Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why Iran's Internal Politics May Soon Make Nuclear Negotiations Impossible

by Nomad

The hopes for some kind of equitable resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue are further complicated by the declining health of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Khamenei. We examine how his death could make any kind of breakthrough next to impossible.

Death as a Catalyst for Change
There's no question about it. Time is running out.
If reports are true, the health of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is in decline. Western intelligence, as reported by the French paper Le Figaro, says that the 76-year-old has been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer which has spread to other parts of his body. At most, he has two more years. 
 As Al Jezeera reported last September:
The image of the aging Khamenei recuperating in a hospital bed and being kissed by President Hassan Rouhani has led to speculation about janesheen, or succession, by Iran observers and probably by people at the higher echelons of Iranian politics.
This news is not such a well-kept secret. Concerns about the Supreme Leader's health- as well as, who his successor might be- have been the source of much speculation for the last few years. For all parties concerned, the timing could not possibly be any worse. 

Since the beginning of the Iranian Republic, all of Iran’s key strategic decisions ultimately has always rested with the Supreme Leader, the commander-in-chief and Iran’s top ideologue. 
The next Supreme Leader (assuming there will be another Supreme Leader) will determine both the face and the future of the Islamic Republic. It is therefore important for the international community to assess the potential opportunities and threats which may arise once Khamenei leaves office.
Even with the short term goals like the nuclear weapons talks, the outcome   would require the consent of the Supreme Leader. Without it, any breakthrough is quite pointless.   

So the questions abound. If there is an immediate deal worked out between the West and the Iranians, given the Supreme leader's failing health, will it be recognized as legitimate? 

Any agreement would presumably have to also be approved by the Expediency Discernment Council, an advisory assembly is mostly made up of hardliner clerics and scholars who are appointed by the Supreme Leader every five years. It would be the first hurdle.

This scenario presumes that the Supreme Leader survives long enough to review and to approve of a negotiated agreement. If time does indeed run out, then things suddenly become much more complex.

So, after Khamenei is gone, who is to become the next Supreme leader and how will that affect the US-Iranian talks?

The Successor Guessing Game
The process of electing a new Supreme Leader will be an anxious one. Normally the leader is elected by the so-called Assembly of Experts. This democratically-elected organization is also in charge of overseeing the Leader and confirming him in his position for a term of 8 years. Once in power there is no limit to the number of terms he can remain there.

In fact, the Assembly of Experts has the power to remove a Leader according to the Iranian Constitution if the Leader becomes "incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties." Although this particular scenario would probably be the happiest, it is also quite unlikely. 
The assembly has never dismissed a sitting Supreme Leader, and as all of their meetings and notes are strictly confidential, the assembly has never been known to challenge or otherwise publicly oversee any of the Supreme Leader's decisions.
In other words, this administrative fix to the approaching storm will not happen.

Yesterday Mohammad Yazdi, the deputy chairman of the 86 -member assembly was elected to become the new chairman. Yazdi has been called "the most conservative" and the most "powerful" clerical oligarch." He reportedly encouraged Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Hezbolli to put a stop to the reform agitation by any means, including violence. 
With this man in the driver seat of the assembly charged with finding the next Supreme Leader, it is hardly likely that any of the candidates will be reform minded or in any way conciliatory to the West.

Whoever emerges as Iran's Supreme leader will determine the future for the country and for the region as a whole. There is no one person in Iran who will be as important to the future direction of the nation. The Leader is the Commander and Head of the armed forces and the provisional Chief of the three branches of Government (the Judiciary, the Legislature, and the Executive) 
Clearly the adjective "Supreme" is no exaggeration in this case.. 

There are no obvious candidates, according to experts: nobody in the wings being groomed for the position. So it's not possible to know who that person might be with any degree of certainty.

Aljazeera made its own list of candidates last year which included other members of the Khamenei family and a few top clerics
In a country where the process is heavily affected by deep religious and partisan fault lines, any change of leadership brings with a time of uncertainty. That instability unless quickly resolved can create the potential for a bitter power struggle. 

Of course, that's only one possibility. Iran is full of surprises, of course. It is quite possible that the succession will be a smooth one. Yet, the Supreme Leader is a very powerful position and, for some, it could be seen a prize worth fighting for.

The present Supreme leader, faced with this terminal illness could have smoothed things somewhat by announcing successor (privately or publicly) in advance. His decision, says an expert on Iranian politics, would have likely been respected by the more powerful elements of his support base, facilitating a swift transition process.

However, for whatever reason, Khamenei has so far refused to do so, as far we can see. For that reason, as it stands, a power struggle seems inevitable.

How long it could last is impossible to know but during that time, the chance of meaningful dialogue between the US and Iran is unlikely. As noted, any agreement would have to be approved. 

The Coming Storm
The scenario of a power struggle naturally appears on the surface to be a reason for hope for the West. Perhaps, as the argument goes, a reformist might somehow emerge. That's possible but banking our hopes on that particular scenario is not a wise idea. 
Conservative Republicans in Washington and war-hawks in Israel may rejoice at the prospect of a regime change, meaning the fall of the Islamic Republic. 

