Friday, June 30, 2006

Why Iran is taking its time

By Sanam Vakil
Jun 30, 2006
"nuclear iran"--Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

As the world cautiously awaits the official Iranian response to the 5+1 (UN Permanent Five plus Germany) nuclear proposal that includes an offer of direct talks with the United States, Tehran has pursued delaying tactics in responding to the proposal, foreshadowing the difficulties that lie ahead. Clearly, the regime is struggling to assess its options in the wake of the Bush administration's continued pressure over Tehran's two ticking clocks - one nuclear, the other democratic. The nuclear clock

represents international pressures; the democratic clock, internal pressure.

These ticking clocks are important to consider as Iran ponders the nuclear offer, and the administration of US President George W Bush continues to pressure the regime and stimulate the Iranian people with words about democracy and freedom. At the same time, Iran has been subject to a burst of domestic hostility toward the regime from students, ethnic minorities and religious leaders. Undoubtedly, this increase in internal activity has made the regime feel the ticking of its democratic clock. While Washington hopes to stimulate this movement, Tehran aims to re-create a situation that balances its nuclear clock while stalling its democratic one. Understanding the dynamics behind these two clocks is necessary to deconstructing the Iranian decision-making process.

For many months it appeared that Tehran had managed to capture the upper hand in the nuclear balancing act through its divide-and-conquer confrontational strategy with the international community. The breakthrough counter-announcement by the Bush administration tactically tilted the scales of power in favor of Washington and gave Tehran's leaders reason to pause. Now, it is the Islamic Republic that has experienced a reversal of fortune and must carefully weigh its delicate international pressures against its domestic ones.

The ultimate goal for the Islamic Republic is regime preservation. To this end, the mullahs have pursued a two-pronged process: they've tried to keep the nuclear clock running while stalling the democracy clock. This approach worked for the regime throughout the nuclear negotiations until Washington pulled out its trump card. Tehran can no longer use the nuclear issue to buffer against the threat of growing domestic unrest.

Should Tehran engage in diplomatic talks with the "Great Satan", a maneuver that would be supported by the majority of Iran's youthful pro-American street, it would serve to protect the regime by providing it with a guarantee of international security but would simultaneously release the suppressed forces of the nation's democratic clock. Thus a compromise with the international community would ultimately lead to further concessions on the domestic front.

Throughout this game of nuclear cat and mouse, internal tensions have mounted as the regime has tied its ideological legitimacy to nationalistic foreign-policy issues while attempting to unite its diverse population. Indeed, what has emerged on the Iranian street is a fractured edifice that could damage the long-term viability of the regime. In this period, the regime has seen a surge in ethnic violence, worker strikes, student protests and religious persecution.

These threats to the regime's domestic stability are of utmost importance. Any perceived government compliance with the international community could be domestically destabilizing should the nuclear program be replaced by pressing issues of domestically driven mandates.

Important considerations for the regime are whether the benefits of nuclear carrots outweigh the consequences of international sticks. Here the answer lies in either the international response should Iran reject the nuclear offer or, conversely, the domestic reaction should Iran accept the deal and move toward cooperation with the international community. The former would apply should Tehran force this last opportunity for engagement to fail by offering a counter-proposal. Indeed, any Iranian attempt to bargain in an effort to advance its nuclear clock would lead the United States to abandon any further dialogue.

For Iran, the prospect of international isolation through stringent sanctions and military action, while bleak, would at least stall Iran's democratic clock in the short run. None other than President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would gain from this strategy, since his factional brand of nationalistic politics has only bolstered his presence. Any military strike or sanctioning of Iran would further aggrandize the president and enhance the strength of the regime while under external pressure.

Knowing that the Eurasian movement toward China and Russia has significantly benefited Iran, this route might also protect Tehran, as its commercial and strategic ties to Beijing and Moscow have enabled it to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy among the permanent members of the Security Council. The exchange of goodwill among Arab and Muslim neighbors and countries alike will be sure to benefit Tehran should it proceed down such a path of confrontation to protect its domestic frontier.

