided to show how Iran made use of these three courses of action to its benefit within the war.
I. ANTI IMPERIALISM
The Sunni-Shi'a division alone would not be enough to rocket Iran into an advantaged position over Saudi Arabia, being the Shi’ites only a 13% of the total of Muslims over the world (found mainly in Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq). Even though religious affiliation can gain support of a fairly big share of the population, Iran is playing its cards along the lines of its revolutionary ideology, which consists on challenging the current international world order and particularly what Iran calls US’s imperialism.
Iran does not choose its strategic allies by religious affiliation but by ideological affinity: opposition to the US and Israel. Proof of this is the fact that Iran has provided military and financial support to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Palestine, both of them Sunni, in their struggle versus Israel. Iran’s competition against Saudi Arabia could be understood as an elongation of its anti-US foreign policy, being the Saudi kingdom the other great ally of the West in the MENA region along with Israel.
II. SUNNI-SHI’A DIVIDE
Despite the religious divide not being the main reason behind the hegemonic competition among both regional powers Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’a), both states are exploiting this narrative to transcend territorial barriers and exert their influence in neighbouring countries. This rivalry materializes itself along two main paths of action: i) development of neopatrimonial and clientelistic networks, as it shows in Lebanon and Bahrain; ii) and in violent proxy wars, namely Yemen and Syria.
Sectarian difference has been an inherent characteristic of Lebanon all throughout its history, finally erupting into a civil war in 1975. The Taif accords, which put an end to the strife attempted to create a power-sharing agreement that gave each group a political voice. These differences were incorporated into the political dynamics and development of blocs which are not necessarily loyal to the Lebanese state alone.
Regional dynamics of the Middle East are characterised by the blurred limits between internal and external, this reflects in the case of Lebanon, whose blocs provide space for other actors to penetrate the Lebanese political sphere. This is the case of Iran through the Shi‘ite political and paramilitary organization of Hezbollah. This organization was created in 1982 as a response to Israeli intervention and has been trained, organized and provisioned by Iran ever since. Through the empowerment of Iran and its political support for Shi’a groups across Lebanon, Hezbollah has emerged as a regional power.
Once aware of the increasing Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia stepped into it to counterbalance the Shi’a empowerment by supporting a range of Salafi groups across the country.
Both Riyadh and Tehran have thus established clientelistic networks through political and economic support which feed upon sectarian segmentation, furthering factionalism. Economic inflows in order to influence the region have helped developed the area between Ras Beirut and Ain al Mraiseh through investments by Riyadh, whilst Iranian economic aid has been allocated in the Dahiyeh and southern region of the country.
Bahrain is also a hot spot in the fight for supremacy over the region, although it seems that Saudi Arabia is the leading power over this island of the Persian Gulf. The state is a constitutional monarchy headed by the King, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, of the Sunni branch of Islam, and it is connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway, a passage designed and built to prevent Iranian expansionism after the revolution. Albeit being ruled by Sunni elite, the majority of the country’s citizens are Shia, and have in many cases complaint about political and economical repression. In 2011 protests erupted in Bahrain led by the Shi’a community, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates stepped in to suppress the revolt. Nonetheless, no links between Iran and the ignition of this manifestation have been found, despite accusations by the previously mentioned Sunni states.
The opposition of both hegemonic powers has ultimately materialized itself in the involvement on proxy wars as are the examples of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and possibly in the future Afghanistan.
Yemen, in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, is a failed state in which a proxy war fueled mainly by the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran is taking place since the 25th of March 2015. On that date, Saudi Arabia leading an Arab coalition against the Houthis bombarded Yemen.
The ignition of the conflict began in November 2011 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over his power to his deputy and current president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (both Sunni) due to the uprisings product of the Arab Spring.
The turmoil within the nation, including here al-Qaeda attacks, a separatist rising in the south, divided loyalties in the military, corruption, unemployment and lack of food, led to a coup d’état in January 2015 led by Houthi rebels. The Houthis, Shi‘ite Muslims backed by Iran, seized control of a large territory in Yemen including here the capital Sana’a. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority nations are supporting the government.
Yemen is a clear representation of dispute over regional sovereignty. This particular conflict puts the Wahhabi kingdom in great distress as it is happening right at its front door. Thus, Saudi interests in the region consist on avoiding a Shi’ite state in the Arabian Peninsula as well as facilitating a kindred government to retrieve its function as state. Controlling Yemen guarantees Saudi Arabia’s influence over the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Baab al Mandeb, thus avoiding Hormuz Strait, which is currently under Iran’s reach.
On the other hand, Iran is soon to be freed from intensive intervention in the Syrian war, and thus it could send in more military and economic support into the region. Establishing a Shi’ite government in Yemen would pose an inflexion point in regional dynamics, reinforcing Iran’s power and becoming a direct threat to Arabia Saudi right at its frontier. Nonetheless, Hadi’s government is internationally recognized and the Sunni struggle is currently gaining support from the UK and the US.
The Golf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula which fail to have an aligned strategy for the region and could be roughly divided into two main groups in the face of political interests: i) those more aligned to Saudi Arabia, namely Bahrain and UAE; ii) and those who reject the full integration, being these Oman, Kuwait and Qatar.
Fragmentation within the GCC has provided Iran with an opportunity to buffer against calls for its economic and political isolation. Iran’s ties to smaller Gulf countries have provided Tehran with limited economic, political and strategic opportunities for diversification that have simultaneously helped to buffer against sanctions and to weaken Riyadh.
Oman in overall terms has a foreign policy of good relations with all of its neighbours. Furthermore, it has long resisted pressure to align its Iran policies with those of Saudi Arabia. Among its policies, it refused the idea of a GCC union and a single currency for the region introduced by the Saudi kingdom. Furthermore, in 2017 with the Qatar crisis, it opposed the marginalization of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and stood as the only State which did not cut relations with Iran.
Furthermore, the war in Yemen is spreading along Oman’s border, and it’s in its best interest to bring Saudi Arabia and the Houthis into talks, believing that engagement with the later is necessary to put an end to the conflict. Oman has denied transport of military equipment to Yemeni Houthis through its territory.
A key aspect of Kuwait’s regional policy is its active role in trying to balance and reduce regional sectarian tensions, and has often been a bridge for mediation among countries, leading the mediation effort in January 2017 to promote dialogue and cooperation between Iran and the Gulf states that was well received in Tehran.
It has always been in both state’s interest to maintain a good relationship due to their proximity and shared ownership of the North/South Pars natural gas field. Despite having opposing interests in some areas as are the case of Syria (Qatar supports the opposition), and Qatar’s attempts to drive Hamas away from Tehran. In 2017 Qatar suffered a blockade by the GCC countries due to its support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and militant groups linked to al-Qaeda or ISIS. During this crisis, Iran proved a good ally into which to turn.. Iran offered Qatar to use its airspace and supplied food to prevent any shortages resulting from the blockade. However as it can be deduced from previous ambitious foreign policies, Qatar seeks to diversify its allies in order to protect its interests, so it would not rely solely on Iran.
Iran is well aware of the intra-Arab tensions among the Gulf States and takes advantage of these convenient openings to bolster its regional position, bringing itself out of its isolationism through the establishment of bilateral relations with smaller GCC states, especially since the outbreak of the Qatar crisis in 2017.
Iran is increasingly standing out as a regional winner in the Syrian conflict. This necessarily creates unrest both for Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially after the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. The drawdown of the US has also originated a vacuum of power which is currently being fought over by the supporters of al-Assad: Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Despite the crisis involving the incident with the Israeli F-16 jets, Jerusalem is attempting to convince the Russian Federation not to leave Syria completely under the sphere of Iranian influence.
Israel initially intervened in the war in face of increasing presence of Hezbollah in the region, especially in its positions near the Golan Heights, Kiswah and Hafa. Anti-Zionism is one of Iran’s main objectives in its foreign policy, thus it is likely that tensions between Hezbollah and Israel will escalate leading to open missile conflict. Nonetheless, an open war for territory is unlikely to happen, since this will bring the UyS back in the region in defense for Israel, and Saudi Arabia would make use of this opportunity to wipe off Hezbollah.
On other matters, the axis joining Iran, Russia and Turkey is strengthening, while they gain control over the de-escalation zones.
Both Iran and Russia have economic interests in the region. Before the outbreak of the war, Syria was one of the top exporting countries of phosphates, and in all likelihood, current reserves (estimated on over 2 billion tons) will be spoils of war for al-Assad’s allies.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took control of Palmira in 2015, where the largest production area of phosphates is present. Furthermore, Syria also signed an agreement on phosphates with Russia.
Iran has great plans for Syria as its zone of influence, and is planning to establish a seaport in the Mediterranean through which to export its petroleum by a pipeline crossing through Iraq and Syria, both under its tutelage. This pipeline would secure the Shi’ite bow from Tehran to Beirut, thus debilitating Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. Furthermore, it would allow direct oil exports to Europe.
