How do the conservatives in Tehran think?

By Adel Al Toraifi


On a hot summer evening in 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini was performing his prayers when one of his aides informed him that an Iranian passenger jet had crashed while en route to Dubai airport, and there was a strong possibility that the plane was downed by the US marine forces deployed in the Gulf. Imam Khomeini recommended that state officials should be extremely cautious and avoid any hasty reactions, as Iran was still in a state of war with Iraq, and the country’s military and economic capabilities were severely limited. The official state apparatus heeded this advice, and a few members of the Supreme Guide’s inner circle were assigned to deal with the crisis. Despite a torrent of condemnations, unrest was curbed in most Iranian cities, and protests were limited to staged demonstrations by the pro-regime “Basij” forces. When a heated debate took place within the parliament, regarding the regime’s apparent slackness in reacting to the US strike, Imam Khomeini sent a letter to the parliament in which he demanded that MPs exercise “wisdom” and being aware of public interests, thus giving a diplomatic solution a chance.
But why resort to diplomacy with the “Great Devil”?
An incident such as this could have transformed into massive public and official demonstrations. Yet despite all the manifestations of hostility towards the US, and the instigative, condemning speeches all over Iran, the reactions to the incident remained calm. There are two reasons for this, one was clear, whilst the other was concealed. The apparent reason was that Iran was about to reach a ceasefire agreement with Iraq, whereas the concealed reason – and perhaps the most significant one – was that the regime feared the wrath of the masses. During the two years prior to the incident, Iran had made successful advances on the battlefront with Iraq. Iraq attempted to allude towards a peaceful settlement, yet Khomeini and his men insisted they were victorious, and would only accept a peace settlement if the Baath Party admitted defeat. However, the Iranian military advance was short lived, after Iraq received more advanced weaponry. The regime’s stubborn attitude, its refusal to consider Iraq’s calls to end the war, in addition to deteriorating economic and living conditions, caused a state of fierce pubic strife.
In the face of a growing number of voices denouncing the war, Khomeini launched a large-scale religious campaign to call youths for martyrdom. Armed with such false enthusiasm, the regime sent hundreds of youths to the battlefront, although they had not received sufficient military training or the necessary equipment. Each young soldier had a plastic key hanging from his neck, symbolizing the key for heaven which he would enter once he died. Such hopeless attempts were not successful, and the public strife increased to the extent that the government had to ban demonstrations, for fear that they may turn into anti-government protests. In a message which many Iranians may still remember, Mehdi Bazerkan, the former Prime Minister, wrote to Imam Khomeini saying: “If you believe that we should sacrifice ourselves and our rights in order to export and impose the Islamic Revolution, you have that option, but this must not be imposed upon everyone. Since 1986, you have not stopped declaring victories, yet now you demand people to sacrifice until victory is achieved. Is this not an admission of failure on your part? When will you stop trading with the blood of our martyrs?”
Today, the region is facing similar incidents, as the Iranian regime since 2009 has been suffering a state of internal division and fear on the streets, after the conservatives and Revolutionary Guards revolted against the election results. The regime has recently acted to thwart what it termed demonstrations by the “pro-Islamic revolutionaries”, which have erupted in countries throughout the region, fearing that these demonstrations would shift into an anti-government popular strife. In reaction to the statement issued by the GCC Foreign Ministers, condemning Iran’s attempts to destabilize the situation in Bahrain and Kuwait, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said “this announcement lacks any legal value, as it was made under pressure of the US and its allies. It is outrageous to send the GCC Shield Forces there, so withdraw.”
It is clear that the conservatives in Iran have been surprised by the GCC Shield Force intervention in Bahrain, particularly with the emergence of a unified Gulf stance against Iran. For over six years, the conservatives in Iran stepped up their rhetoric, whilst the regime contended itself with issuing brief statements. The Iranians used to believe that disagreements and splits between the Gulf States would hinder the formation of a unified stance against their interventions.
Ever since their return to power in 2005, the conservatives continued to believe that the best way to protect the regime was to use the language of confrontation, coordinate with their allies to impose their “resistance” agenda, and reactivate intelligence activities in the Gulf states. The death squad incidents in Iraq, the Lebanon war in 2006, the Hezbollah seizure of Beirut in 2008, and the Gaza war in 2009 have all gone according to a predetermined systematic plan to strengthen the Iranian influence, following the downfall of Baghdad and the formation of an Iraqi government subservient to Tehran. We must remember that the conservatives, although they departed the presidential corridors following the 1997 election, continue to dominate all security and military apparatuses. Suffice to say, dozens of espionage cases that were uncovered in the Gulf were attributed to the reactivation of Iranian intelligence activity in 2001.
Without a doubt, the strong and decisive reaction by the Gulf States [in Bahrain] has confused the regime in Tehran, at an extremely sensitive time. Iran, which rejoiced at the downfall of some Arab regimes as a result of the popular uprisings, now feels it faces the same internal danger as well; as any demonstration or internal weakness could transform into a popular uprising in opposition to the regime. Iran cannot remain silent regarding what is happening to some of the pro-Iranian opposition elements in Bahrain, yet at the same time, it cannot intervene directly. This is not because of the US troops deployed in the Gulf, but because if it did so, it would face the Gulf States as one entity. These counties are now in possession of military forces and equipment sufficient to make Iran realize that it may not be able to wage a blitzkrieg and achieve a quick victory, but rather it may even lose the battle, despite its huge arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Iran is also concerned about the situation in Syria, and is conscious that regime change in Syria may jeopardize Iranian interests; whereby its logistical support to Hezbollah and Hamas would be cut off and its influence in the Iraqi arena would be undermined.
The Gulf states should be aware that the Iranian regime currently feels besieged, and is entertaining doubts that the regional events may give its popular opposition the momentum to stand on its feet once again, after it was oppressed in the 2009 election. Yet at the same time, Iran senses it is now face to face with a necessary survival battle, and therefore, it may resort to more radical solutions to export the crisis abroad, under the slogans of “sectarianism” and resisting the US and Israel. Yet the chances of Iran waging open wars are limited, because the price will be too high – at least in the current stage. Iran’s deplorable economic condition will not allow it to suspend its oil exports for a single day. This is in addition to the multi-year sanctions that have undermined the regime’s mobility.
This does not mean we should underestimate Iran’s ability to react, but rather the Gulf states should realize that they were successful in taking a preventive action [in Bahrain], and they should exploit this politically in two directions: internally, by ensuring political solutions to alleviate the sectarian strife in the Gulf, so Iran cannot exploit the situation, and externally, by distinguishing between the conservatives and the Iranian opposition, in official Gulf discourse. Yet at the same time, the door must be left ajar so that negotiations with Iran remain possible in the future, if it seeks to amend the situation. These steps must be adopted through a unified strategy that bears in mind what the Iranians should do to restore confidence between the two parties.
The conservatives in Tehran have always ventured, and have long been engaged in hostility and provocative discourse with others. However, in cases when they must choose between the existence of the regime or its downfall, they are always ready to retreat, and this is what the Gulf leadership should consider carefully. 

First Published in Asharq Alawsat Newspaper on Wednesday 06 April 2011.

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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