Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Are There Limits to Iranian Leadership's Resolve?

Ian Bremmer, RealClearPolitics:
In defense of its nuclear ambitions, Iran's government appears to covet no carrots and to fear no sticks. To date, its representatives have answered Western calls for compromise with threats and defiance. How long can Iran hold to its hard-line stance? We won't know until at least autumn, when punitive measures against the Islamic Republic may finally begin to bite. READ MORE

On June 2, senior diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany announced they had agreed on a proposal to offer Iran incentives to halt uranium enrichment. Though the carrots remain to be defined, the move escalates the nuclear dispute toward coercive diplomacy. First reactions from Iran suggest compliance is highly unlikely. As a result, we can expect the Security Council to agree on a resolution within weeks that requires Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment within 30 days or face tougher punitive measures.

Tehran will again refuse. The United States will then test Iran's unity by pressing for sanctions designed to compel its compliance. If the Security Council process breaks down, Washington will try to assemble a coalition of states willing to cut trade ties with Tehran.

The Iranian regime has good reason to stand firm. Its domestic legitimacy rests on its claim that it is the last line of defense for the sacred values of a revolution that some 70 percent of the population is not old enough to remember. Many of Iran's young people resent government efforts to enforce rigid standards of public behavior and to deny them access to the cultural modernity enjoyed beyond the country's borders.

For the moment, the regime is secure. The country's ruling clerics have successfully frustrated public demand for change by excluding from elected office the would-be reformers who might supply it. But they continue to fear that public resentment of theocratic governance could generate domestic unrest and undermine the revolution's future.

This dilemma ensures that aggressive defense of Iran's nuclear program in the face of foreign pressure provides the regime something it badly needs: a cause that wins broad support from all segments of the population. Nuclear development has become a powerful symbol of Iran's sovereignty and its growing international clout.

If the domestic political situation helps explain the regime's current resolve, it also defines its limits. To determine where those limits lie, we must answer a series of questions.

First, do Iran's leaders believe the effects of energy sanctions would badly damage their domestic standing? They appear to calculate that a limited cut in oil output would actually strengthen the regime, because the revenue it would earn from a global price spike would more than offset the drop in exports. But if tougher sanctions cut deeper and impose real hardship on the country, whom will the Iranian people blame: the United States or their own government? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and senior clerics may argue that suffering and sacrifice ennoble Iran's people. Will the country's youth agree?

Second, do Iran's leaders believe U.S. or Israeli military strikes on some of the country's nuclear sites could undermine the regime's legitimacy? Iranian officials may already have decided such an assault would rally citizens to their government and impose only limited delays on nuclear development.

Third, is Iran's governing elite at all concerned that the United States or Israel might not limit an attack to the nuclear sites? Do they fear for their own safety and for the regime itself?

These questions cannot be answered until sanctions or military strikes appear imminent. To date, officials at all levels of the government and military have held to Iran's defiant public posture. Only Iranians outside the regime have offered guesses at how the population would respond - and, crucially, how the ruling elite believes it would respond.

There are some signs of social unrest in the country, though none appear related to the nuclear dispute. A string of bomb attacks and acts of sabotage against energy infrastructure have shaken oil-rich Khuzestan, the only Iranian province with a large population of minority Arabs. Kurdish separatists, emboldened by events in northern Iraq, have staged violent protests. In the southern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, a Sunni group calling itself "Allah's Brigade" has engaged in terrorist attacks and kidnappings.

Thousands of Iran's ethnic Azeris, a community that makes up a quarter of the country's population and includes Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and many wealthy businessmen, rioted in May over a cartoon in a popular state-run newspaper that portrayed Azeris as cockroaches. The government has temporarily shuttered the newspaper. The cartoonist and the paper's editor are reportedly in jail. But security forces responded to the violence by killing four demonstrators and wounding several others.

Ahmadinejad sees a link with the nuclear program in all this unrest. He has referred to the violence and protests as evidence of "enemy plots aimed at spreading differences among (Iranians)." Though this self-serving theory ignores genuine minority grievances, there are a few U.S. foreign-policy thinkers who have suggested that Iran could be dismembered along ethnic lines. Iranian officials suspect the work of U.S. diplomats in Dubai, Baku, and Istanbul whose mandate to "support democracy in Iran" is indeed intended to do just that.

But structural differences with neighboring Iraq reveal why Iran's ethnic unrest is unlikely to undermine the regime anytime soon. Iraq is plagued by sectarian rivalries in part because there is not yet a strong Iraqi national identity. Not so in Iran, where centuries of intermarriage and political and economic integration of some of the country's minority communities have helped develop national consciousness. Yet, as economic sanctions and military strikes loom more likely, the threat of civil unrest may play a larger role in the regime's calculations.

To this point in the nuclear dispute, the Iranian leadership appears to believe its gamble is a good one. But if sanctions on the regime create real hardships for the Iranian people, unity within the Iranian government - among both Ahmadinejad's ministers and the clerics who are the country's real powerbrokers - could be tested. There are not yet signs of any such internal conflict. If one emerges, the West will have its last best chance to resolve the issue without high-risk military action.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His forthcoming book, "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall," will be published by Simon & Schuster this September. He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.