In relation to Russia and Turkey, despite starting in opposite bands they are now siding together. Turkey is particularly interested in avoiding a Kurdish independent state in the region, this necessarily positions the former ottoman empire against the U.S a key supporter of the Kurdish people due to their success on debilitating the Islamic State. Russia will make use of this distancing to its own benefits. It is in Russia’s interest to have Turkey as an ally in Syria in order to break NATO’s Middle East strategy and have a strong army operating in Syrian territory, thus reducing its own engagement and military cost.
Despite things being in favour of Iran, Saudi Arabia could still take advantage of recent developments of the conflict to damage Iran’s internal stability.
Ethnic and sectarian segmentation are also part of Iran’s fabric, and the Government’s repression against minorities within the territory –namely Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis- have caused insurgencies before. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States aligned with its foreign policy, such as the UAE are likely to exploit resentment of the minorities in order to destabilized Iran’s internal politics.
The problem does not end there for Iran. Although ISIS being wiped off the Syrian territory, after falling its last citadel in Baguz, this is not the end of the terrorist group. Iran’s active role in fighting Sunni jihadists through Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq has given Islamist organization a motivation to defy Tehran.
Returning foreign fighters could scatter over the region creating cells and even cooperating with Sunni separatist movements in Ahwaz, Kurdistan or Baluchistan. Saudi Arabia is well aware of this and could exploit the Wahhabi narrative and exert Sunni influence in the region through a behind-the-scenes financing of these groups.
 El derrumbe del Status Quo en OM: Las estrategias de seguridad de Irán y AS, David Poza Cano, enero 2017.
 Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy in Lebanon and Bahrain, Simon Mabon, LSE 2018
 Iran and the GCC Hedging, Pragmatism and Opportunism, Sanam Vakil, September 2018
 Reuters ‘Yemen’s Houthis and Saudi Arabia in secret talks to end war’, 15 March, 2018
 Bayoumy, Y. (2016), ‘Iran steps up weapons supply to Yemen’s Houthis via Oman’, Reuters, 30 October.
 Coates Ulrichsen, K., ‘Walking the tightrope: Kuwait, Iran relations in the aftermath of the Abdali affair’, Gulf States Analytics, 9 August, 2017
 Kamrava, M. ‘Iran-Qatar Relations’, in Bahgat, Ehteshami and Quilliam (2017), Security and Bilateral Issues Between Iran and Its Neighbours.
 Confirman en Siria la derrota total del grupo terrorista ISIS, Clarín Mundo. 23 de marzo, 2019
Iran Country Risk Report (June 2019)
After some months of implementation, the re-imposed US sanctions against Iran are seriously affecting Iranian economy and forcing disputed political and even military reactions. The present report attempts to provide an analysis of Iran by addressing: the consequences of sanctions, the current and future state of its energy sector, the internal situation of the country, and the future prospect of the Iran-US relations.
C. Asiáin, M. Morrás, I. Urbasos
Report [pdf. 14,1MB]
The US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, reshaped the Iranian domestic and international reality. On the one hand, the JCPOA enabled Iran to increase its GDP above 7% in the period of 2016-2018, more than double its oil exports and maintained President Rouhani in office after the 2017 elections. On the other hand, the US reimposition of the previously lifted sanctions demonstrated the deep vulnerabilities of the Iranian economy and its huge diplomatic isolation.
US sanctions will affect the whole of Iran’s foreign relations due to its extraterritorial nature. The EU will try to avoid its effect through legal protection of its companies and citizens with mechanisms such as the SPV, whose scope and effectivity is yet to be proved. China, as it is less exposed to the US financial and political influence, will be able to better circumvent sanctions but still far from being totally unaffected. Other countries such as India, Turkey or Russia will find difficulties to handle secondary sanctions, but will be able to maintain a certain degree of trade with the Islamic Republic. Japan or South Korea will have to follow US demands because of its strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific region and resume energy imports and investments.
The Iranian economy is expected to enter into recession during 2019, GDP growth is expected to be -4.5% and unemployment rate will increase to the 15.4%. This economic hardship will concentrate the political debate in the 2020 legislative and 2021 presidential elections, whose result will determine if a moderate or hardliner political faction seizes power. Social unrest from ethnic minorities and opposition is expected to rise if the economic conditions do not improve, challenging the current political equilibrium of the country.
The energy sector will be deeply affected by US sanctions as it banned all countries from investing and purchasing Iran’s energy products. Sanctions are expected to reduce Iran oil exports to 1million barrels a day from the 2017 levels of 2.4 mbdp, decreasing governmental revenues drastically and freezing most foreign investments. The lack of FDI and technology will aggravate the problems of the Iranian energy sector with possible irreversible effects depending on the sanctions duration.
US-Iran relations are expected to worsen at least until the US 2020 Presidential elections, when a more dialoguing candidate could substitute the hawkish Trump administration. The United States is expected to maintain its current strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel, whose common goal of pressuring Iran can have unexpected consequences for the Middle East. Domestic politics in Iran, US, Israel and Saudi Arabia will play a major role in the evolution of the events.
How Russia, China, India and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries react to the new US sanctions against Iran
▲ Presidents Putin and Rouhani during a meeting in Tehran, in September 2018 [Wikipedia]
ANALYSIS / Alfonso Carvajal
As US-Iranian relations continue to deteriorate, the balance of power and regional alliances will be prone to shifting and changing. Iranians will likely feel increasingly more marginalised as time passes and will seek to remedy their state of international isolation. Here, the main factors to look out for will be the nations seeking to achieve great power status, and how they will try to attract Iran towards them while pushing the Islamic Republic further away from the United States.
China and Russia’s response
Russia’s relations with Iran have historically been complicated. While at some points, the two countries have faced each other as rivals in war, other times have seen them enjoy peace and cooperation. Russia has been an important actor in Iranian international relations since at least the Sixteenth Century and will most likely retain its importance in the long run. Since the fall of the USSR, Russian-Iranian relations have improved, as many issues that had caused tensions suddenly disappeared. These issues where mainly caused by their ideological incompatibility, as the USSR’s atheism was looked upon with suspicion by Khomeini, and its support given to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.
Recently, both countries have found themselves facing international, mainly US, economic sanctions. This is a factor that is important to acknowledge, and that will shape their future relations. As Russia and Iran struggle to defuse the effects of sanctions, they will seek trade elsewhere. This means that they have found in each other a way to make for their isolation, and their ties are likely to only grow. Militarily, cooperation has already been cemented by years of sanctions in Iran.
Whereas once the Iranian Armed Forces boasted of having the most advanced Western-built fighter jets and other military material in the region, Iran now often uses Russian and Chinese aircraft and military gear, coupled with its own native military industry that was independently developed as a result of its isolation. Iran is also said to cooperate with Russia in certain industrial sectors close to the military such as drones. However, due to the latest international sanctions, Russia is less keen to continue to cooperate on military sales and technology transfers. For this reason, Russia has shown reluctance towards helping the Iranian nuclear program, although it is in favour of reaching a deal with Iran along with the international community.
A cornerstone in Russian-Iranian relations has always been their mutual distrust towards Turkey. In the age of the Ottoman Empire, relations between Persians and Russians would often consist in an alignment against the Ottoman Turks. Nowadays, their relationship also has this component, as Turkey and Iran are increasingly competing in the Middle East to decide who will lead the reconstruction of the region, whilst Russia and Turkey find themselves at odds in the Black Sea, where Russia’s ambition of naval dominance is being challenged.
While it may seem that Russia and Iran should be close allies, there are a series of reasons to explain why cooperation is not likely to see a fully fledged alliance. First of all, there are far too many differences between both regimes, as they have different geopolitical imperatives and ambitions in the Caucasus and the Middle east. The second issue is Israel. As Russia moves further into the Levant, it tries to maintain good relations with Israel, Iran’s archenemy, also called little Satan by Iran’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. As the conflict in Syria dies down in the following years, Russia will be forced to choose between who to support. This is likely to mean a withdrawal of support towards Iran’s position in Syria, as it sees its meddling in the region increasingly unproductive, and would favour its retreat. Iran, however, has said it is there to stay.
Russian-Iranian cooperation has recently been developed in one important country of the region: Afghanistan. As the US seems to lose interest in the Middle East and pivots towards East Asia, Russia and Iran have moved into the war-torn country, as they back different factions aiming to end the decades-long conflict. Russia has previously backed the Taliban, because it wants to ensure that they are a part of the peace negotiations. Iran has backed both the government and the Taliban, as it wants to fight the rising influence of ISIS in Afghanistan, as well as keep good relations with the Taliban to maintain a degree of stability and control over Afghanistan’s west, so that the conflict does not spill over. Although Russia and Iran might have different objectives, they are united in wanting to push the US of the region.
