Editorial: Iranian desperation

Jan. 23, 2006
In its response to nuclear ambitions in Iran, a concerned world must acknowledge but not submit to a motive strongly at work in the Islamic Republic.

In its response to nuclear ambitions in Iran, a concerned world must acknowledge but not submit to a motive strongly at work in the Islamic Republic. Desperation on both sides would make the confrontation more dangerous than it already is. Yet it’s easy to feel desperate when Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad first talks about wiping Israel off the map then revives a program thought to camouflage development of nuclear weapons. With firebrands like him, generosity with the benefit of the doubt can be disastrous.

Still, Iranian bluster and defiance, misguided as they are, don’t necessarily lead to the extreme scenarios compelling worried governments to pursue United Nations sanctions. While it’s prudent for those governments to prepare for the worst, they shouldn’t lose sight of less obvious and possibly less menacing Iranian motives. Properly interpreting and carefully acting on Iran’s internal pressures offer more hope for resolution of the conflict than do new sanctions or the military interdiction for which Israel is reported to be preparing.

Domestic politics

International mischief by Iran nearly always has roots in domestic politics, which from outside the country can be perplexing. In this case, though, Amadinejad’s desperation is clear enough. As the failure of his reformist predecessor shows, his position lacks power. Supreme Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cronies run Iran. Amadinejad won last year’s presidential election partly by promising to help Iran’s poor and partly by not being associated with reformists with whom Iranians had lost hope.

Amadinejad thus presides with little authority over a growing and restive population that largely detests the oppressive theocracy. It’s a population that hoped for change through elections but didn’t get it and that hasn’t been able to effect change in the streets, though not for lack of trying. It’s a population that elected the former Tehran mayor president not so much for who he is but for who he is not.

From this shaky base, Amadinejad must address huge problems. Large among them is a budget deficit that not even a 45% surge in oil revenue last year could erase. The fiscal mess results from costly subsidization of consumer fuels. With prices ridiculously low, Iranian energy consumption leaps year by year, aggravating the problem. Yet price hikes able to pull the budget out of its death spiral are politically unthinkable.

So Amadinejad injudiciously vents outward, threatening Israel and flouting the West. In no way does his need to channel domestic unrest away from Tehran justify recklessness. But it does provide context for outsiders wondering how to respond.

Although it’s small comfort to Israel, the Iranian president probably can’t turn bluster into military action without support from a hard-line leadership lately acting wary of him. And the West should understand that Iranians generally like the US and Europe as much as they dislike their corrupt theocracy. But they don’t want outsiders to control their destiny.

Western strategy should exploit these fractures, within which Iranian change must begin. It also should take care not to squander the advantage of suppressed sentiment inside Iran that’s mostly favorable toward the West and mostly but fearfully unfavorable toward the Iranian power nexus.

Failure of diplomacy

Such a strategy, however, means diplomacy, which so far has failed to discourage Iranian nuclear research. A possible reason for the failure is the presumption, certain to irk Iranians, that a major oil exporter has no need for nuclear power and that any nuclear initiative therefore must indicate sinister intent. The presumption is wrong. With its rapidly growing gas-based industries, domestic gas demand stimulated by subsidies and oil-field needs, and fiscal pressures to export as much oil as it can, the Islamic Republic faces large and growing needs for electric power from nonfossil energy. In fact, it has been studying the nuclear option for decades (OGJ, Oct. 17, 2005, Newsletter).

Amadenijad’s belligerence puts Israel and the West legitimately on guard. At this point, however, the largest threat is a desperate response to desperation. Outside recognition that Iran has genuine energy problems might open diplomatic doors no one yet has tried.