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WORLD RESPONSE TO IRAN A MAJOR FACTOR IN INTERNAL POLITICS

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BERKELEY, May 1 2006 (IPS) - Given the fragmentation of Iran\’s conservative ruling elite, the response of the major powers to Iran\’s nuclear ambitions will greatly affect the outcome of the current power struggle inside the country — and by implication, the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, write Dariush Zahedi, who teaches International Political Economy and Peace & Conflict Studies at University of California, Berkeley, and Ali Assareh, a student instructor and analyst specialising in the political economy of the Middle East at UC Berkeley.

In this analysis, the authors write that pursuing the military option would create a security environment conducive to the ascendancy of Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners, who would seize the opportunity to extinguish the remnants of Iran’s civil society and roll back reforms. Sanctions would damage Iran’s struggling private sector and minuscule middle class and weaken the position of the pragmatists relative to the hard-liners and traditionalists, who control Iran’s vast network of black markets.

Engaging Iran, on the other hand, would enhance the position of the pragmatists relative to other sub-factions. A normalisation of relations between the two countries would also lead to improvements in the condition of the economy. American foreign investment could boost the development of the private sector in Iran and increase the size of its middle class. This process, in the long run, will further consolidate the position of the less ideological and more pragmatic elements within the conservatives, and could lay the foundations for a peaceful and sustained transition to democracy.

Over the next few weeks, the world’s major powers will seek to reach consensus on how to respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with options ranging from engagement to economic sanctions, even unilateral military action. Given the fragmentation of Iran’s conservative ruling elite, the actions of the major powers will greatly affect the outcome of the current power struggle inside the country — and by implication, the fate of Iran’s nuclear program.

The unity of the Islamic Republic’s conservative ruling elite has finally cracked under the mounting international pressure on Iran to halt its enrichment program, the rising internal demand to improve the living conditions of the public, and the defeat of the reform movement. The international community needs to take into consideration these factional differences when dealing with Iran. Each course of action presents a set of advantages and disadvantages as far as particular factions are concerned.

In the pre-Ahmadinejad days, the conservatives found it easier to unite in opposition to a “common enemy”, Khatami’s reform movement, which began in 1997 and lasted until 2005. With the reformists out of the picture, however, factional infighting has continued unabated — this time within the conservative camp.

The recent rise in intra-conservative factionalism is exacerbated by the absence of a charismatic, unifying leader of the calibre of Ayatollah Khomeini. The current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has a more fragile hold on power, lacking both popular and religious legitimacy.

Far from being a monolithic bloc, the conservative camp is generally split over the future direction of the country and how to deal with its mounting crises. Each sub-faction has its own social base and share of power in the Islamic Republic’s over-institutionalised political structure.

The hard-line conservatives, represented by President Ahmadinejad, have intimate ties with powerful segments of Iran’s security establishment and coercive apparatus. They have a support base in the Revolutionary Guards’ high command and the devoted Basij forces, which comprise the Islamic Republic’s million-man voluntary militia. The Basij began as a mass movement created by Khomeini in 1979 and militarised after the war started in order to supplement his beleaguered army. In recent years and through recourse to populist politics, they have also managed to garner the support of a large proportion of Iranians living below the poverty line, who now comprise close to forty percent of the population.

The pragmatists, led by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, have a social base in Iran’s modern capitalist strata as well as segments of the middle class. The least ideological of all conservative groupings, the pragmatists have consistently pushed for the implementation of the Chinese Model in Iran, favouring strong economic growth and the removal of burdensome social restrictions accompanied by limited liberalisation of the political scene.

The traditionalist conservatives are connected to Iran’s baazari (merchant) community. The main group representing their interests is the Islamic Coalition Society, whose rank and file members are powerful merchants that have gone on to dominate key economic positions in the Islamic Republic.

The fragmentation of the conservative camp presents the international community with the opportunity to influence the future trajectory of political development in Iran.

Pursuing the military option would create a security environment that would be most conducive to the ascendancy of Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners. In such a case the hard-liners would seize the opportunity to extinguish the remnants of Iran’s civil society and roll back many reforms.

Imposing sanctions on Iran would significantly damage Iran’s struggling private sector and minuscule middle class. It would also weaken the position of the pragmatists relative to the hard-liners and traditionalists, who control Iran’s vast network of black markets.

Engaging Iran, on the other hand, would enhance the position of the pragmatists relative to other sub-factions. For many years the pragmatists have called for a normalisation of relations between Iran and the rest of the international community, including the United States.

A normalisation of relations between the two countries would also lead to improvements in the condition of the economy. American foreign investment could boost the development of the private sector in Iran and increase the size of its middle class. This process, in the long run, will further consolidate the position of the less ideological and more pragmatic elements within the conservatives, and could lay the foundations for a peaceful and sustained transition to democracy.

The final outcome of factional politics in the conservative camp will be determined largely by the reaction of the international community — particularly the United States — to Iran’s nuclear program. What will it be? (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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