The other geopolitical giant that is slowly encroaching on the region is the People’s Republic of China, albeit with a different stance altogether. Like Russia, China has welcomed business with Iran and currently supports the nuclear deal, the JCPOA, which the US recently left. Chinese-Iranian ties are more solid than the Russian’s, as they don’t have as many overlapping hegemonic ambitions. In a certain way, the relations between these two countries arose as a way to contain the USSR’s expansive influence during the 1970’s after the Sino-Soviet split, and predate the current Iranian regime. Both countries see their relation as part of the past, as great empires of antiquity, the present, and see each other as important partners for future and ongoing projects, such as the One Road One Belt initiative. However, as does Russia, China sometimes tries to play down its support towards Iran so as not to antagonize its relations with the West and the US in particular.
The Chinese have cooperated with the Islamic Republic since its conception in the 80’s, as the Iranian isolation led them towards the few markets they could access. The main theme of this cooperation has been undoubtedly based on hydrocarbons. Iran is one of the most important producers of both crude petroleum and natural gas. China is Iran’s largest trade partner, as 31% of Iran’s exports go to China, whose imports represent 37% of Iran’s in 2017. Military cooperation between these two countries has also been very important, a large part of Iran’s non-indigenous military material is of Chinese origin. The Chinese have historically been the main providers of arms to the Iranian regime, as can be seen by much of the equipment currently used by the IRGC.
Both regimes feel a certain closeness as some parts of their ideologies are similar. Both share an anti-imperialist worldview and are sceptical of Western attitudes, an attitude best perceived among their unelected leaders. They are countries that are emerging from the misery left behind by Western imperialism, according to their own narrative. Both see each other as the heirs of some of the world’s oldest cultures—the Chinese often talk of 20 centuries of cooperation between both states—, and thus feel a historical, civilizational and anti-imperialist connection in this sense. Iranians admire the great leaps that the PRC has taken towards development, and the great successes they have brought to the Chinese people and State. They also value the Chinese mindset of not meddling or criticizing the internal affairs of other States, and treating them all in the same way independent of their government.
On the other hand, the Chinese are happy to work with a Muslim country that doesn’t stir the restive North-Western Xinjiang region, where the majority of China’s Uighur Muslims live. In fact, Iran is seen by the Chinese as an important factor on the stability of Central Asia. More recently, they also see in Iran a key part of the pharaonic One Belt One Road infrastructure project, as Iran sits in the crossroads between East and West. It is understood that Beijing has high expectations of cooperation with Teheran.
However, not all of it is positive. Iranians and Chinese have different ideological foundations. China has shown that it will not be able to form an full-fledged alliance with Iran, as it fears Western backlash. In 2010 China voted a UNSC resolution in favour of sanctions towards Iran. Even though these were largely ignored by China later, Tehran understood the message. As a result of these sanctions, the only nations willing to trade with Iran where Russia and China. The latter became an increasingly important trade partner as a consequence of the lack of Western competition and began to flood the Iranian market with low-quality goods, which was unpopular among the Iranians. Resentment toward China only grew as the Chinese firms that became established in Iran brought their own workers from China and unemployment remained at high levels despite the increased economic activity. As discontent rose, Iranians of all backgrounds saw the negotiations with the West with great expectations. If successful, negotiations could provide a diversification of providers and a counterbalance against Chinese influence.
As negotiations have broken down under the Trump administration, China’s role in Iran is likely to only intensify. While the Europeans fight to save the nuclear deal, Iran is set to count on China as its main trade partner. Chinese firms, although now more vulnerable to pressure from the US than in 2010, still have strong interests in Iran, and are unlikely to leave what will be a competition-free market once most foreign firms are deterred by US sanctions. The Chinese will seek to keep the nuclear provisions of the JCPOA agreement and will cooperate in the development of the Arak Heavy Water Reactor, probably displacing the Russians, which have historically led the Iranian nuclear program. Chinese involvement in the Iranian nuclear industry will likely prevent the development of a bomb, as China does not want to encourage nuclear arms proliferation.
While China moves into South Asia, alarms go off in New Delhi. India sees itself as the dominant power in the region and its traditional enmity towards China is causing a change in its foreign policy. India’s PM, Narendra Modi, is following a policy of “Neighbourhood first” in the face of a growing Chinese presence. China already has expanded its reach to countries like Sri Lanka, where it has secured the port of Hambantota for a 99-year lease. In the latest years, Pakistan, India’s other arch-enemy, has become one of China’s closest partners. The relation between both countries stems from their rivalry towards India, although cooperation has reached new levels. The Chinese- Pakistan Economic Corridor runs from the Chinese city of Kashgar through the entire length of the country of Pakistan and ends in the developing port of Gwadar. The project has caused a rush of much needed capital in the financially unstable Pakistan, with Chinese and Saudi bonds keeping it afloat. In the face of China’s new projects and its New Silk Road, New Delhi sees itself more and more surrounded, and has accused China of scheming to isolate it.
To face China’s new stance, India has taken a more active role. Its prime minister made many State visits to the neighbouring countries in a bid to weaken Chinese influence. In this effort to impose itself on what it sees as its region, India is developing a deep-sea port in the coast of Iran, past the strait of Hormuz in the Indian ocean. Iran will be an important piece in the designs of the Indian political elite.
The development of the deep-sea port of Chabahar is a joint Indian, Iranian and Afghan project to improve the connectivity of the region and has more than one reason of being. It is effectively a port to connect Central Asia, a growing 65-million people market, through a series of rail and road networks which are also part of the project, to the Indian Ocean. Another reason for this port is the development of war-torn Afghanistan, which also serves the purpose of reducing Pakistan’s influence there. Pakistan holds a firm grip in Afghanistan and sees it as its back yard. Pakistan is said to harbour Taliban guerrillas, who use the country to launch attacks against Afghanistan, as it did against the USSR in the 80’s. The most important feature of all for India is that the port would allow it to bypass what is an effective land blockade from Pakistan, and will permit it to reach and trade with Afghanistan. The Chabahar port will essentially compete with the Chinese-built Gwadar port in nearby Pakistan, in the two superpowers’ race for influence and domination of the ocean’s oil-carrying sea lanes.
India’s usual approach is to keep a neutral stance around world conflicts in order to be able to talk and deal with all parties. This is part of its non-commitment policy. For example, India has relations with both Israel and Palestine, or Iran and Saudi Arabia. This means that India is very unlikely to make any serious statement in favour of Iran against the United States if Iranian-US relations were to badly break down, as it might be seen as picking sides by some countries. It does not mean, however, that it will abandon Iran. India has already invested greatly in infrastructure projects and is unlikely to simply withdraw them. Far more importantly, India is one of Iran’s biggest petroleum purchasers, and losing such an important market and provider is not a choice the Indian government is eager to make.
India calls its relationship with Iran a “strategic partnership”, in terms of cooperation in energy and trade activities. The Indian government is likely to take a cautious stance while acting with principles of Realpolitik. They will try to sort out sanctions if they can and will discourage this sort of activity while trying to maintain their interests in the region. As said before, New Delhi will shy away from committing strongly from any project likely to keep its hands tied.
The Syrian War
In 2011, the Middle East and North Africa region was shaken by what would soon be called the Arab Spring. While the citizens of many Arab countries where chanting pro- democratic slogans and protesting outside dictators’ palaces and in the squares of Middle Eastern capitals, outside observers began to say that the once dictatorship- riddled region was about to adopt Western liberal democracy in what would become an era of freedom never paralleled in such countries. What came later could hardly be further from that reality. The region was struck by great waves civil unrest, as one by one, from West to East, the waves of revolution spread. The most authoritarian regimes attacked their own citizens with brutal repression, and what seemed like democratic transitions rapidly turned out to fall back into authoritarianism. Such was the case in Egypt, among others. However, some countries where struck harder than others. The more serious cases became civil wars. Some of the countries that had enjoyed relative long-term stability, like Libya and Syria burst into civil war. Yemen too, was struck by sectarian conflict.
The longest of these conflicts, the Syrian Civil War, is on its 8th year already. For a long time, it has drawn many international and regional actors, turning its countryside into a patchwork of pro-government militias, rebel guerrillas, Islamist extremism, transnational nationalist movements and others. The ruling class, the Al- Assad alawite family, under an authoritarian and secularist regime, has held on to power through every means possible, using foreign support as a crucial part of its survival strategy. To his side, Bashar Al-Assad has drawn the support of Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Each of these players has brought their own forces to the battlefield, as Russia has helped give Syria the necessary aerial capabilities it lacked, while Iran provides it with Shia militias, material, volunteers, and the presence of Hezbollah.
The regime faces many groups, who often fight against each other, and have different international backing, if any. For example, the Free Syrian Army is said to be backed by Turkey and is made from Sunni Arab and Turkmen militias. Other groups such as the Islamic State or Al Qaeda affiliated organizations also fight for survival, or to implement their ideal society. Another important group, perhaps the most important one is the YPG, or People’s Protection Unit, largely a Kurdish force, which holds much of Northern Syria, the Kurdish region called Rojava. The YPG and the Syrian government of Al-Assad seem to have come to an understanding and try not to enter into hostilities amongst each other, focusing on the Islamic State, or ISIL. YPG international backing comes mainly from the US, but with President Donald Trump having said that the US will soon leave Syria, their future is uncertain.
