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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

A choice between reform, adjustment and self-sabotage: Tehran considers its options

Divisions are opening up, not between reformists and hardliners but within each of these two camps, writes Raghida Dergham

Iran's Labour Minister Ali Rabiei speaks during his impeachment hearing in an open session of parliament, in Tehran on August 8, 2018. Vahid Salemi / AP
Iran's Labour Minister Ali Rabiei speaks during his impeachment hearing in an open session of parliament, in Tehran on August 8, 2018. Vahid Salemi / AP

What will Iran do now? It is difficult to answer this question, not only because its leadership has been left scrambling by US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the re-imposition of crippling sanctions but also because it has very limited and costly options, which all carry fateful implications for the future of the Iranian project – from its insistence on exporting its revolutionary ideology to the geographical consolidation between Tehran and Beirut, through Baghdad and Damascus.

Clearly the US president’s policy of bringing Iran to its knees with economic pressure has started to succeed. But what is less clear is whether this policy will tame the regime and convince its leaders to change their behaviour or whether it will lead to new deals that were not possible before Mr Trump’s painful blow.

The statements coming out of Iran suggest its seasoned leaders have understood the gravity of Mr Trump’s renouncement of his predecessor’s policy and that they have taken stock of the need to rein in their expansionism in the region, especially in Yemen. For the Trump administration, targeting the stability of the US’s allies in the Gulf has become a red line, contrary to the equation under Barack Obama, who made overtures to Tehran at the expense of those alliances.

Experienced diplomats and politicians in the Iranian regime have thus started to indicate they might be willing to mend relations. However, these pragmatists in the Iranian regime do not fully control the decision-makers and have to contend with the hardliners, who fear existential challenges that threaten the survival of the regime and its core ideology. They believe that any concessions today will wipe out yesterday’s gains and preclude the ambitions of tomorrow.

Other hardliners are driven by the pulse of the people, whose protests have so far not formed a critical mass. For now, demonstrations remain confined to the middle classes, intellectuals and women.

If we were to simplify things, we would say first that the Iranian domestic crisis could become a fateful showdown for the regime and second, that the internal conflict is not between reformists and hardliners but is in fact within each of these two camps. There are calls for the reformist president Hassan Rouhani, a cleric, to step down, including by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian parliament impeached the minister of labour, Ali Rabiei, as unemployment soared and living standards fell. It was a clear blow to Mr Rouhani. Mr Rabiei blamed the government, parliament and the judiciary for the country's economic collapse, clashing with parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is facing questions and mounting criticism regarding the vast sums of money it is spending on its ventures in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. People are on the verge of panic as the currency collapses and major companies flee to avoid US sanctions, with a large share of wealth in Iran set to evaporate as the nation returns to regional and international isolation.

Yet the impression we get from Iran is that no one has a solution. The IRGC cannot pretend to have the keys to the government in Iran, not simply because Qassem Soleimani is no longer a national hero but because even his Quds Force cannot disobey the government’s orders.

If the IRGC and the hardliners decide to turn against the reformists in power, this could bring about the implosion of the regime. And if they decide to attack US interests and invite a military response, for instance, by shutting down maritime corridors vital for energy supplies, it is unlikely Iran’s civilian infrastructure can bear the consequences. Indeed, the result would be self-immolation.

Astonishingly, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas cited Iran’s options for sabotage and proximity to Europe, to implicitly warn the US. Mr Maas said anyone who's hoping for regime change “must not forget that whatever follows could bring us much bigger problems”, adding that “isolating Iran could boost radical and fundamentalist forces”. That came on the heels of a warning by cybersecurity experts that Iran’s huge electronic warfare capabilities give it the ability to mount a devastating attack, to dissuade Europeans from adopting US sanctions.

Iran’s options for reprisal attacks are not limited to the cybersphere, where the US has identified Iran as the fourth most serious cyber threat to US national security. The reformist foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was quoted by Iranian media as making thinly veiled threats, in response to questions about the second round of US sanctions coming into effect in November targeting oil exports, saying: “They can’t think that Iran won’t export oil and others will export.”

In other words, Iran is prepared to shut down international maritime corridors including the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al Mandeb to block the oil exports of the Gulf states.

Mr Zarif used duplicitous language that same week, with the Fars agency quoting him as saying that Tehran was interested in the stability and security of the region. Was this a climbdown from his extreme position or was he really beginning to implement a bold new move to open up to Iran’s neighbours?

One expert on Iranian affairs stresses the significance of the appointment of Mohammad Alibak in the Iranian foreign ministry. An Iranian official spokesman described the move as a “breakthrough”. But is this a tactical move designed to prompt a seeming change in Iranian behaviour for damage limitation purposes?

Many in the Iranian regime understand that the key to a real breakthrough is Yemen, where they can end their intervention – through arming and funding the Houthis – construed to threaten Saudi national security. Such a qualitative and serious shift in Iranian policy would de-escalate the situation and buy enough time to produce a lasting accord.

However, it falls to Iran's top leaders to decide whether the Iranian setbacks so far warrant sacrificing their project in Yemen.

Most likely, the Iranians will want to reach a deal. Washing their hands of Yemen could be accompanied by assurances about Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The quality of these assurances not only depends on mending relations with the Gulf states but also on the negotiations with Washington, Moscow and the bargaining taking place between the US and Russia.

Now is the phase for sorting options, crafting bargains and the tug-of-war to prevent collapse in Iran, secure reconstruction in Syria, end the bloodletting in Yemen and bolster the states of Iraq and Lebanon. It is too early to jump to conclusions, however, because decision-makers are still considering their options between reforming, adjusting and self-immolation.