The Islamic Republic of Iran has, undoubtedly, faced hard times and what came lately is no exception to that. The country, governed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (military, judiciary, broadcasting services) and President Hassan Rouhani, undergoes a period of suffocated economy, alert troops and pressured judiciary.
It has now become a boiling cauldron where national security, journalism, money and energy sources intersect and interfere with each other; unfortunately, there is no better spell than time to give it a chance to recover and a clear direction to follow.
The long-lasting flavour of biting the Uranium bullet
The multilateral discussion about Iran’s uranium enrichment program has been in vogue for over a decade. After suffering sanctions related to a supposedly pacific energy program since 2006, negotiations with F5+1 (France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany) were expected to reach a result on June 30th, after some previous agreements in Lausanne, on April 2nd. On a sad note, the conjoint signature of an official document does not seem to be possible for now, since some primordial and most sensitive points were still not discussed nor accorded.
It is true that Iran does not use its hard power to take countries into accepting its nuclear condition. Whether it could or not do so is still a mystery. In early February this year, Ayatollah Khamenei told economists and officials in Tabriz that the western sanctions will never come to an end, since the countries do not approve the Islamic revolution in the first place. Additionally, he said that if the embargoes were to be maintained, Iran could also follow this path and stop commercializing gas with the European nations, among others. In this point, hard and soft power strategies – or, at least, intentions – in Iran are not balanced, but mixed. President Rouhani’s negotiators try to diplomatically find a solution to the impasse, whereas the supreme leader accuses ‘the enemy’ of using sanctions to the hilt – for that reason, some even predict that there might be a rift between those two sides of the government, instead of the so called ‘smart power’, the ideal soft-hard power balance.
Despite of making its own threats, the country continues to face embargoes due to refusing the proposal of an international team interviewing its scientists as well as an ‘anywhere, anytime’ inspection in military sites by foreign experts. As a signatory of the NPT (1968), it could not develop nuclear activities that do not meet pacific ends; even so, the sort of the researches made in Iranian territory has been doubted since 2002. It is impossible to say and useless to speculate what is being produced there, however it must be taken into account that the technology used to generate nuclear energy for pacifistic purposes takes a lot of time and funding to convert into military one (costs are connected mainly to the uranium enrichment process and actually building a sophisticated weapon system; a reason why countries start off with a military nuclear programme to obtain the nuclear weapon in the first place and afterwards comes the pacifistic nuclear energy part of the story).
Iran is a great regional force in the Middle East and has a profound influence over its Arab neighbours, having trained various militias around the Arab World. It is also militarily well-equipped and prepared, counting on a strong Army and Navy, which makes the other countries very uncomfortable, especially those from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (this is not to say that they are not making Iran nervous with their close bond to the US). Tehran has ambitions of fully controlling the Strait of Hormuz, an important choke point from the Persian Gulf, that would not only enable the country economical control over the whole region, controlling the exports of energy reserves by sea routes, but also militarily one, by barring the American presence there. It also has great ambition towards its due part of the rich Caspian Sea, claiming 20% of it against the 12% already offered by its Caspian neighbours. In all of those cases, it seems right to say that having a nuke would be, in turn, a way of reassuring its power, but, more than meaning the rise of its hard power, a way of coercing and threatening the Gulf countries, the thought creating friction with their main Western ally, the US. In this equation, we cannot forget about the one regional force that has both, nuclear weapons and a very offensive foreign policy strategies: Israel.
Lately, the mounting tension among these nations resulted in the use of Saudi-led forces to control a group of rebels based in Yemen, allegedly supported by Iran. That shows the power of the forces in Saudi Arabia, but it also evidences a paramilitary campaign from Iran’s side that has been developed long ago and all its influence over the region – and it is not because of dialogue.
In addition to all of the above mentioned reasons and the fact that Iran is on the “wrong” side of the alliance axis in the Middle East, standing opposite to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US, help build arguments – veiled or not- for the continuous and gradual use of hard power towards Iran, through economic bans. On the other hand, it is still to be thought why such countries do not seem to worry so much about the non-signatory nations of the NPT, where the presence of nukes is concrete and not a secret. It is even more ironical if the affinities between those territories and the Western, principally the American leadership, are perceived.
The perks of being a military wall
As a country of regional importance, Iran seems to be the only nation geographically present and militarily might enough to fight the ISIS spreading – it counts on a huge reservoir of manpower (according to the CIA factbook, 1,4 million people reach military significant age annually and, according to the Iran Intelligence website, 520,000 people are in active duty, being, by far, the most significant number in the region), masters the use of drones and counts on missiles, too – an arsenal that tends to increase, once Russia opted for lifting its 5-year ban and proceed with the sales of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
Also, the Persian nation has an old and close liaison with the militias in Iraq and Syria, in addition to Hezbollah and other groups. Its main influence can be noticed in the training of the soldiers, the financing of weapons and staff. Even though it is the ideal nation to recur to – either for its experience in fighting ISIS on the ground level, or for being the one which is aiding military efforts against it – the Western coalition against ISIS, led by the United States, resists Iran`s joining in the effort of mitigating the actions of the jihadists.
It is clear that the ISIS threat to the Arab world tends to bring historical foes closer, as it may happen to Iran and Iraq due to the Iranian help during the Iraqi occupation – commander and national figure Qassim Soleimani, from the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was a resource offered by Iran to direct the Shiite militias against the extremists. This is not the first time Iran uses its military power in Iraq, though. The Iran-Iraq war, that was long, albeit not beneficial for any of the parts involved, was a major example of how both of these countries were able to use their hard power on each other for eight years. The United States that, at the time, was politically and financially involved in the conflict, now assumes a more discrete role with air strikes and assistance to the local Iraqi Army, partly because of its unhealed wounds from the war in Iraq (ended in 2011), partly because of its own internal conflicts at the Congress.
Say it all or not at all
War and firepower are not the only issues that currently worry Iran. Since ten months ago, when the Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, his wife and a photographer were arrested under the charges of betrayal and spying, the world turns its eyes with antipathy to Ayatollah Kahmeini’s judiciary. Both of the ladies were set free after paying a fee, but the Iran-based Washington Post reporter was kept in prison and, since May 25th, is being judged in a court that could only be attended by himself, the judge, the prosecutor and an attorney who he could not choose, in a room reserved for the prosecution of political crimes.
The media worldwide speaks of strong governmental presence in the charges pressed, and the need for such a case is also put into question. Double citizenship of Rezaian is not recognized either, which makes it impossible for the diplomatic service of America to interfere. If convicted, the journalist can face up to six years in prison. But we are still to follow how the community is going to claim his rights – if at all.
Finally, what can be said about Iran is that it is a country that has been through hard probations since 1979 with the fall of Reza Pahlevi. The latest elections, though, show a moment in which the republican government is more open to dialogue and, therefore, can be expected to soothe some of its positions, yet it must count on gradual and homeopathic changes once it is also administrated by the ‘divine’, religious power, that tends to be stricter because of its doctrines. Therefore, Tehran still has a way to go when it comes to choosing its weapons in order to achieve an objective. Maybe this is the time for it to start boosting its willingness to dialogue and its impressive influence with a wiser, more goal-oriented mindset.