With Bashar Al-Assad’s position having become dominant in the Syrian battlefield, it is expected that the conflict will enter a new stage. Israel has shown its growing discomfort in what it sees as Iranian expansionism, and has launched aerial offensives against Iranian positions, permitted by Russia, who currently controls much of Syria’s aerial defences. This might spell the loosening of Al-Assad’s coalition.
As Iranian-backed forces draw closer to the southwest of Syria, Israel becomes more and more nervous. The implication of Israel in the Syrian conflict would most likely be a disaster for all parties involved. If Israel comes to point of fearing for its territorial integrity, or its existence, it has previously shown, in many occasions, that it will not doubt to take action and use all of its military might in the process if needed.
This is why Hezbollah is unlikely to make a serious move towards the Golan Heights. Hezbollah now boasts of the greatest amount of power it has ever had in its domestic scene. It is an influential actor in the Syrian War and at home it has achieved serious political power, forming a coalition with various other Shia and Christian groups. A war with Israel, in which it was identified as the aggressor, would be disastrous to its image as a protector of the Lebanese, as it has always taken a stance of resistance. It would put all of Hezbollah’s political achievements in jeopardy. Whatever the case, Israel boasts of significantly more modern and powerful armed forces, which would force Hezbollah to be on the defensive, thus making an offensive into Israel extremely unlikely. Hezbollah must then try to restrain Iran, although, amongst the myriad of Iranian-backed militias, it has lost leverage in its relations with Iran and the IRGC.
For Bashar Al-Assad, war with Israel might prove an existential threat, as it bears the potential to cause a great deal of damage in Syria, undermining any effort to consolidate power and end the war in his favour. If war with Israel broke out, even if it was just against Iranian-backed objectives, Al-Assad would never be able to obtain the reconstruction funds it so badly needs to rebuild the country. Israel’s powerful and advanced army would without a doubt pose the patchwork of battle-hardened militias a very big challenge. Thus, it is very unlikely for Al-Assad to permit a war might cause his downfall.
Russia, wishing to end the war and keep its military bases and prestige in the process, would no doubt discourage any sort of posturing against Israel from its allies in Syria. Moscow seeks to maintain good relations with Israel and wouldn’t be very upset about an Iranian exit. It is already trying to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from coming too close to the Israeli and Jordanian borders and has opened the Syrian airspace to Israeli aerial attacks towards Iranian targets located in its vicinity. Russia would welcome a quick and impressive end to the war to consolidate its status as a global power and become a power broker in the region.
Reaching a deal with the US to end hostilities in exchange for the recognition of Al-Assad is not outside the realms of possibility, as chances of regime change get slimmer, the US will be forced to recognize that Al-Assad is there to stay. It is necessary to acknowledge that a Russian-US deal will be incomplete, and quite unfruitful. The US is very likely to demand that Iran leave Syria and stops occupying Iraq with is Quds Force. Russia does not possess the leverage to send Iran back home. It would also be unfavourable for Russia as it has chosen to help Assad to regain its status as a great power in the world and has become a major power broker in the Middle East. This means their position relies on their status, which would be compromised, were Iran to openly confront Russia. The Iranians have already said that they would not leave unless Bashar Al-Assad specifically asked them to. Russia could pressure on Al-Assad, but the Iranians are likely to have more leverage, as they have a larger ground force in the region, and where the first to help the Syrian regime.
If the US wants to achieve any sort of meaningful peace negotiations, it must come into dialogue with the Iranians. Any sort of negotiation that does not include Iran would be pointless, as the amount of influence it has acquired in the region these last years makes it a key player. Iran is determined to stay in Syria and the IRGC is committed to force the government to keep its presence abroad.
In any case, the retreat of US troops in Syria would mark a turning point in the war. Currently the US provides air support, has 2,000 ground troops and provides an vital amount of equipment to the YPG Kurdish forces. Its retreat would be a blow to American credibility as an international ally, as it abandons the Kurds in a decisive moment where all tables could turn against them. Turkey has committed forces towards fighting the Kurds, which it sees as a threat to its national integrity, as large numbers of Kurds live inside Turkey and are hostile to it. The main reason for Turkish entry into the Syrian war was to stop the YPG from uniting a long stretch of land along the Turkish
border towards the Mediterranean Sea and to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state. It is therefore a possibility that, whether through its Syrian proxies, or with its own army, the Turks will ally with Al-Assad against the Kurds, if these two don’t reach an agreement and begin hostilities. This alliance is more than likely, as Turkish animosity towards Kurdish forces will cause them to jump at the occasion, if Al-Assad asks for help. Al-Assad might seek in this way to balance Iranian influence by integrating another player, which would cause tensions between Iran and Turkey to rise, as both countries aspire to obtain regional hegemony, and would give Syria more margin to manoeuvre.
Saudi Arabian soldier from the First Airborne Brigade with a UAE soldier, 2016 [Saudi88hawk-Wikipedia]
The struggle for dominance in the region is expected to continue indeterminately. As long as the ideological argument between the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) exists, it will take geopolitical dimensions, as both states seek to ensure their legitimacy in the face of the other. The Iran-Iraq War shaped the Islamic Republic’s sense of geopolitical isolation, giving the more entrenched sectors of its political elite a fierce will to prevent any further isolation as was done in the past. Chemical weapons, often provided by the US were used against it, without any action taken from the international community. Therefore, the Iranian elites believe that Iran will have to stand by itself, and knows it will have few allies.
For the moment, Iran seems to be winning the confrontation. With a the possibility of a consolidated Syria, Iran’s influence would be unparalleled. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon will provide Iran the reach and the potential to expand its influence even in the Mediterranean Sea. The war in Yemen is proving as costly as it is ineffective to Saudi Arabia and its allies, with a minimum cost from Iran. It can be expected that Iran keeps its strong grip over these countries, as its presence has become necessary for the survival of some of these states. It will not be without difficulty, as local forces are likely to reject the imposition of Iranian authority. This has been shown before in the burning of the Iranian consulate in Basra , by local Sunni Arabs who resent the degree of influence its neighbour has in their country. The recently struck commercial deals with Iraq during Rouhani’s visit to the country might cause more Iraqis to take a more confrontational stance, as they are seen to benefit Iran more than Iraq. Both counties have pledged to increase their trade up to 20 billion dollars, but it will be hard to determine how they will affect Iraq. With this degree of Iranian involvement, the KSA’s influence diminishes.
The Yemeni war is likely to drag on for years, and if the Saudis are to win, the shall have to keep paying a high toll, which will require strong political will to overcome the adversities. The expense of this war is not only material, it has primarily taken a great diplomatic cost, as it loses credibility to its allies, like the US, which see the ineffectiveness of the Saudi military. At home, their western allies struggle to explain their partnership with a country that has proven too much to handle for certain political groups and the civil society in general, with its lack of human rights considerations and sharia-based laws that seem outdated to Westerners. The cruel Yemeni war further alienates the Saudi Kingdom from them.
The conflict for Middle Eastern hegemony might be about to attract a new player. As Pakistan tries to deal with its ongoing crisis, its new president, Imran Khan, has looked to the Gulf States for funding. The Saudis and the UAE have already pledged many billion dollars. For now, the economic woes make Pakistan an unlikely actor, but there is evidence of a change of direction in Islamabad, as Khan seems to part ways from his predecessor’s foreign policy regarding its western neighbour. Cooperation with Iran has significantly been reduced, especially in terms of security and anti-terrorism, as in March 2019 Baluchi ethno-nationalists once again attacked Iranian positions from the Pakistani border. Tehran seems alarmed by these developments and has explicitly warned Pakistan that an approach towards Saudi Arabia and participation in the so called Middle Eastern Cold War will have severe consequences for Pakistan. It is right in fearing Pakistan, which has shown that it can play the same game as Iran, making use of foreign militias and having an impressive intelligence service, on top of the nuclear bomb. If Iran where to cause conflict in Pakistan, it might find itself in severe disadvantage, as it would be harder to use subversive activities in the predominantly Sunni country. It might also come to odds with China, who will view any menace to its infrastructure projects with great suspicion. Iran would have difficult time finding a serious counterbalance to Pakistan in India, as India would decline to strike a serious alliance due to its many interests in the Gulf States.
Iran, however, still holds many cards it can use if the conflict were to escalate. Bahrain, whose predominantly Shia population contrast to its powerful Sunni ruling family, which will find itself fighting to maintain control in the case of an Iranian- backed coup similar to the one in 1981, or a pro-democracy uprising with significant Shia elements such as the one of 2011. For the latter, had the Gulf states not intervened in Bahrain in support of its ruling family, Bahrain would now likely be part of the Iranian regional system, which would be extremely troublesome for the KSA, given its proximity. It can also be expected for Iran to influence the oppressed Shia Arabs along Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf coast. These Shia Arabs lie just above most of KSA’s petrol wells and reserves, and if stirred to open rebellion, and properly armed, would cause immense trouble in the Monarchy.
