Thursday, April 20, 2006

Iran's enemy lies within

Simon Tisdall, The Guardian:
Internal political divisions and economic weaknesses may present a bigger threat to the longevity of the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than the US and Israeli air forces combined, a report published yesterday suggests.

The study, entitled Understanding Iran and produced by the Foreign Policy Centre, warns that military action against Iran's suspect nuclear facilities could have disastrous consequences. "The only chance of modifying Iran's behaviour in the short term will come from a serious effort to engage with the current leadership," it says. READ MORE

Echoing calls for direct US-Iran talks made by Germany, the UN's nuclear agency, and US politicians, the European thinktank's report urges the creation of a Middle East security organisation similar to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It proposes mechanisms for facilitating dialogue to end the nuclear impasse and address other friction points. But in suggesting increased "economic, cultural, educational and social exchanges as a way of empowering the Iranian people and ultimately forcing the regime to loosen its restrictive practices" it also highlights the potentially fatal schisms and vulnerabilities of a government often portrayed as united in defiance of the west.

"Behind the scenes a fierce struggle is under way. In one camp is President Ahmadinejad, his supporters in the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary force known as the Basijis, and messianic fundamentalists inspired by the teachings of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. In the other camp is Iran's embattled democratic movement [and] an array of forces that benefited from the status quo before Ahmadinejad came to power, including former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani."

The outcome of this battle was uncertain, but what was clear was that direct US intervention would play into the hands of the hardliners. "A strategy that gambles on a popular uprising to bring down the current regime runs the risk of undermining those very forces it purports to want to help."

The report looks at other pressures on the government: a population of over 70 million, of whom 65% are younger than 25; a largely state-dominated economy prone to corruption; an energy industry starved of investment that is producing steadily less oil for export, and a youth culture increasingly circumventing controls on foreign media and internet access.

'According to the government's own estimates some 900,000 new jobs are needed annually to accommodate the burgeoning labour force and prevent an increase in unemployment, officially at 16%, unofficially at over 20%," the report says. It also focuses on gender discrimination, human rights abuses (including executions of minors and repression of minorities), and attempts to suppress free speech and independent media.

All these contentious issues, it suggests, carry the seeds of change from within and in the longer term could be catalysts for ending Iran's post-1979 theocracy. But if the west was to understand Iran, it had to understand itself - and recognise that clumsy outside attempts to jump-start reform were likely to be counterproductive.