Now Iran will get more aggressive abroad

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, June 25, 2009
Pro-government demonstrators in Tehran protest “Western interference” in Iranian affairs

Pro-government demonstrators in Tehran protest “Western interference” in Iranian affairs

Iran’s regime has chosen to shamelessly fix the elections. One can only wish Iran’s protesters well, but a regime that went out of its way to rig an election will be ruthless in the way it defends its result. So what comes after the crackdown?

Iran will not be the same — and neither will those in the West who try to decode its intentions and actions.

The electoral fraud of June 12 had two aims. First, to consolidate the power shift from the clerical elites who guided the revolution to the revolutionary lay leaders who have increasingly come to control the economy and the security apparatus. They are the true guardians of the revolution but, in a theocracy, they need the legitimacy of the turban.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei alone can grant this, in exchange for their loyalty — and the commitment to use force if necessary to crush his opponents.

The second aim was to nip in the bud a rising tide of discontent, which Mir Hossein Mousavi’s candidacy came to represent more by chance than by his conviction, before it could spin out of control and seriously challenge the regime’s stability.

The outcome of this bloody exercise — a blood feud both inside the regime and between the regime and its people — still hangs in the balance.

If the regime comes on top, it will lose any residual legitimacy it might have had internally and hopefully also among Western interlocutors. Nobody will be able to casually comment that Iran is a democracy of sorts and get away with it.

To stay in power, the alliance between Khamenei and the revolutionaries will have to increasingly look and behave like a dictatorship.

For the region, this is both good and bad. A regime with the blood of its own people on its hands will also be more aggressive abroad. It will feel it is living on borrowed time and must more quickly establish and consolidate its foreign policy gains to fend off threats, real and, more often, imagined.

It will speed up its nuclear quest, confident that the strongest guarantee for its survival and longevity lies beyond the finish line. It will renew its commitments to other champions of radicalism. And it will concoct plots, conspiracies and enemies abroad, as paranoid dictatorships often do, to fend off criticism at home and justify wave after wave of internal repression.

The resulting turmoil cannot offer any hope of moderation from Israel’s foes, Hizbollah and Hamas, nor can Iran be expected to loosen its friendly embrace of Syria. It could also light more than a fire in the flammable environments where Iran has played dirty in the past, Iraq and Afghanistan — two unstable countries whose future hangs in the balance.

But there is a silver lining. Now that the die is cast in Tehran, the regime had to show its true face — not the façade of the dialogue of civilisations, not the sophisticated bonhomie of Iranian diplomats, not the alluring prospects of lucrative business in a friendly environment, but the naked brutality of ruthless, unadulterated repression.

Iran’s popular uprising might end up like Prague 1968, not Prague 1989. Back then, once the tanks rolled into the squares and crushed civilians, nobody could harbour any doubts or illusions about the true nature of the Soviet empire. Iran is the same.

If nothing else, we will get that clarity from this moment of Iranian history — one that, sadly, has been missing among many Western commentators and policymakers until recently.

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is the director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute and the author of Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the bomb

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010