The other option open to Iran will be to exploit the current Gulf crisis between the KSA and UAE against Qatar, whose blockade has lasted almost two years. Iran will seek to build up stronger ties with Qatar, who has found itself isolated by most Arab nations. Currently, Turkey is the key ally to Qatar in the crisis, and their partnership is seen to have strategic importance by both parties.
Qatar has traditionally had better ties to Iran than most other Gulf states, also due to the fact that they share the South-Pars/North Dome natural gas field, the largest in the world, and rely on cooperation to exploit its resources and wealth. This is largely a product of its independent foreign policy. This means that Iran is likely to use the crisis to drive a wedge between the members of the GCC and take advantage of their disunity in favour of Qatar and in detriment to the KSA. It will be difficult for the Iranians and the Qataris form a significant partnership, since there are still too many obstacles to this. First of all, Qatar is a Sunni Arab state, and it is the main exporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas, which would not fit Iran’s tendency toward Shia countries. Secondly, a partnership with Iran would make the Gulf Cooperation Council’s crisis permanently irreparable, which is not desired by Qatar. Finally, this would turn Qatar into the main objective of the Saudi-led coalition and would unnecessarily put it in harm’s way.
One key factor could change everything in a highly unlikely scenario, also known as a ‘black swan’. This is the disappearance of ISIS from the Levant, and its relocation to Khorasan, a term used for Central Asia, Northern Iran and Afghanistan. This would change the balance of power in the middle East as it would bring conflict to the very borders of Iran. It would allow for Iran’s enemies to arm this extremely anti-Shia group, following a parallel of the Yemen’s Houthi rebels for Saudi Arabia. These rebels are banking on the opportunity that, following peace in Afghanistan with the Taliban, the Taliban’s followers will become disenchanted by its leadership dealings with the US and would thus join the newly founded group. They would acquire the battle-hardened Taliban troops, which would provide a formidable foe for Iran.
Why Tehran has decided to openly confront US sanctions and how the crisis could develop from now
▲ Persian chess-game [Pixabay]
ANALYSIS / Baltasar Martos
It is now time to suggest a possible future-oriented course of action for Iran in response to the US unilateral exit from the nuclear deal1. The strategy employed to this end will be that of the red-hat analysis, capitalizing on cultural comprehension and adopting the Iranian regime’s perspective to better understand the way in which it perceives the various threats and opportunities ahead, hence always considering situational factors.
A SWOT analysis will be provided beforehand by way of introduction, focusing just in one of the most important (1) strengths: high proportion of young people; (2) weaknesses: the intrincate political system; (3) opportunities: a closer relationship with leading European countries, and (4) threats: joint pressure by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This will surely enable a more in-depth approach to Iranian views and positions.
A simplified SWOT
1. First and foremost, Iran is home for more than 80 million people, 43% of which are less than 40 years old. This large young population is very much tuned to Western trends and habits of consumption. They embrace technology virtually as much as in any other Western nation. The most striking fact about Iranian youngsters is the amount of university students among them. The country is well known for hosting a highly qualified population and labor force that acquired superior education at any of the numerous universities in the major cities.
2. In second place, Iran owns a very complex, intricate political system that renders the hierarchy of the decision-making process very difficult to understand. Its current institutions are a product of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which ousted the Shah and reformed the whole previous power network. The political system of the country then turned from an authoritarian Monarchy into a constitutional theocracy with a multipolar power structure. The religious figure of the Supreme Leader or Ayatollah is the ultimate responsible for setting both domestic and foreign policy. The main issue here is that this institution holds views that are deeply rooted in the old days and endeavors to influence the private lives of the citizens. Decisions are self-explanatorily not made according to economic efficiency or political experience, or even less to satisfy population’s demands. Instead they aim to preserve and safeguard the regime and ensure its survival. The primary concern of the ruling political elites is thus to last in power, not to introduce reforms or think prospectively.
3. In the third place, Iran has now the chance to strengthen ties with its traditional powerful trade partners in the European Union, such as France, England or Italy. Provided their opposition vis-à-vis the US reimposition of sanctions, Iran can utilize this opportunity to begin a rapprochement towards them and express its best desire to cooperate under certain established conditions that prove beneficial to both parts.
4. Finally, Iran should not disregard the warnings coming from the White House. The main threat Iran is likely to face is an aggressive diplomatic strategy at the initiative of the US with the aggregated—but separated—efforts of Israel and Saudi Arabia. This would definitely jeopardize Iran’s current position as one of the dominant powers in the region and would force the nation to find an alternative solution.
Red Hat exercise
Tehran’s interpretation of Washington’s 2018 diplomatic shift quite evidently differs from that of the Trump administration2. In the words of Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate reason for this new move lies in the US’s perverse ambition to progressively weaken and undermine the socio-political structure built after decades of arduous work by the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei claims that Washington’s intention is to overturn a popular, legitimate government in favor of a puppet regime completely subjected to its will.
In their public speeches, the Iranian political elites constantly refer to the US’s boundless ambition to regain total control of the region, oppress civil society and submit individuals to their corrupted dogmas and doctrines, like they did decades ago. They very often evoke the glorious past of their millenary civilization and emphasise that it is precisely its longevity what makes it worthy of the most careful preservation and promotion. Once a major empire, they say, Iran has developed a unique identity different from that of its closest neighbors.
In the Iranian collective mindset, especially that of the most orthodox Shia and the very influential clerics, the nation enjoys the highest dignity for having conquered other territories and peoples but also endured invasions and dominations from enemies and rivals, yet always remaining true and loyal to its ancient traditions and foundations. More recently, Iran owes its independence to the innumerable efforts made by the leaders of the Revolution to free the nation from the clutches of the American imperialism embodied in the Pahlavi dynasty. The country’s civilisational pride is therefore deeply ingrained in the people’s minds and very often put forward in the political discourse. Furthermore, its foreign policy is soaked by a traditional ‘regional fear’, for Iran sees itself as the guardian of true Shi’a values amidst a region dominated by Shi’a-adverse powers with superior military capabilities.
The strong resentment and hatred against the Western world in general, and the demonization of the United States in particular, appear very often in Iranian politics. Such an anti-Western narrative is very often used to cover up the regime’s economic mismanagement over the last decades, instead blaming the West for all the struggles, ills and evils of society. We must remember that, for Iranians—at least for the most religious sector of the society—the Islamic Revolution is a path that leads believers into Paradise and salvation as understood by the Shi’a. The revolution purports to redeem the peoples from the national humiliation suffered during Western dominance in the times of the Shah. Therefore, martyrdom, resistance and endurance are considered three most valuable virtues that will guarantee all kinds of enjoyments to those cultivating them throughout their lifetime.
Iran presumably decided to start a nuclear program based off several historical reasons. On one hand, in face of a strong isolation experienced during the bloody war waged against Irak—an opponent which used chemical weapons against both combatants and civilians alike—Iran began its works with the aim of further intensifying its nuclear technology developments as a means to guard against a future surprise of similar characteristics.
On the other hand we shall recall the Revolution’s need to constantly legitimate itself and maintain its status in front of the international community, thus preserving Iran’s independence from outside influence or external intervention while restoring its former greatness as a center of scientific progress. Moreover, Tehran has long claimed its need to promote a solid nuclear energy plan to ensure energy security at home and satisfy the needs of its huge domestic demand in peaceful civilian, energy and medical terms. The government emphasizes the right to develop, research, produce and use nuclear energy as endowed by Iran’s membership in the Non-Proliferation treaty.
However, the most pressing issue for Iran’s security is undoubtedly the fact that five of the world’s nine nuclear powers are located nearby or directly on its borders. The theocracy claims to have substantial grounds for feeling victim of the foreign arrogance of the outside world, which has allegedly endeavored to restrict Iran’s rights to freely develop its nuclear activities by having it sign the Non-proliferation Treaty, unlike other neigboring nuclear-armed states such as Pakistan, Israel or India. This brings us to the conclusion that, even if the regime vehemently denies any interest in developing nucler weapons and rather uses the need to supply its domestic market with much needed energy resources as an excuse to keep its works running, some evidence found in recent discoveries of covert facilities and nuclear plants can confirm the vital importance for some of the regime leaders to obtain weapons in the short or medium term.
The Persian nation is now standing on a crossroads with three different paths ahead, each one leading to a very different place. We will place them in an order, ranging from the most likely scenario to the least plausible one: (A) prolongation of diplomatic stalemate with minor tensions; (B) quick escalation of tensions and direct military confrontation, and (C) bring back the so-called ‘12 conditions’ to the bargaining table and stick to them.
A. The most likely: Diplomatic stalemate
On May 8, exactly a year after Donald Trump's announcement of US exit from the JCPOA, President Rouhani announced that Iran would cease to perform parts of its commitments under the nuclear deal, namely the observance of the limit for its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and the compliance with the limit of heavy water reserves. Its statement included a 60-day ultimatum, addressing specifically the European State parties to the treaty and urging them to find a diplomatic solution via economic packages to ease the current oil and banking restrictions. Should they prove unable to fulfill this conditions, Rouhani warned, Iran will continue with its intended pullout from the accord through a ‘multi-phased approach’.
