Tuesday 3 January 2023

Iran in 2023: Opportunity?

Predictable change is rarely on offer; and conversely, predicted change often doesn't happen.  (China becoming more liberal as a consequence of trade being perhaps the stand-out example of the latter in recent times.)  But something seems to be afoot in Iran, n'est-ce pas?  Is it too much to hope that 'western powers' are ready, willing and able to respond to it adroitly?

Iran / Persia is a deeply interesting case, in a fundamentally pivotal geo-political position.  Always resistant to foreign domination, since the 15th century it has been essentially independent, unlike many neighbouring states that have much less political continuity - the Arab states to its west and south, the 'stans north and east.  Of the foreign 'influences' over the years, Russian interests are a recurring theme - and never more so than today.  But only the British effort really stands out as clever and (by some lights) constructive.  When oil was discovered there in 1908, the Royal Navy was immediately interested.  How best to get British hands on it?  In an era where many people's first imperial thoughts would have been inclined towards something fairly expropriatory, wiser counsels prevailed, and a broadly commercial arrangement was struck instead.  Development of a huge oil industry followed, and the British connection was strong for more than 40 years.  It all ended in nationalisation, of course: and subsequent British, and then American efforts from the 1950s onwards can certainly be faulted.  Recent Iranian history begins, of course, with the revolution of 1979** and its near-complete severing of any normal relations with the west.

Iranians bridle at being grouped with Arabs in the ignorant western mind, and have a solid history of learning, education and native science, notwithstanding that dogmatic clerical rule is rarely consistent with reaping the full benefit of that learning.  Western influences have been very strong, certainly in the middle classes, many of whom traditionally sought further education in England or France.  (Indeed, for many years the French might have been thought to have had the greater cultural influence, with French being widely spoken: but they were slow off the mark back in 1908.  Nonetheless, Paris was always where the major Iranian exiles of all political stripes hung out - and were sometimes eventually buried, as a trip to the cemetery at Montparnasse will attest.)

And after 43 years, it seems the educated Iranian middle class has had enough of 'morality police' and the rest of the clerical excesses.

Is this a happy ending just waiting to happen?  Is Russia's new supplier of drones and potentially worse about to step back from its baleful role in the Near East?  Well, not necessarily.  Although you won't find this on Wikipedia the current Supreme Leader Khamenei is widely rumoured to have studied in Russia: there is a critical gap in his biography, and some years ago his name featured on the list of alumni claimed by the infamous Moscow "Peoples Friendship University", a.k.a. the Patrice Lumumba.   Being too closely associated, education-wise, with the godless Russians wouldn't suit him nowadays, of course: but it's noticeable how closely he tacks to Russia just now, to put it mildly.  (PS, these rumours started more than a decade ago, i.e. they are not to be laid at the door of some current disinformation campaign.)  There is a current rumour, however: that he has cancer and is not long for this world (like, errr, Putin, Xi, Kim etc etc etc: so maybe not worth entertaining too optimistically).

Suppose that 2023 is indeed the year that a counter-revolution breaks out in Iran.  Any new regime will want to restore prosperity in short order - that's the way Khomeni worked his trick in 1980-81.  So they'll want an early end to sanctions ... but will they also continue to want nukes as well?  

Seems to me there's an obvious role here for adroit and subtle western diplomacy.  What wouldn't we give for Iran stepping back from Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah etc etc - and from Russia?  Well, errr, maybe we wouldn't give nukes ...  But China ..?

I don't know what the solution is here.  But if we just let a revolutionary moment pass without making a creative & intelligent effort, the west will be regretting it as much, if not more, as other nations did when the Brits stepped smartly in to the oil opportunity.  We (UK) are no longer up to it.  Macron will probably throw Total into the frame, but he's no Apollo, whatever he thinks.  And I greatly fear that the USA doesn't see Iran at all clearly; but rather - how shall we put it? - through a very darkened and steamed-up glass. 


