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How Sanctions Strengthen the Iranian Regime

By Henry "Chip" Carey

Republican Presidential Primary candidate Mitt Romney has recently criticized President Barack Obama’s failure to support the Iranian protestors following the rigged 2009 presidential election in Iran. Until that year, Iranian elections had been widely seen as legitimate, though some wondered how, the mayor of Teheran at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had managed to win the 2005 presidential election. While candidates deemed unacceptable have not been allowed to run, the ballot count has been generally free of fraud. Or so it is generally believed. With the coming elections for the Majlis (parliament) in March, attention has now turned to the electoral process as a non-violent approach to promote regime-change. But given the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s repression of the opposition, there’s very little chance these elections could usher in any real change.

Much of the Iranian civil society and the ‘reformist’ opposition are likely to boycott the March vote. The defrauded opposition presidential candidate in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is currently under house arrest, is unable to lead his Green movement, even though he supports substantial constitutional changes. It is unlikely that his allies  in the Green movement would be allowed to run even if they tried.

But is Romney right? Is the failure of the Green movement largely due to the Obama's lack of overt support for the 2009 protests and any current demand for a meaningful, Iranian parliamentary election in March? Yes and No.

The failure of the Iranian opposition is not entirely attributable to U.S. However, Obama—and the Republicans who want even stronger actions—are responsible for the recent consolidation of support behind the Supreme Leader, both among Iranian elites and much of civil society. In the end, greater pressure on Iran has weakened the Iranian opposition and strengthened the two Iranian power centers: the clergy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

It is worth considering the repression after the 2009 elections, which altered Iran's regime from electoral authoritarianism into clerical-military authoritarianism. It has demobilized civil society by arresting and torturing protestors, re-militarizing the IRGC, and appointing former IRGC officers to key ministries and legislative leadership posts.

In addition, the Supreme Leader and the IRGC no longer trust the institution of the elected president, even though Ahmadinejad is a former IRGC officer. Because of Ahmadinejad’s attempt to rule without his consent, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, supports the abolition of the presidency, and the scheduled 2013 presidential election may not occur.

Democratic institutions and Iranian civil society, which have produced reformers like former President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami and Mousavi, have been further weakened by the prospect of a  meaningless legislative election. The increasingly stringent foreign sanctions  have augmented support for the Supreme Leader. The sanctions have also reduced the space for democratic opposition or protests over the meaningless parliamentary vote. With the appropriate combination of sticks and carrots, Western pressure could have led to the release of Mousavi from house arrest, similar to actions done on behalf of the Burmese democratic opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Obama reacted cautiously, as he did to the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian protests, to the 2009 Iranian elections by belatedly noting Iran's electoral fraud. However, he did not want to taint the election protestors with U.S. support in a regime which deems the U.S. the "Great Satan.” Unlike the Egyptian and Tunisian protests against Mubarak and Ben-Ali, Moussavi and other Iranian opposition leaders ultimately told protestors to return home.

Moreover, the Iranian opposition is not committed to participating in the parliamentary elections or protesting decisions of the Guardian Council on excluding candidates. They remain committed to an Islamic republic, rather supporting democratic regime change that would eliminate Islamic constitutional institutions. Mousavi needs supporters to get him released from house arrest so that he can advocate for specific constitutional reforms. So far, the main proposals for constitutional reforms have come from the Supreme Leader Khamenei, who wants to abolish the presidency.

The opposition is drawn from the ranks of former revolutionaries, like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is head of the Assembly of Experts. In that capacity, Rafsanjani could have tried to remove the Supreme Leader after the latter's premature declaration of Ahmadinejad as the 2009 election winner. Once a supporter of the new regime, but now a political adversary, Rafsanjani, like Moussavi and Khatami, has not dared to challenge the Revolutionary Guards by revealing fraud in the 2009 election. All three were allowed to run for president because they had been thought to be uninspiring if committed Islamists from the revolutionary period. In fact, these opposition leaders 10 to 15 years ago were in many ways more confrontational with the West and in favor of greater government regulation than the current ruling conservatives.

Differences between the regime and the opposition are largely personal and over different economic interests, which partly explain the opposition's lack of commitment to democracy. Much of the opposition of former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, as well as 2009 candidate Moussavi, has come from conflicts over the growing political and economic power of the IRGC. Much of the state economic power, especially in oil and natural gas, is controlled by this military branch.

Since the IRGC has the use of force, the religious-military establishment remains in power. However, they are not a monolithic group. Disputes have festered within the IRGC in the past largely over whether to support incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He broke from the Supreme Leader, but has relatively little power since the IRGC has remained loyal to the Supreme Leader, who like the IRGC, is mandated by the constitution to protect the regime’s Islamic character from the will of the people.