Europeans have recently been employing a rhetoric that has resulted in ambiguous and confusing promises to Iran, mainly due to the innumerable efforts they need to make in order to balance out a strong willingness to save the deal and the fear of a further detachment from an everyday more hostile American partner. On his side, President Rouhani has remained true to his bet on ‘strategic patience’ in the style of the Moderation and Development Party, to which he belongs, during all this time.
Nevertheless, it seems that the patience of the Iranian leadership is coming to an end with each passing day. The political elites have harshly critized its European counterparts for making lots of empty promises throughout this last year without achieving any substantial or practical outcome, specially after the U.S. decision on April 22 to put an end to the waivers on oil imports from third countries in an attempt to ‘bring oil trade to zero’. This will no longer exempt any customer engaging in oil transactions with Iran from the US-led second wave of sanctions. Moreover, Rouhani has called on the Europeans to allow Iran to repatriate its money sitting in European bank accounts, which still remain blocked as part of previous sanctions.
Without disregarding the vital importance of the E3 for Iran’s national economy and the pivotal role they play in the political scenario surrounding the country in the Middle East, it is also true that there are other strategic partners involved in this game whose existence as credible alternatives to the E3 is precisely the cause that pushes the Iranian leadership to discard a complete withdrawal and rather remain adhered to the nuclear accord. At the front of this group of Iranian oil importers are China and India, which will self-evidently ignore the effects of the recent termination of the US waivers and prosecute their purchases to satisfy their huge domestic demand. Although with weaker currencies and perhaps using more rudimentary instruments, both China and India will manage to secure those transactions in an orderly manner and will most likely help other purchasers to do the same. In fact, some voices speak of a possibility of performing oil-swap arrangements via Russia to lock oil prices and protect their finances from the high volatility of global energy prices.
Following this logic, Iran will then go ahead with its ongoing business while persuading and encouraging importers to keep buying Iranian oil despite the inability of European counterparts to meet the aforementioned ultimatum as set by President Rouhani. In paralell to this, Iran will probably threaten the remaining parts and especially the Americans with a further development of its nuclear capacities, but this will only add to a strategy that seeks to prolong the current state of affairs until the next U.S. presidential elections in 2020 take place.
B. The apocalyptic, yet no the least plausible scenario
The most apocalyptic—yet not the least plausible—scenario can be inferred from the most recent moves of US military assets after the government’s official designation of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization’ on April 8. Fist, on May 6, the Pentagon announced the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber task force on the Persian Gulf. Four days later, the Pentagon confirmed that it had sent some warships, the USS Arlington amphibious transport dock and a Patriot missile defense battery to the same region as a deterrent to Iran. Lastly, on May 12, two Saudi oil tankers and four additional Emirati ships off the coast of the Persian Gulf were sabotaged. President Trump blamed Iran for malicious behaviour targeting maritim traffic along the Gulf. More recently, Washington officials have announced a new deployment of some fighter jets and additional troops to the same territory in what they have called a ‘mostly protective measure’. This suddenly heightened tensions might result in the outbreak of renewed hostilities in the coming months.
The American public opinion does not discard a military confrontation in a close future. In fact, a poll conducted in the US between May 17 and May 20 disclosed surprising results3: more than half of the American citizens consider Iran as a ‘worrying’ or even ‘imminent’ threat. Roughly the same percentage assumes their country will go to war against Iran in the coming years. Very few civilians believe that a preemptive attack should be conducted on Iranian military interests, but roughly 80% of them are convinced that the US should respond to an attack from the side of Iranian via airstrikes or even ground troop invasions.
An undeniable fact is that there are differing views inside the White House. The National Security Advisor John Bolton and in some way also the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have always shown a maximalist approach that seeks to overthrow the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. Apparently none of them would hesitate to enter into a dire military confrontation if the situation so required. Bolton himself had already declared his intentions even before substituting his predecessor in office, Herbert McMaster. On the other hand, President Trump has used his recent meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to affirm the following: ‘Iran has a tremendous economic potential. […] It has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership. We are not looking for a regime change. I just want to make that clear. We are just looking for no nuclear weapons'4. This somehow spaces out his view from that of his hawkish aides. In the words of Karim Sadjadpour, a well renowned Iranian-American policy analyst, ‘What Trump articulated in Japan was another reminder that his main problem with the Iranian nuclear deal was that it was signed by Obama. Given Trump’s eagerness for a public summit and deal with Tehran, it is conceivable that Iran’s leaders could sign a more favorable deal with Trump than they did with Obama. But the pride and mistrust of Iran’s supreme leader makes him more inclined to subject his population to another year of sanctions and economic malaise rather than do a deal with Trump’.
C. The unlikely back to the negotiating table
On May 12, 2018, four days after President Trump made public his intention of withdrawal from the JCPOA, Pompeo set out a list of twelve conditions under which Washington would agree to a new agreement with Tehran. Besides addressing the termination of Iran’s participation in different conflicts throughout the Middle East, it explicitly called on Tehran to ‘stop enriching its uranium and plutonium reserves, grant IAEA unrestricted access to all sites throughout the entire country and end proliferation and testing of ballistic missiles’.
It should be noted that Trump never presented explicit and clear evidence that Iran was failing to comply with its obligation. Instead, he merely denounced the treaty as far from being minimally advantageous for American interests, once again reinforcing the idea that the Obama Administration resoundingly failed to negotiate a deal that could benefit both parts. The three European State parties also emphasized that Iranians had remained faithful to their commitment and that had been officially attested by international inspectors supervising the nuclear facilities. That was the main piece of evidence supporting Iran’s thesis of not being in a state of violation of any provision of the deal but instead strictly observing every single aspect as they were agreed upon.
Having all this in mind, there are other aspects we should look at. The war in Syria is slowly coming to an end and Al-Assad owes his victory to the strong and uninterrupted financial and logistic aid from Tehran. There is no doubt that the regime will hold him accountable for all the support provided throughout the conflict and will seek to consolidate positions around the war-torn territory, thus expanding the influences of Shia islamist ideology as promoted by the Supreme Leader and the most prominent clerics. Moreover, not only is Iran-backed Hezbollah movement present in Syria, but also it enjoys a very prominent position inside the Lebanese parliament and holds an enormous influence in the country in general terms.
All this together, in addition to the round success Tehran is enjoying in his efforts to back Houthi rebels as compared to the exorbitant cost Saudi Arabia is paying to counter the rebellion, suffices to conclude that Iran is by no means willing to get back to the conditions advanced by Pompeo in order to renegotiate a new treaty that would thwart all the efforts already made along the way. This would signify an absolute humiliation for the regime. Iran has already come too far and it would now only accept to resume negotiations if it was granted the chance to depart from a dominant diplomatic position.
Representatives from the P5+1 countries in 2015, weeks before reaching the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement [US State Department]
What the EU is doing
Among all the State parties involved in the JCPOA, the E3 are likely to be the most severely affected by the US reinforcement of sanctions given the big stake they have in the region in form of finances and investments in the oil sector, and their unwillingness to go undercover. As a result of this new decision by Washington, companies and banks doing business in Iran could see their access to the American market cut off. Among other collateral effects, the re-imposition of sanctions will cause a negative impact on the region’s trade flows, energy supplies, connectivity, security and stability. Indeed, sanctions present a special conundrum for the European counterparts: either they decide to carry on with their economic activities in Iran or they remain inside the US-led international financial circuit. They need to solve this jigsaw puzzle if they still want to secure their economic interests.
In order to do so, following the US exit, the High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini issued a statement bitterly regretting the US retaliation and expressing the EU’s strong commitment to enact an updated blocking statute that would enter into force on August 7. This blocking statute refers to the ‘Council Regulation (EC) No 2271/96 of November 1996 protecting against the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country, and actions based thereon or resulting therefrom’5. It basically ‘allows EU operators to recover damages arising from US extraterritorial sanctions and nullifies the effect, in the EU, of any foreign court rulings. It also forbids EU persons form complying with those sanctions’6. In a nutshell, this statute acts as a shield against trade wars and mitigates the impact of those sanctions on the interests of European companies doing legitimate business with Iran, thus keeping Iran’s oil and investments flowing.
The European Union considers that its Member States’ business decisions should not be determined by any kind of foreign legislation. It would never recognize such legislation applicable to European operators. However, the EU still holds to the commitment of pursuing a continued, full and effective implementation of the treaty as long as Iran also plays its part by refraining from acquiring further equipment to develop a nuclear weapon and enables monitored verification of its uranium-235 enrichment activities. The E3 considers that the agreement is delivering on its goal so far and ensuring the peaceful nature of the nuclear program.
