Commentary | 02 February 2019

The supreme challenge facing Iran

Originally published in The Australian

Originally published in The Australian

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, and it is all but certain that its fifth decade will see the installation of the third supreme leader.

In the past 40 years only two people have filled that role — the architect of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and for the past 30 years his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Khamenei turns 80 this year and there have been persistent ­rumours that he suffers from prostate cancer. Public appearances by the Supreme Leader these days can be as much about observers ­assessing his health as they are about assessing his words.

Because it has happened so rarely in revolutionary Iran, the accession to power is little understood and will be closely observed. The new supreme leader is supposed to be appointed (and supervised) by the 88-member Assembly of Experts according to the constitution, although the reality is that the Supreme Leader has been largely supreme in Iran­ian politics. And there is every indication that the current Supreme Leader will do all in his power to ensure that a highly conservative cleric favoured by him fills the post after Khamenei vacates it.

Iranian politics is notably opaque, and although the supreme leader can place the pieces on the chessboard before he dies, unless the transition is entirely stage-managed there is always the possibility that competing centres of power may try to advance their own interests after the incumbent’s death. But the potential damage to the fabric of the revolutionary government’s authority in the event of a contested succession is likely to mean that a successor will have been agreed upon before Khamenei’s death.

The death from cancer a month ago of Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, a former chief justice and chairman of the Expediency Council, has perhaps provided a glimpse into the future. Although he had been spoken of by some as a candidate for supreme leader due to his impressive scholarly and revolutionary government credentials, Shahroudi’s Iraqi background (he didn’t move to Iran until he was older than 30) meant he was never a serious contender.

Shahroudi was replaced as chairman by the current chief justice, Sadeq Larijani, and there is talk that when Larijani’s term as chief justice ends, he may be replaced by Ebrahim Raisi, an unsuccessful presidential candidate but powerful conservative figure with a support base in the shrine city of Mashhad. Both Raisi and Larijani are members of the Assembly of Experts, have religious qualifications and are in their 50s.

Whoever succeeds Khamenei will have to confront a region and a world in flux and to continue to influence events in the region to Tehran’s advantage.

It may well be that the new ­supreme leader will have to continue to deal with an administration in Washington that has signalled to Tehran that it con­siders the Iranian regime to be the prime destabilising influence in the Middle East.

Since the revolution, Iran has been Washington’s regional bete noire. Having survived the Iran-Iraq war and international economic sanctions, navigated US-led invasions and occupations of two of its neighbours, and (probably) successfully intervened in the Syrian civil war to prop up the Assad regime, Tehran has proven itself adept at playing the long game and exploiting disunity or wrong-sighted and short-term policy approaches among opponents.

Indeed, one of the findings from a long-awaited report released this month by the US Army War College into the Iraq war was that Iran was the only real winner from the conflict.

Tehran’s approach to the Trump administration reflects a continued understanding of the limitations and contradictions of the various anti-Iran policy approaches adopted by various US administrations and, with the exception of the Obama-era sanctions, it has continued to wait for internal policy contradictions and external disagreements to weaken international resolve against it.

During the election campaign, Donald Trump used strong rhetoric denigrating the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran signed by Barack Obama and eventually pulled out of it. He has surrounded himself with Iran hawks, and was so won over by Saudi Arabia’s courting of the president-elect and willingness to lead the anti-Iran Arab “coalition” that he included the kingdom in his first overseas visit.

There are three pillars to the Trump administration’s Iran policy: supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia in limiting Iranian influence in the region, acting unilaterally to extract further concessions from Iran in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and attempting to change the nature of Iranian governance. These components have significant weaknesses, some of which Iran has sought to exploit.

To begin with, Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement that Tehran was complying with, has pitted Washington against close European allies that have remained committed to the JCPOA. So committed, in fact, that they have sought to create a so-called special purpose vehicle that would allow them to continue trading with Tehran without falling foul of Washington’s reimposed sanctions regime.

Whether and to what extent the SPV will prove workable remains to be seen, but it certainly has the potential to cause a serious rift between the US and its European partners, with one Republican senator recently warning: “The choice is whether to do business with Iran or the United States. I hope our European allies choose wisely.”