Even with these domestic political reasons for the lack of a functioning Iranian opposition, Obama and those advocating even tougher sanctions, are still largely responsible for the recent consolidation of support behind the Supreme leader, both among Iranian elites and much of civil society. While U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy has not changed for two decades, the recent tightening of oil sanctions is interpreted by the Iranian regime as an act of war. That may be false, but the same view was held by the oil-importing Japanese empire before World War II and Saddam’s oil-exporting Iraq during the 1990s. A similar catastrophe for reform occurred in January 2002, when President George W. Bush responded to then Iranian President Khatami's proposed "dialogue of civilizations" with his "axis of evil" reference in the State of the Union addresss. Khatami, the fifth president of the Islamic Republic, already suffering from economic problems blamed partly on economic sanctions, was completely repudiated in Iranian politics.

The consequent rally-around-the-flag effect in Iran is the result of bipartisan U.S. efforts to promote sanctions. The tragedy of the sanctions is that it has strengthened the hands of the clerics in parliament, the Islamic supervising bodies, and the IRGC. The country's plummeting economic fortunes are now blamed on the foreigners and their sanctions. It’s the same excuse used by Fidel Castro with the U.S. embargo of Cuba. With the Iranian Rial being affected by rampant inflation, the regime should not be offered a foreign scapegoat for a struggling economy run by revolutionary elites and the IRGC.

What unites Rafsanjani, Khomenei, and the IRGC is that they all suffer from such sanctions. The reformers might be able to marginalize the IRGC and halt the development of nuclear weaponization and provide IAEA inspections, if they are able to vote out the current government. What the West should do is commission foreign election observers for the March Majlis elections and the 2013 presidential vote if it is held, in return for engaging the regime in open inspections at the two known centers for nuclear enrichment. The newly announced, US and EU oil sanctions will not stop Iranian oil sales to China and India and will legitimate further repression of the opposition. In the long run, Iran’s strong civil society is going to need to participate in these semi-free elections. When it finally becomes clear through free elections that the majority do not favor the clerical and Revolutionary Guard establishment, the IRGC could decide that its own interests would be better served by getting out of politics, just like the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries. The Iranian economy is inefficient and would likely worsen on its own, without sanctions providing the rationale for failure on a platter to the Supreme Leader.

The Islamic Republic is fossil fuel rich. But like Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, Iran suffers from the “resource curse”, characterized by bad governance and buttressed by income redistributed by the regime to its supporters in the religious, rural underclass. Consequently, the regime has maintained its bases of support, as well as relied on selective terror against opposition protestors, in order to remain immune from the pressure of outside sanctions.

Nevertheless, elections can become competitive and can empower elected leaders if they commit themselves to democratic tasks. Opposition reformers, had they gained a majority which they certainly have the potential to win, since much of Iran is urban and modernizing, could have attempted to strengthen parliament and eventually weaken the military-and clerical institutions in the regime. An overwhelming series of campaign rallies for reform could have empowered the opposition.

True democracy, however, appears ever unlikely in the short run as the IRGC has consolidated its hold over national defense, internal security, and nuclear development, as well as most major political and economic institutions. Moreover, foreign sanctions have been deemed the moral equivalent of war on Iranian mass media, with reformers being marginalized by Western attempts to bankrupt the Iranian government. In the longer term, this strategy might induce the IRGC to shift its support from the Supreme Leader. In the short run however, the IRGC and the Guardian Council will likely succeed in preventing the opposition from  running strong candidates or mobilizing supporters in large campaign rallies if the opposition chooses not to compete electorally.

This scenario is pitiful because parliamentary elections are an excellent opportunity for the opposition movement to learn how to organize and conduct parallel vote counts to document fraud. Just as the 1984 Philippine legislative election failed to unseat Marcos, the opposition learned how the regime cheated. By the February 1986 snap presidential elections, it was easier for reformers to verify ballot counts and to mobilize protestors. Iran can hold  presidential elections next year, and the opposition boycott of the March Majlis vote will be unprepared for next year's presidential vote.

The Iranian clerical-military establishment will not permit secularization or demilitarization to occur. In the long run, the prospect of no oil exports to Europe and the U.S. will only push the reformers out of politics. The Iranian establishment is so invested in the current system that instead of opening up space for the opposition, the oil embargo has only led to the re-entrenchment of the ayatollahs.



Henry "Chip" Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the author of:  Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding (Palgrave MacMillan) and Reaping what you Sow: A Comparative Examination of Torture Reform in the United States, Israel, France and Argentina (Praeger).

[Photo courtesy of  Crethy Plethi]


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