It is hence no surprise that the three European Member States involved in the deal are determined to preserve and implement it, insisting upon the numerous benefits it entails for Iran, the Middle East and the rest of the international community. Acting on behalf of the E3, the EU has recently endeavored to take several measures in order to offset the US withdrawal of the JCPOA7.
i) In the first place, they seek to extend the European Investment Bank lending mandates, allowing the bank to decide strictly under the EU budget to what extent and under which conditions it will finance commercial activities in Iran.
ii) Secondly, they also attempt to encourage and promote activities by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) willing to undertake operations in Iran.
iii) Thirdly, they purport to accelerate the activation of the Instrument In Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX). This is a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ acting as a clearing house or barter arrangement for Iran to conduct trade with European companies outside of the SWIFT mechanism. This mechanism was officially registered by France, Germany and the United Kingdom on January 31, 2019. It works as an alternative payment channel that facilitates legitimate trade and investment between the EU and Iran despite sanctions. It is led by the EU3 and self-evidently euro-denominated. The entity originally focused only on trade in non-sanctionable essential goods, namely medical and humanitarian, and not so much on oil-related transactions so far. It mainly addresses SMEs whose total trade volume is usually small. In principle, it has not been designed to circumvent or bypass US sanctions but rather to fight money laundering and counter the financing of illicit terrorist activities. These last aspects reinforce the European efforts to voice its disagreements on Iran’s declared support for Al-Assad in Syria and the promotion of terrorism region-wide, its multiple human rights abuses and its development of ballistic missiles.
However, in view of the technical complexities resulting in a long delay to set in motion this mechanism as well as the more immediate challenges the Union has to face in the first instance, it is very unlikely that the E.U. finds enough resources and time to effectively give a definite impulse to this apparatus before the deadline of 60 days from May 8 set by Iranians eventually expires.
(1) Sanger, D. et al. “U.S. Issues New Sanctions as Iran Warms It Will Step Back from Nuclear Deal”, The New York Times, May 8, 2019
(2) Chubin, Sharam. “The Politics of Iran's Nuclear Program”, The Iran Primer, US Institute for Peace, 2010 (updated 2015)
(3) Ipsos/Reuters Poll Data, Iran Poll 05.20.19 https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/12/658/652/2019%20Reuters%20Tracking%20-%20Iran%20Poll%2005%2020%202019.pdf
(4) Kranish, Michael. “Trumps Says He Is Not Seeking 'Regime Change' in Iran”. The Washington Post, May 27, 2019
(7) Geranmayeh, Ellie. “60 days to save the JCPOA”. European Council on Foreign Relations. May 9, 2019
Iran Country Risk Report (May 2019)
The sanctions that the United States is implementing against the Islamic Republic of Iran since November 2018 are the toughest sanctions ever imposed on Iran. They threaten to cut off foreign countries and companies dealing with Iran from the US financial system in order to deter business with Iran so to curtail the impact of proxy groups on the Middle East’s security and stability. The aim of this country report is to provide the most recent analysis of the Iran's economic and political situation, and estimate its evolution in the short and medium term. It presents an overlook of specific clues about matters related to political risk, as well as the effect that sanctions may have on the Iranian economy, and the prospects for political stability all over the region.
Report [pdf. 13,5MB]
Effects of sanctions
The re-imposition of US sanctions will maintain the Iranian economy in recession during the remaining months of 2019. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the economic meltdown will be very unlikely to happen, as the volume of oil exports is still significant, crude prices are going to continue to rise and other major powers´ opinion will still differ from the US´s. The multinational companies dependent on US financial system will continue leaving the Iranian market, partially leading to declining of the foreign investment, but SMEs will be almost unaffected and new forms of trading are likely to emerge soon.
Iran is likely to build stronger economic and political ties with India, China and Russia, thus giving them more power and openness to new trading opportunities, basically due to lack of any other possible partner on the horizon in the mid-term.
The prices are likely to keep growing up in the following months reaching the average inflation of 31.2% in 2019-20; still the risk of hyperinflation is discarded due to the fact that Iran is able to meet a significant share of local demand through local production.
Backed by support from the EU, Iran is promised to obtain in the mid-term a special mechanism of payments (Special Purpose Vehicle) for its oil and other exports (possibly through a barter system) in order to conduct trading outside of the competence of the US sanctions. This is likely to create some tensions between Europe and the US but they will not be powerful enough to split the long-lasting alliance between the two.
Oil and gas
The Iran´s production of oil will probably continue to decrease affecting the world´s oil price.
Five from the eight initial major buyers (Italy, Greece and Taiwan have already stopped their purchases from Iran) are and will be buying Iranian oil now that the waivers have been extended for the following 90 days. Thereby, the Iranian oil will still remain in demand during the following years, and Iran´s government is likely to find solutions for its selling and exportation, even though illegally, in the mid and long-term. Thus, the United States is unlikely to meet its earlier target of driving Iranian oil exports to zero.
Iraq will continue to buy natural gas from Iran in order to use it in the production of electricity, becoming the second largest customer. Taking into account the fact that there is a sort of competence between US and Iran for the influence over Iraq, it can fuel a further deterioration of their relations. It is also plausible that more buyers will emerge if some new forms of trading, which do not rely on dollar, appear soon.
Even though the modest production growth is likely to continue, Iran won´t be able to unilaterally monetize its natural gas resources due to lack of financial partners and the investment, especially from the West. However, it will be able to fulfil its domestic demand and sustain trade with Turkey.
Iran’s ability to increase production and exports of natural gas will be almost improbable, unless the relations with the United States are improved or support from international partners in defiance of sanctions is reinforced. Nevertheless, if Iran manages to accomplish current development projects, its export pipeline capacity will increase from 46.4 bcm/year in 2018, to 119.7 bcm/year to the regional and global markets in a long run. China, India and Pakistan will play a significant role in Iran´s natural gas sector.
The domestic scene
Iran will continue demonstrating considerable resilience in coping with US sanctions, and is likely to continue to fully implement the commitments of JCPOA as long as China, Russia, or countries which are non-members of the deal, such as India, continue to trade with it, and if EU continues maintaining its constructive attitude. In this case, even a greater international support and United Nations diplomatic intervention is expected in the mid-term. However, on a longer run, the JCPOA future will depend upon the economic situation and complex political battles between moderates and hardliners in Tehran.
The current deterioration of the economic conditions in Iran, the rial devaluation and growing inflation, together with already-high unemployment will provoke a further popular discontent which is likely to maintain the protests but without any considerable probability to threaten the Iranian political stability or lead to leadership´s rupture during the upcoming years.
The sanctions are likely to produce some adverse effects on the political local scene over the longer term, as Iranian hardliners may take advantage of them and the popular frustration and obtain the victory in the coming 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential poll. As a result, any possibility for future cooperation with US will equal zero.
The struggle for power has already started in the Islamic Republic in the midst of US sanctions and ahead a new electoral cycle
▲ Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian Air Force personnel, in 2016 [Wikipedia]
ANALYSIS / Rossina Funes and Maeve Gladin
The failing health of Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, 89, brings into question the political aftermath of his approaching death or possible step-down. Khamenei’s health has been a point of query since 2007, when he temporarily disappeared from the public eye. News later came out that he had a routine procedure which had no need to cause any suspicions in regards to his health. However, the question remains as to whether his well-being is a fantasy or a reality. Regardless of the truth of his health, many suspect that he has been suffering prostate cancer all this time. Khamenei is 89 years old –he turns 80 in July– and the odds of him continuing as active Supreme Leader are slim to none. His death or resignation will not only reshape but could also greatly polarize the successive politics at play and create more instability for Iran.
The next possible successor must meet certain requirements in order to be within the bounds of possible appointees. This political figure must comply and follow Khamenei’s revolutionary ideology by being anti-Western, mainly anti-American. The prospective leader would also need to meet religious statues and adherence to clerical rule. Regardless of who that cleric may be, Iran is likely to be ruled by another religious figure who is far less powerful than Khamenei and more beholden to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Additionally, Khamenei’s successor should be young enough to undermine the current opposition to clerical rule prevalent among many of Iran’s youth, which accounts for the majority of Iran’s population.
In analyzing who will head Iranian politics, two streams have been identified. These are constrained by whether the current Supreme Leader Khamenei appoints his successor or not, and within that there are best and worst case scenarios.
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi had been mentioned as the foremost contender to stand in lieu of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. Shahroudi was a Khamenei loyalist who rose to the highest ranks of the Islamic Republic’s political clerical elite under the supreme leader’s patronage and was considered his most likely successor. A former judiciary chief, Shahroudi was, like his patron, a staunch defender of the Islamic Revolution and its founding principle, velayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisprudence). Iran’s domestic unrest and regime longevity, progressively aroused by impromptu protests around the country over the past year, is contingent on the political class collectively agreeing on a supreme leader competent of building consensus and balancing competing interests. Shahroudi’s exceptional faculty to bridge the separated Iranian political and clerical establishment was the reason his name was frequently highlighted as Khamenei’s eventual successor. Also, he was both theologically and managerially qualified and among the few relatively nonelderly clerics viewed as politically trustworthy by Iran’s ruling establishment. However, he passed away in late December 2018, opening once again the question of who was most likely to take Khamenei’s place as Supreme Leader of Iran.