Conversely, the consequences should Iran compromise are a burgeoning concern, for the Islamic government has not been able to curtail the signs of domestic unrest throughout the country, even during the nuclear crisis. Indeed, this strife foreshadows the challenge to come once the democratic clock resumes its forceful ticking.

Since last summer, Kurdish unrest has increased in the hopes that more attention will be brought to bear on local developments and political representation. In southwestern Ahvaz, rioting, violence and October bombings have led to arrests and clashes with Iranian security forces. Most recently, two people were executed for their purported participation in the uprising that the government has associated with outside forces.

The Sunni minority in Sistan and Baluchestan provinces near the Pakistani border has also agitated against the government, forming a group known as Jundallah, or God's Soldiers. In January they held a group of Iranian border guards hostage, demanding the release of 16 jailed members in exchange. The group claims that the regime has killed more than 400 of its members and has become politicized in an effort to protect the Sunni minority, which like the other minority groups has been subject to political, economic, and human-rights violations in the decades since the 1979 revolution.

Additionally, the Azeris, Iran's largest minority ethnic group, consisting of 16% of the population, have recently demonstrated in cities around the country in response to a racist cartoon published in an Iranian newspaper. The awakening of this minority group among others only adds tension to the central government's ability to manage its relations with these ethnic groups that have significant economic, social and political grievances. Should the president and his cadres in the Revolutionary Guards continue their strong-arm tactics of repression, these issues will most likely intensify.

It's important to note the revivalist demonstrations of students who have protested against government interference in campus affairs and student elections, including the removal of faculty. Many of the demonstrators were chanting: "We don't want nuclear energy" and "Forget Palestine - think of us". While Iran's student movement was usually deemed apathetic since the failure of the reformist movement, such bursts of political activity amid the increasingly stringent crackdowns indicate that public demand for change could reawaken.

Even more threatening for the conservative elite has been the February bus drivers' strike in Tehran. This important event was barely noticed by the Western press. The bus drivers united against a political ban on trade unions accusing their managers of corrupt practices. Their demands included better salaries and working conditions. Ironically, these demands coincided with the election of Ahmadinejad, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and promised to confront the crooked practices of the entrenched regime.

However, the president understands that to curb corruption would, in essence, be biting the hand that has fed him. Moreover, it would only increase his factional challenges on the domestic front. Without presidential support, these government workers joined forces in solidarity. Many were arrested over this defiance and undoubtedly some are still in prison.

In meeting the United States at the negotiating table, Tehran not only will be compromising over the nuclear program but will lose nationalism as a way of deflecting dissent. Certainly, an immediate gain of international security could foment a loss of domestic instability, as internal political and economic concerns would force the regime into further national confrontations. This, of course, is the objective of the international community, but it runs counter to the interest of regime preservation designed to enshrine the Islamic Republic.

President Bush's latest speech directly addresses the Iranian people, hoping to empower them while simultaneously speaking to the regime's fears: "I've a message for the Iranian people: The United States respects you and your country. The people of Iran, like people everywhere, also want and deserve an opportunity to determine their own future, an economy that rewards their intelligence and talents, and a society that allows them to pursue their dreams ... We'll provide more than [US]$75 million this year to promote openness and freedom for the Iranian people."

With these words, Washington continues its shrewd double policy of engagement and regime change that signals its subtle reluctance to directly engage the theocratic regime. The Islamic Republic's subdued approach to the nuclear proposal can be interpreted as equally calculated. As Tehran considers this nuclear proposal, its insecurity is undoubtedly attributed to the conflicting global visions of its two clocks. Indeed, either option for Tehran will have uncertain consequences.

With Tehran and Washington bound to clash over nuclear diplomacy and democratic transparency, the echo of these two clocks will continue to emanate loudly in both capitals without a clear resolution.

Sanam Vakil is an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins' Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

(Copyright 2006 Sanam Vakil.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
posted by ali ghannadi-irannuk


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