Will 2019 usher in Iran’s transition to the rule of state?

Iran’s imperial project, from the mountains of Yemen to the mountains of Lebanon via Syria and Iraq, seems to have succeeded but the price was heavy.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Iranian women walk past a portrait of the late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. (AP)
Hanging by a thread. Iranian women walk past a portrait of the late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. (AP)

February will mark the 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran. With the obvious and tangible effect of US sanctions and widespread internal protests, questions are being raised about the likelihood of Iran’s opening a new chapter in its political history by either doing away with the long-standing revolution ideology inside Iran or by marking the start of the countdown for the end of the Iranian era in the Middle East.

Clear answers to these questions are difficult to come by given the ambiguity in US President Donald Trump’s approach to Iran and to the transformation of the new world order into something like the law of the jungle.

The striking contrast in the evolution of Iran in the last four decades is the blatant contradiction between its failure to build a normal national state focused on the interests of its people and in playing a positive regional role and its successes in expanding its influence abroad.

This expansion was achieved in part to the ideological, religious and material means invested in it but thanks to the so-called gifts it received from Washington in the forms of the elimination of Iran’s arch-enemies in Kabul and Baghdad and of relying on Tehran and its role in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq or in the war against terrorism and Sunni-Shia strife.

During Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s time, Iran tried to export its revolution to Iraq but failed even after eight years of war with Iraq (1980-88). Following 2003, however, Tehran launched its regional expansion, especially during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13) and under the watchful eye of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and with the help of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He died in mysterious circumstances in 2017.

Indeed, Tehran took full advantage of the policies of the Obama administration, which opted for a partnership with Iran at the expense of Washington’s Arab alliances. Using the cover of the historic nuclear deal, Iran bolstered its ascendancy from the shores of the Arabian Gulf to the shores of the Red Sea and those of the Mediterranean.

However, history in the Middle East shows that the rise and fall of regional roles is a result of shifts in regional or international balances and marks the beginnings and ends of specific eras. With the possibility of political and economic fluctuations and their weight in changing the face of history, geography remains a major factor determining policymaking. Along with economic ambitions, it is the engine behind wars.

This fluctuation in regional powers left traces in the history of the Middle East. Iran’s actions during recent decades illustrate this observation.

The Middle East experienced the downfall of the so-called Arab regional order, especially after the US invasion of Iraq, and this resulted in a strategic vacuum that Turkey, Israel and Iran rushed to fill.

It was Iran, however, that benefited most from this transformation thanks to the United States’ understanding since the days of American-Iranian cooperation in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and to the enthusiasm of the Obama administration.

The outcome of the Iranian era in the Middle East has not been remarkable both inside and outside Iran. Over the years, the Iranian regime failed to establish a new state structure with effective and efficient governing institutions.

The objectives of the parallel revolutionary state in Iran, its methods and interests were bound to clash with old official state structure, which is fading away. The greatest paradox in Iran with respect to the demands of the people is that those who on the surface and on paper hold the reins of power (the presidency and the government) do not really have the power of decision. The real decision makers in Iran are the supreme leader and his entourage. They are immune from accountability.

Iranian Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi recently resigned to protest the ministry’s budget cuts. The country is heading towards austerity to cope with deteriorating economic conditions.

Because of US sanctions that have hit the banking sector and dollar-based transactions in addition to the oil sector, the Iranian rial took a sharp dive losing more than 60% of its value against the dollar. Tehran expects to finance 35% of the 2019 budget from oil revenues, based on an expected oil price of $50-$54 a barrel, and on exporting 1 million-1.5 million barrels per day.

Economic difficulties are expected to worsen given China’s withdrawal from the massive Paris gas project, the withdrawal of Russia’s Russneft Group from Iran and the European Union’s inability to adopt an alternative mechanism to circumvent Washington’s sanctions.

One of the most prominent causes of the crisis in Iran is increasing control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over the economy and the large military budgets in parallel with the collapse of the environment and the destruction of water resources.

Billions of dollars that ought to have been invested in development, infrastructure and benefits for the Iranian people have been spent on the nuclear programme, military programmes and external expansion in Yemen, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Iran’s imperial project, from the mountains of Yemen to the mountains of Lebanon via Syria and Iraq, seems to have succeeded but the price was heavy. Entire countries have been devastated and their social fabric ripped apart. Historical relations between the different peoples of the region took a direct hit.

All of this has happened because the regime of velayat-e faqih has its own ideological programme, which is detached from the interests of the Iranian state.

Its main objective is to become the leading force of the Islamic world. The Iranian regime lives with the idea that it is a major power that is difficult to conquer. Its stock-in-trade is anti-America and anti-Israel slogans, which it uses as cover for its expansionist agendas.

To form and consolidate its regional axis, the Iranian regime is constantly playing on rivalries among Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Europe. To circumvent US and international sanctions, the Iranian regime is counting on its deep penetration of Iraq as well as on its strategic agreements with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Pakistani regime.

However, the regime’s jig is up in Iran and it is teetering on the edge of the abyss. Over the past months, Iran has experienced popular protests that touched on all aspects of society and life. Massive protests nationwide mobilised millions of citizens across the country.

The demands of the Iranian citizens are to restore their historical national state and close the page of the regime of the rule of the jurist. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi’s death may have signalled the beginning of the inability to renew this page and the beginning of the end of the Iranian era inside and outside of Iran.