(Unusually, in this case I may be forced to moderate BTL, so choose your words carefully.  If the anticipated trolling does indeed materialise, before deleting I will keep notes for readers' future edification)


** This was not, as is widely supposed, initially a wholly clerical matter.  But Khomeini, recalled from his exile in Paris, was determined to make it so - and he succeeded in just a couple of years, with a strategy Lenin would have admired.


Don Cox said...

The hopeful thing for the Iranians is that the Marxist theocracy did fade away, to be replaced by a revival of rule by a Tsar, which the Russians appear to be used to.

The mullahs will likely be succeeded by a military dictatorship, but perhaps without silly dress codes.


dearieme said...

(i) When I was an undergraduate the only girl in the class a year ahead was an Iranian from a rich family, an attractive, outgoing, high spirited lass. The rest of the class seemed to like her enormously even though by her cultured and sophisticated standards they were all rather oiks.

She once explained why her father always appointed a westerner to manage his business - an Iranian would simply fill positions with family members and never sack anyone incompetent.

(ii) Later I had an Iranian flatmate, girl friend of another flatmate. And so it was that one day I opened the flat door to a ring of the door bell to find myself confronted by a member of SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. I had no doubt: he was like a Hollywood stereotype - short, wide, a bit swarthy, taciturn, menacing, and too old to be a fellow student. He wanted to speak to her. I told him to run along; off he went. Presumably he'd been instructed not to kill British citizens.

Was he armed? I didn't ask.

Anonymous said...

Talking about SAVAK. I had a proxy run in with them at Uni. I worked on the student rag. We had a well-founded story that one of the departments was taking Iranian money (Shah then of course) and it somehow involved SAVAK being given an office on campus. We had an impeccable source. We ran a "Part 1" of the story, at which the authorities came swinging in and told us we'd all be expelled if Part 2 ever came out. Seemed like proof to me! But I'm ashamed to say we didn't take it any further. What can a 20-year old do? We were only really in it for the rock'n'roll etc.

Matt said...

Local restaurateurs hate the regime in Iran. They have been predicting for a while that the mullahs would be overthrown as they are widely hated. Relatives have been incarcerated in the recent demonstrations which they think will actually achieve something this time. They get regular updates from family in country, but might be overestimating how much appetite there is to push through meaningful change.

Caeser Hēméra said...

Things were generally fine so long as the middle classes, merchants and those outside of Tehran played the "game" of obeying the nutters in charge when not behind closed doors.

Then the nutters in charge kept pushing... So, Iran finds itself at a point where people are deciding that a revolution is actually less hassle.

An Iran back in the international fold would be very useful for the US, and the West in general, especially as a counter to the Saudis and a lever for oil prices, Biden should be salivating at the prospect of kicking sand in the face of MBS.

Iranians also tend to be in the more moderate pile of Muslims, and if we can get them back under a sane government it opens up the opportunity to start moving the entire Levant region towards a stable bloc under an Iranian guidance not wholly hostile to Israel and the West. We don't need to be best buddies straight away, but allies on ensuring the Levant, and ideally, the greater ME finds a measure of peace.

Anonymous said...

"What wouldn't we give for Iran stepping back from Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah etc etc - and from Russia? Well, errr, maybe we wouldn't give nukes ... But China ..?"

Are you suggesting that China would give nukes for stepping back from Russia? Presumably not, China know they are next in line if Russia caves (aka "rejoins the rules-based international order").

I'm sure MI6/CIA are working as hard as ever they did in 1950, probably more so, to topple the Iranian leadership, but it's pretty existential for them, and I imagine Russia will be interested too.

Are you looking forward to a broadening and extension of the US/Russia conflict? I do hope not.

“it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger should emerge capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America’s global pre-eminence… America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained." -Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1997.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to say, I shared as a student with a handsome Iranian, real ladykiller. One Saturday night I returned to find him with no company, a rarity.

"What happened?"

"Well I brought a girl back, and I was kissing her from behind in front of the mirror, then I reached round and started undoing her blouse. She slapped me in the face!"

"What did you do?"

"Hit her back, of course"