Saturday, September 16, 2006

Iran May Fall Victim to Law of Unintended Consequences

Amir Taheri, Arab News:
“We are putting up the sandbags and erecting the barbed wire fences,” says Dahbashi. We expect the siege to start at any moment.” Dahbashi (not his real name) is a chubby wheeler-dealer with contacts all over the world. He is currently in Europe to find ways and means of helping the Islamic Republic of Iran escape the worst consequences of any sanctions that the United Nations might choose to impose on Iran over alleged secret nuclear plans.

Tehran’s plan to render sanctions ineffective, even before they are imposed, has three facets. The first consists of relocating Iranian assets in places where they cannot be seized or frozen. If Dahbashi is right, that task has already been largely achieved. Over the past few months, billions of dollars in Iranian assets have been transferred from Western banks to financial institutions less likely to heed any advice from Washington. READ MORE

The second facet consists of stockpiling dual-use products likely to be denied to Iranian importers when, and if, sanctions are imposed. Over the past few months, scores of Iranian businessmen in Europe and the United States have been contacted by Tehran officials to give a helping hand in speeding up the flow of sanction-busting goods. The massive increase in imports has led to a doubling of waiting tie for ships to unload at Iran’s principal ports, including Bandar Abbas, while a stream of lorries continues non-stop from Turkey. In most cases the import business is handled by the commercial wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in the manner of a military operation.

Finally, Iran’s sanctions-busting plan includes a strong diplomatic element. The Islamic republic has already won the express support of no fewer than 116 of the 192 members of the United Nations for its position regarding the nuclear issue. Although the Security Council may end up imposing some sanctions on the Islamic republic, it is not at all certain that its decisions would be respected by a majority of the UN member-states. One of the sanctions envisaged is to deny Islamic republic officials visas for foreign travel. However, even that symbolic measure is unlikely to be implemented in any effective way if only because a majority of UN members already have special visa waiver accords with Tehran regarding diplomatic and service passports. The idea of freezing the personal assets of leading Islamic republic officials is also a non-starter as most of them have had ample time to take precautionary measures.

Paradoxically, however, Tehran’s success in countering sanctions in advance may hasten their imposition by the Security Council. The reason is that Tehran’s friends in the council, especially Russia and China, might decide that it is not worthwhile to pick up a quarrel with the US to stop sanctions that would not hurt Iran in any case.

The law of unintended results may operate in yet another way: If sanctions prove ineffective from the start, the US and its closest allies might decide that the only effective move against the Islamic republic is military action. In other words, Tehran’s success in countering possible sanctions may render a military clash inevitable.

According to Tehran sources, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also “factored in” such a possibility.

A limited military clash would suit Ahmadinejad fine,” says a former Cabinet minister in Tehran. The Americans will appear, fire a few missiles, and go away. Ahmadinejad would declare victory and pursue his grand plans with renewed vigor.”

The self-confident mood advertised by Ahamdinejad in his star appearance at the non-aligned summit in Havana, Cuba, and the fiery speech he is expected to deliver at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, indicate a firm belief that he has already won his first battle against the American “ Great Satan.”

Portraying his predecessors as weak men who gave in to American pressure, Ahmadinejad counts on his macho image to help his faction win the crucial elections in the autumn. The first set of elections will decide the control of local government authorities throughout the country. Ahamdinejad’s ultra radical faction already controls nearly half of the municipalities including in such major cities as Tehran and Mashhad. In many parts of the country, however, the more conservative faction of the Khomeinist movement is still in control with the help of local dignitaries.

The second set of elections is of even greater importance as it will determine the shape of the Assembly of Experts. This 92-man body of mullas elects and, if necessary, dismisses the “Supreme Guide. At present, the conservative Khomeinist factions have a majority in the assembly and could, at least in theory, exert pressure on the current “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi to restrain Ahmadinejad. Lacking a credible candidate of their on for “supreme guide” the conservative Khomeinists, led by former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may try to retain their majority in the assembly by backing Khamenehi.

The key question, therefore, is whether Ahmadinejad would choose to maintain his current alliance with Khamenehi or would try to get his own religious mentor, Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi elected “supreme guide. The balance or probabilities right now is that Ahmadinejad will decide to keep Khamenehi at least for the time being. Ahmadinejad’s ultra-radical faction still has a long way to go before it can purge the conservative Khomeinists from positions of political and economic power within the establishment.

What is certain, however, is that Ahmadinejad’s success in warding off external pressures and projecting an image of invincibility abroad would enhance his position at home. And, there, we may see yet another illustration of how the law of unintended consequences works: The US sets out to cut Ahmadinejad down to size by focusing on the nuclear issue, and ends up helping the ultra-radical president strengthen his position at home. And, that, in turn, would make it much harder for him or any other Islamic republic leader to accept the compromises needed to avoid a collision course.