The Europeans are angry that Trump has pulled out of an agreement that was working, simply because he never liked the terms of the agreement and didn’t believe it would stop Tehran achieving a nuclear capability. But even within the US government there is an incoherence about Washington’s view of Iran’s nuclear intentions.

In August last year, National Security Adviser John Bolton said Iran “should not underestimate our determination that we’re going to put pressure on them until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons”. Yet the US government’s own Worldwide Threat ­Assessment, released by the Director of National Intelligence this week, notes that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key ­nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device”.

Trump’s tweeted claims that “They were wrong” and that “Perhaps intelligence should go back to school” shows his frustrations that official analysts don’t share his inner circle’s “gut feel” about Iran.

Washington’s reliance on Israel and Saudi Arabia to limit Iran­ian influence has had mixed results. Saudi Arabia has proven less than reliable under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Riyadh intervened in Yemen without a coherent or realistic campaign plan and Trump has inherited from Obama US backing for another Middle East quagmire.

Not only was the Saudi-led campaign poorly planned and executed, it opened the door for Iran to provide Riyadh’s enemies with technical and logistic support on the kingdom’s doorstep.

The Saudi spat with Qatar has also destroyed Gulf Arab unity at precisely the moment when it is most needed, and the fallout from the assassination of Jamal Khash­oggi in Istanbul has again raised questions in people’s minds in Washington as to whether Saudi Arabia can be considered the type of partner a liberal-democratic America should really be close to.

Trump, however, is much more interested in transactional than in values-based relationships.

On the other hand, Israel has proved crucial in limiting Iranian influence in Syria by raising the cost of operating there through an attritional campaign of airstrikes. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria was criticised for removing the block on expanding Iranian influence, yet it was never articulated how the troop presence achieved this vague aim.

A better way of limiting Iranian influence is to continue to raise the cost through Israeli airstrikes and to limit Tehran’s economic benefits through supporting Gulf Arab economic investment in Syria. Doing this in the absence of a political agreement is messy, but the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are looking to use private enterprise as the means to achieve this.

And while Washington claims that it seeks a change in Iranian behaviour rather than a change in regime, Trump’s own personnel roster appears to send the opposite message. The problem, of course, is that temporary political appointees calling for regime change in far-off countries invariably lack an understanding of the cultural and historical environment of those countries.

This is perhaps best reflected in the fact that Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Bolton have both been paid speakers at rallies organised by the Iranian opposition group Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, which was until 2012 designated as a terrorist group by Washington. The cult-like MeK has few supporters among the more than 80 million Iranians, so while the rallies and other events are financially beneficial to some White House staff, nobody, least of all the Iranians themselves, seriously sees the MeK as any form of viable alternative government.

But while Iran has been successful in exploiting strategic opportunities and lack of unity among Western allies to advance its interests and influence in the region over the past 1½ decades, it has often been its own worst enemy. For all of its success in exploiting the disunity of its allies, Iran itself is not an homogeneous political entity, and the dynamic tension between the conservative and more moderate strands of the political establishment sometimes sees poor tactical choices triumph over sound strategic policy.

This is most likely the reason behind the detention of Western citizens and dual nationals, the assassinations of two people in The Netherlands in 2015 and 2017 in response to which two Iranian diplomats were expelled from The Hague last year, an alleged plot to bomb an MeK rally in France, and an assassination plot against an Iranian Arab separatist in Denmark last year. And just two weeks ago Germany arrested a German-Afghan linguist and cultural adviser to the German military on charges of spying for Iran.

During a time of heightened tension with Washington and when it is in the Iranian national interest to emphasise strong relations with Europe, the idea that ­assassination operations in European countries would be sanctioned by Iranian intelligence services defies logic. But therein lies the difficulty for Iran in navigating the shoals of the difficult international waters through which it is passing.

The times call for a rational strategic actor who can exploit the weaknesses in its opponents, not ideologically driven tacticians who risk strategic defeat to achieve tactical outcomes.

And the greater the hardliners’ influence on policy in Tehran, the more difficult will it be for the third supreme leader to achieve strategic coherence, let alone international acceptance.