However, even with Shahroudi’s early death, there are still a few possibilities. One is Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, who, like Shahroudi, is Iraqi born. Another prospect is Ebrahim Raisi, a former 2017 presidential candidate and the custodian of the holiest shrine in Iran, Imam Reza. Raisi is a student and loyalist of Khamenei, whereas Larijani, also a hard-liner, is more independent.
1. MOST LIKELY SCENARIO, REGARDLESS OF APPOINTMENT
1.1 Ebrahim Raisi
In a more likely scenario, Ebrahim Raisi would rise as Iran’s next Supreme Leader. He meets the requirements aforementioned with regards to the religious status and the revolutionary ideology. Fifty-eight-years-old, Raisi is a student and loyal follower of the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Like his teacher, he is from Mashhad and belongs to its famous seminary. He is married to the daughter of Ayatollah Alamolhoda, a hardline cleric who serves as Khamenei's representative of in the eastern Razavi Khorasan province, home of the Imam Reza shrine.
Together with his various senior judicial positions, in 2016 Raisi was appointed the chairman of Astan Quds Razavi, the wealthy and influential charitable foundation which manages the Imam Reza shrine. Through this appointment, Raisi developed a very close relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is a known ideological and economic partner of the foundation. In 2017, he moved into the political sphere by running for president, stating it was his "religious and revolutionary responsibility". He managed to secure a respectable 38 percent of the vote; however, his contender, Rouhani, won with 57 percent of the vote. At first, this outcome was perceived as an indicator of Raisi’s relative unpopularity, but he has proven his detractors wrong. After his electoral defeat, he remained in the public eye and became an even more prominent political figure by criticizing Rouhani's policies and pushing for hard-line policies in both domestic and foreign affairs. Also, given to Astan Quds Foundation’s extensive budget, Raisi has been able to secure alliances with other clerics and build a broad network that has the ability to mobilize advocates countrywide.
Once he takes on the role of Supreme Leader, he will continue his domestic and regional policies. On the domestic front, he will further Iran's Islamisation and regionally he will push to strengthen the "axis of resistance", which is the anti-Western and anti-Israeli alliance between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Shia Iraq and Hamas. Nevertheless, if this happens, Iran would live on under the leadership of yet another hardliner and the political scene would not change much. Regardless of who succeeds Khamenei, a political crisis is assured during this transition, triggered by a cycle of arbitrary rule, chaos, violence and social unrest in Iran. It will be a period of uncertainty given that a great share of the population seems unsatisfied with the clerical establishment, which was also enhanced by the current economic crisis ensued by the American sanctions.
1.2 Sadeq Larijani
Sadeq Larijani, who is fifty-eight years old, is known for his conservative politics and his closeness to the supreme guide of the Iranian regime Ali Khamenei and one of his potential successors. He is Shahroudi’s successor as head of the judiciary and currently chairs the Expediency Council. Additionally, the Larijani family occupies a number of important positions in government and shares strong ties with the Supreme Leader by being among the most powerful families in Iran since Khamenei became Supreme Leader thirty years ago. Sadeq Larijani is also a member of the Guardian Council, which vetos laws and candidates for elected office for conformance to Iran’s Islamic system.
Formally, the Expediency Council is an advisory body for the Supreme Leader and is intended to resolve disputes between parliament and a scrutineer body, therefore Larijani is well informed on the way Khamenei deals with governmental affairs and the domestic politics of Iran. Therefore, he meets the requirement of being aligned with Khamenei’s revolutionary and anti- Western ideology, and he is also a conservative cleric, thus he complies with the religious figure requirement. Nonetheless, he is less likely to be appointed as Iran’s next Supreme Leader given his poor reputation outside Iran. The U.S. sanctioned Larijani on the grounds of human rights violations, in addition to “arbitrary arrests of political prisoners, human rights defenders and minorities” which “increased markedly” since he took office, according to the EU who also sanctioned Larijani in 2012. His appointment would not be a strategic decision amidst the newly U.S. imposed sanctions and the trouble it has brought upon Iran. Nowadays, the last thing Iran wants is that the EU also turn their back to them, which would happen if Larijani rises to power. However it is still highly plausible that Larijani would be the second one on the list of prospective leaders, only preceded by Raisi.
2. LEAST LIKELY SCENARIO: SUCCESSOR NOT APPOINTED
2.1 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
The IRGC’s purpose is to preserve the Islamic system from foreign interference and protect from coups. As their priority is the protection of national security, the IRGC necessarily will take action once Khamenei passes away and the political sphere becomes chaotic. In carrying out their role of protecting national security, the IRGC will act as a support for the new Supreme Leader. Moreover, the IRGC will work to stabilize the unrest which will inevitably occur, regardless of who comes to power. It is our estimate that the new Supreme Leader will have been appointed by Khamenei before death, and thus the IRGC will do all in their power to protect him. In the unlikely case that Khamenei does not appoint a successor, we believe that there are two unlikely options of ruling that could arise.
The first, and least likely, being that the IRGC takes rule. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the IRGC takes power. This would violate the Iranian constitution and is not in the interest to rule the state. What they are interested in is having a puppet figure who will satisfy their interests. As the IRGC's main role is national security, in the event that Khamenei does not appoint a successor and the country goes into political and social turmoil, the IRGC will without a doubt step in. This military intervention will be one of transitory nature, as the IRGC does not pretend to want direct political power. Once the Supreme Leader is secured, the IRGC will go back to a relatively low profile.
In the very unlikely event that a Supreme Leader is not predetermined, the IRGC may take over the political regime of Iran, creating a military dictatorship. If this were to happen, there would certainly be protests, riots and coups. It would be very difficult for an opposition group to challenge and defeat the IRGC, but there would be attempts to overcome it. This would be a regime of temporary nature, however, the new Supreme Leader would arise from the scene that the IRGC had been protecting.
2.2 Mohsen Kadivar
In addition, political dissident and moderate cleric Mohsen Kadivar is a plausible candidate for the next Supreme Leader. Kadivar’s rise to political power in Iran would be a black swan, as it is extremely unlikely, however, the possibility should not be dismissed. His election would be highly unlikely due to the fact that he is a vocal critic of clerical rule and has been a public opposer of the Iranian government. He has served time in prison for speaking out in favor of democracy and liberal reform as well as publicly criticizing the Islamic political system. Moreover, he has been a university professor of Islamic religious and legal studies throughout the United States. As Kadivar goes against all requirements to become successor, he is highly unlikely to become Supreme Leader. It is also important to keep in mind that Khamenei will most likely appoint a successor, and in that scenario, he will appoint someone who meets the requirements and of course is in line with what he believes. In the rare case that Khamenei does not appoint a successor or dies before he gets the chance to, a political uprising is inevitable. The question will be whether the country uprises to the point of voting a popular leader or settling with someone who will maintain the status quo.
In the situation that Mohsen Kadivar is voted into power, the Iranian political system would change drastically. For starters, he would not call himself Supreme Leader, and would instill a democratic and liberal political system. Kadivar and other scholars which condemn supreme clerical rule are anti-despotism and advocate for its abolishment. He would most likely establish a western-style democracy and work towards stabilizing the political situation of Iran. This would take more years than he will allow himself to remain in power, however, he will probably stay active in the political sphere both domestically as well as internationally. He may be secretary of state after stepping down, and work as both a close friend and advisor of the next leader of Iran as well as work for cultivating ties with other democratic countries.
2.3 Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei
Khamenei's son, Sayyid Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei is also rumored to be a possible designated successor. His religious and military experience and dedication, along with being the son of Khamenei gives strong reason to believe that he may be appointed Supreme Leader by his father. However, Mojtaba is lacking the required religious status. The requirements of commitment to the IRGC as well as anti-American ideology are not questioned, as Mojtaba has a well-known strong relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Mojtaba studied theology and is currently a professor at Qom Seminary in Iran. Nonetheless, it is unclear as to whether Mojtaba’s religious and political status is enough to have him considered to be the next Supreme Leader. In the improbable case that Khamenei names his son to be his successor, it would be possible for his son to further commit to the religious and political facets of his life and align them with the requirements of being Supreme Leader.
This scenario is highly unlikely, especially considering that in the 1979 Revolution, monarchical hereditary succession was abolished. Mojtaba has already shown loyalty to Iran when taking control of the Basij militia during the uproar of the 2009 elections to halt protests. While Mojtaba is currently not fit for the position, he is clearly capable of gaining the needed credentials to live up to the job. Despite his potential, all signs point to another candidate becoming the successor before Mojtaba.
3. PATH TO DEMOCRACY
Albeit the current regime is supposedly overturned by an uprising or new appointment by the current Supreme Leader Khamenei, it is expected that any transition to democracy or to Western-like regime will take a longer and more arduous process. If this was the case, it will be probably preceded by a turmoil analogous to the Arab Springs of 2011. However, even if there was a scream for democracy coming from the Iranian population, the probability that it ends up in success like it did in Tunisia is slim to none. Changing the president or the Supreme Leader does not mean that the regime will also change, but there are more intertwined factors that lead to a massive change in the political sphere, like it is the path to democracy in a Muslim state.