The New Prince of Persia

The New Prince of Persia

Democritus wrote, “I would rather discover one true cause than gain the Kingdom of Persia”. With the election of the maybe vaguely reform-minded Hassan Rouhani many in the West are again hoping that this new Prince of Persia will also mark a new beginning for Iran. Much of this can be put down to the ‘anything better than Ahmadinejad’ school of international relations. So what are the implications of Rouhani’s election?

At the geopolitical level it is likely to harden dividing lines in the short-term because it will make it easier for the likes of Russia and China to support this ‘acceptable’ face of the Islamic Revolution. For that reason Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warned the West yesterday against “wishful thinking”. He is right – American ‘led’ Western policy over Iran is pretty much the same as Western policy over Syria in which meaningless red-lines are drawn in the sand by Western leaders who have as little intention of doing anything about the Iranian nuclear program as they do about Syria’s civil war. This was something all too painfully apparent in yesterday’s Cameron-Putin “G7+1” news conference on Syria – the impotent Cameron was rumbled by the intransigent Putin.

At the regional-strategic level there will be little short-term shift in Iranian foreign policy. Perhaps more important than Rouhani’s election was the news this weekend that Iran is to openly send members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to support the Assad regime in Damascus. This is in direct response to the EU’s incompetent decision to maybe lift an arms embargo but not actually arm the opposition – the strategic equivalent of being a little bit pregnant.

All the EU achieved was to permit Russia and Iran to up support for Assad and in the absence of any actual action by the West tip the balance further in favor of Assad, although the EU ‘action’ did force the hand of the Obama administration – sort of. Be it Brussels or Washington the West’s foreign policy incompetence will have been noted by all Western allies in the region – not least Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The West should put up or shut up – it is doing neither.

However, over the medium to long-term there may be reasons to believe a carrot and stick policy towards Iran will yield fruit. Although the real leader in the land remains Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the Revolution is running out of steam. Iranian society is deeply split between young urbanites in the city and aging (and admittedly not-so-aging) conservatives in the country. There is still a strong pocket of implacable anti-Westernism from which the regime draws succor, but it is estimated to be no more than 10-20% of the population.

The oil embargo has made life hard for a growing number of people who simply seek a better standard of living and an emerging young educated middle class who are keen to throw off the ideological and lifestyle shackles imposed upon them by a regime that seems ever more out of touch with this Internet age. With Turkey now wobbling and much of the region unstable, there is no reason to believe Iran is not subject to the same secular/religious tensions. It maybe for this reason that Ayotallah Khamenei was careful not to invest his personal support in any of the seven candidates unlike the last presidential elections back in 2009.

Rouhani the man is also interesting. He was educated in Glasgow twice – in the 1970s and 1990s – and apparently speaks English with a faint Glaswegian accent. This probably explains why as a nuclear negotiator although he was liked for his bonhomie no-one could understand a word he said – something from which almost all Glaswegians suffer. Critically, he does not seem to carry any of the implacably anti-Western baggage that drove the little-lamented and soon-to-be forgotten Ahmadinejad.

However, the sticking point will remain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In his first statement as president-elect Rouhani cryptically-talked of Iran’s “national interests”. This can be summed up as seeking Iran’s regional strategic dominance and a Shia ascendancy in the region. Tehran seeks nuclear weapons not simply as an end in themselves but rather to act as a security guarantee given the friction this strategy is causing and will cause. The regime also understands that the Obama administration’s caution is not some sophisticated new American strategy but rather the tired withdrawal of a tired superpower unsure as to its mission or its method in a changing world.

CNN’s excellent Fareed Zakaria got it right. “Iran is a country of 80 million people, educated and dynamic. It sits astride a crucial part of the world. It cannot be sanctioned and pressed down forever. It is the last great civilization to sit outside the global order”. Zakaria is right – for good and ill.

President Rouhani has gained the Kingdom of Persia (sort of) but his one true cause will for the moment remain as it ever was.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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