x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Irrational politics in Iran draw strength from belligerence

An Iranian film won an Oscar this week, and that's not the only thing which may be confusing the leadership in Tehran right now.

It's been a strange week for Iran, and it's likely to get stranger yet.

Amid the continuing cacophony of snarling Israeli leaders and American media pundits rattling imaginary sabres at Tehran, it was almost incongruous to see the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences on Sunday award its Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to the Iranian film A Separation.

The Hollywood elite applauded raucously as director Asghar Farhadi hailed a moment "when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name ... Iran is spoken here through her glorious culture ... I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilisations and despise hostility and resentment".

So unsettled was Iran's regime by this simple gesture of respect from the United States' bastion of degenerate culture - and by Mr Farhadi's brave rebuke to warmongers on both sides - that Tehran's official Fars news agency "modified" his speech by adding the conclusion "Iranian people respect all cultures despite the western hostility with Iranian nuclear programme".

Then, there was the item also reported by Fars last weekend, claiming that Tehran was about to get its first KFC outlet. Iranian entrepreneur Amir Hossein Alizadeh was quoted as saying that although his version of the popular US chain was "100 per cent Iranian", he claimed - beneath a "Colonel Sanders" logo - to have spent five years securing the necessary licences from "the mother company".

KFC in the US quickly disavowed any corporate authorisation of an Iran franchise, threatening legal action against anyone seeking to use its brand in the Islamic Republic. If this was some dubious deep-cover attempt at finger-lickin'-good diplomatic outreach, it was clearly spiced with plausible deniability.

The views of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman may be improbably influential in Washington, but nobody takes seriously his absurd claim in a 1999 book that no two countries with McDonald's had ever gone to war. That idea was immediately negated by the Kosovo conflict, in which the Serbian-owned McDonald's franchise in Belgrade ran anti-Nato ads while US planes bombed the city. And, of course, McDonald's-armed India and Pakistan fought a brief border war in the Kargil region of Kashmir the same year.

Regardless of the authenticity of the Tehran KFC, things could get even stranger in Iran this week as the country holds its first elections since the disputed 2009 poll that re-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid widespread accusations of fraud.

Friday's vote, of course, is for parliament, and the opposition Green Movement isn't running at all. Its key leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under long-term house arrest, and its support base has been bludgeoned off the streets. Even regime heavy-hitters associated with the opposition, such as former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been intimidated into quiescence by threats against family members.

The Islamic Republic's elections have never been fully democratic - clerical overseers determine whether candidates are allowed to stand - but they have been more genuinely competitive than those in most Arab autocracies. This time, however, the competition is between the incumbent president's increasingly marginalised supporters and rival conservatives closer to the clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And the repression and coercive tactics have actually been extended to top leaders of the president's faction, such as the heresy charges being faced by Mr Ahmadinejad's top aide and designated heir, Rahim Mashaei.

Despite rising popular dissatisfaction over economic hardship, the ruling clerics need not fear an opposition victory. Instead, they face the danger that a low turnout - whether in response to opposition boycott calls, or simply because of voter apathy - will further erode the legitimacy of their system. Remember, legitimacy is ostensibly based on a balance between Islamist "guidance" and representative (albeit restricted) democracy. The latter claim is hard to sustain in an election that offers voters about as much variety as does the US Republican party primary (excluding Ron Paul).

Keeping the opposition out of the election blocks any prospect of a reformist challenge from within the system; getting citizens to vote and affirm the system's legitimacy is quite another issue.

A survey of the week's troubles for the Iranian regime would be incomplete without noting the decision by Hamas to align itself with the Syrian opposition - laying to rest Tehran's claim to be the fulcrum of an "Axis of Resistance" to Israel and the US. Hamas's move to reaffirm its roots in the newly ascendant Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of its relatively brief marriage of convenience with Tehran caps a year in which Iran's claim to champion the rights of the Palestinians and of Arabs living under US-backed autocracies has melted away with the Arab Spring. Iran can no longer claim a strategic alliance with any major Palestinian faction.

Politically speaking, Iran's regime is in a grim position, both domestically and in the region. The best thing it has going for it right now may be the wave of nationalism being stirred among Iranians - even those opposed to the regime - by the pain of economic sanctions and the threat of an attack by Israel or the US. There may be something oddly comforting to Ayatollah Khamenei in the sound of sabres rattling in the West.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

Follow on Twitter: @TonyKaron