Are the Western democracies and Iran’s Islamic Republic “gearing up for a showdown”?
The sacking of the UK’s Tehran Embassy is not the only sign of growing Iranian belligerence, analysts suggest. Recent shifts in the regime’s internal dynamics suggest a consolidation of hard-line elements clustered around the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the growing public profile of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani (left), commander of the group’s normally covert Quds Force, is an ominous indicator, say observers.
Previously known as “the invisible general,” Suleimani and the Quds Force “are clearly seeking to expand their influence on events from the regional to the global stage and have none of the caution of their seniors in the Iranian theocracy,” says security analyst Julian Borger.
Recent developments could bring about “end the Islamic Republic of Iran as we know it,” says a leading expert, but that does not necessarily augur well for democratic prospects in Iran.
“The question remains whether [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and the office of the supreme leader enjoy the level of support that they had prior to 2005, especially in light of the 2009 election and ensuing political maneuvering,” writes Amin Tarzi:
If not, then that leaves room for the IRGC to ‘insert self’ as the true guardian of the administrative systems of the Islamic Republic and to sideline the office of the supreme leader or to alter its authorities if the Islamic Republic regime or the IRGC itself requires it. This would end the Islamic Republic of Iran as we know it since 1979.
Recent events have forced a rethink within Western capitals, not least in Washington where the Obama administration has effectively abandoned its initial hopes of constructive engagement.
“There’s greater skepticism now,” said Council on Foreign Relations expert Ray Takeyh, a former State Department adviser on Iran policy and a former advocate of engagement. Washington’s aim is to “press Iran further and isolate Iran further,” he said.
The administration is still pursuing a “dual-track strategy” towards Tehran, pressuring the regime through sanctions while pursuing diplomatic rapprochement – and direct dialogue with Iran’s people. Those efforts suffered a blow this week when Iran blocked access to a “Virtual Embassy” providing uncensored information to Iranian citizens.
U.S. national security adviser Tom Donilon confirmed the shift in US strategy in a recent speech to Washington’s Brookings Institution in which he outlined a series of military, security and diplomatic steps which “have enhanced our significant and enduring presence in the region.”
“The steps demonstrate unmistakably to Tehran that any attempt to dominate the region will be futile,” he said. “And they show the United States is prepared for any contingency.”
The speech was designed to send a clear message to Iran, observers suggest.
“Evidently, Donilon spoke for President Barack Obama, fully mindful of the criticality of an already supercharged Middle East situation,” says a veteran analyst.
The administration’s dual-track strategy failed because it was predicated on a false assumption, Takeyh and his colleague Kenneth Pollack recently argued: that Iran’s leadership makes rational, interest-based decisions when the regime is ideologically-driven and implacably opposed to compromise.
“As a distinct ideological entity, the theocratic regime requires an argument to convince its cadre that the regime’s repressive tactics are justified and in the service of a higher ideal,” they write. “The measure of success of the Green Movement is the damage that it has done to this argument, to the raison d’etre of the current Tehran regime.”
The evident failure of the carrot-and-stick approach only enhances the urgency of assisting Iran’s Green opposition, they conclude.
Iranian democracy activists and analysts recently called for the West to be more assertive in providing assistance to internal opposition forces.