However, as we have seen in Syria, an implosion could spell disaster for the Iranian people, the nation and complicate an already fragile region. History tells us that, no matter how bad things are, instability can only make things worse. What is needed is an evolution, not a revolution. 

An extended and conflicted transitional period following Khamenei’s death could result in social unrest followed by crackdowns with disproportionate force. The longer this cycle between the security forces, competing power factions and the public, the greater the risk that the Republic will collapse. This could, in turn, lead to anarchy or a rise of more virulent form of Islamic extremism.
Either direction is not going to be very helpful to working out a cohesive agreement.
Let's imagine a peaceful transition. Even then, Khamenei's successor would have to win the support of various political, military and economic institutions, many of which have somewhat conflicting interests or at least, divergent priorities. 

According to this thinking, successor is probably not going to be openly reform-minded. He will be less likely to be flexible if only to appease hardliners and solidify his own position. Building a firm support base requires the new Supreme leader to put any moderate or reformist ideas on the back burner. 
This means more than just a long delay according to one study.
This could result in a resurgence of political intransigence, increased isolation from the international community and an escalation of Iran’s nuclear program.
In time that could change, of course, and a more moderate even reformist attitude could emerge. It would take time.

Therefore, any Khamenei replacement could make any deal on the nuclear issue more problematic. That person- no matter what his political views- would need to establish his religiously-conservative credentials. Therefore a compromise and a successful result of the talks in the post-Khamenei may not be possible for the near future.

The Dilemma of the King Makers
Another possible scenario in post-Khamenei Iran is an internal power struggle. It's really the usual result of a disputed line of sucession and it can easily lead to fraticidical in-fighting. Hardly an ideal atmosphere to carry on foreign diplomacy. 

At the center of any power struggle would be the military and the security apparatus of the Iranian Republic. According to one analyst, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will have a profound impact on the next succession process.
Elements of Khamenei’s network will seek to influence the succession process, especially the IRGC—which has grown exponentially under Khamenei and is now generally regarded as the most powerful political and economic bloc in Iran. With such a high stake in the future of the Islamic Republic, the IRGC will possibly be the most important external influence on the official succession procedure.
Any immediate deal with the West could be seen as a form of humiliating appeasement, bowing under pressure. Again, bad news for peace talks. 

On the other hand, if the IRGC takes control of the succession process (as expected), it doesn't necessarily spell a collapse of negotiations. This idea seems to run contrary to conventional wisdom. Having the most conservative militaristic sector of the Republic calling the shots would seem to make any nuclear weapons deals impossible. 

But this is where things get really complicated.
While the corps' primary role is internal security, it is, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, also "one of Iran's most influential economic players, wielding control over strategic industries, commercial services.." Think corruption and sweet-heart dealings.. over decades.

The CFR reports explains that Revolutionary Guard Corps has become a major financial player inside the country. That role came about following the Iran-Iraq war, when the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country. 

Since that time, the IRGC |has ties to "more than one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital." The power and influence of this one group extends into virtually every sector of the Iranian market. In addition, the Guards are linked to "university laboratories, weapons manufacturers, and companies connected to nuclear technology."

As one researcher noted:
The Guards-controlled engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded m ore than 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.
One Iranian dissident has compared the Republican Guard- once called "the people's army- as a combination of "the Communist Party, the KGB, a business complex, and the Mafia."
That's not much of an exaggeration.

Someone Not too Holy
Findins a face-saving way to lift the Western sanctions would appear to be a high priority for the Republican Guard elite. It's going to be tricky.

A report from says that for some time now the Republican Guard has had "a growing presence in Iran's financial and commercial sectors and extensive economic interests in the defense production, construction, and oil industries, controlling billions of dollars of business. 
The profits from these activities are available to support the full range of the IRGC's illicit activities, including WMD proliferation and support for terrorism.
No only terrorism. Intelligence analysts allege that that the Republican Guard is linked to multi-billion-dollar drug trade from the opium fields in Afghanistan to labs inside Iran and then through a sophisticated export system to the rest of the world. Said one Iranian source:
"They work with criminal gangs to move it overseas. They have their own ships, aircraft and haulage companies, everything needed for import and export. Their power is limitless."
Inside Iran, this illegal trade has come at a high cost too. The traffic has had a blow-back effect. Some analysts describe Iran's heroin addiction problem as the "worst in the world." In fact, opium costs far less in Iran than in the West, and is even cheaper than beer.
One 2006 report estimated that 8 percent of the adult population was addicted to drugs. According to UNODC, Iran has “one of the most serious addiction problems in the world.” 

That is just another factor facing the king makers as they search for the right person to take over as the Supreme Leader.  
No doubt, the IRCG would be torn between defending national pride against the Great Satan and the obvious advantages of the lifting of sanctions to their business interests.

That inner conflict inside the Republican Guard could tear the group apart with the Supreme leader caught in the middle. You might think that's just wishful thinking in the West, but there's been evidence of fractures within the Revolutionary Guards Corp about some deep resentment.
Ex-generals of the Guard have told some very interesting stories about the direction of the country under Khamenei. So the struggle to find a new leader could exacerbate these hidden tensions still further. 

In the end, only time will show. That however seems to be something in short supply when it comes to the Supreme Leader of Iran. What comes next is anybody's guess.