Alex Massie: At last, a ray of hope in Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drives through the crowd on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Picture: Getty
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad drives through the crowd on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Picture: Getty
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IRANIANS are living fear, in the shadow of the noose. Their country is racked by poverty and corruption. Elections are due in June, so is Iran about to change, asks Alex Massie

Last month, in central Tehran, Alireza Mafiha, aged 23, and Mohammad Ali Sarvari, aged 20, were hanged. In public. The pair were found guilty of “waging war against God”. They had robbed and stabbed a man, thieving possessions estimated to be worth no more than $20. Though their victim survived, the Iranian authorities sentenced the pair to death anyway.

A photograph from the execution shows the two young men, wide-eyed and in tears, being embraced by their hooded executioner. At the risk of over-interpreting the scene, it fosters the sense that even Iran’s hangmen can’t quite believe life – and death – in Persia has come to this.

These are desperate times in the Islamic Republic. During his trial, Mahifa had explained: “We needed the money because of poverty; I am sorry.”

Iran is a world leader in state-sponsored hangings. In 2011, at least 360 people were executed, according to Amnesty International. The real figure is most probably higher still. The majority of death warrants were signed for drug offences and most sentences were carried out behind closed doors. The increasing prominence of public hangings, however, is further evidence of a regime determined to remind the Iranian people who is in charge.

These are troubled times for the Islamic Republic. According to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the man responsible for Iran’s judiciary, “we need to act assertively and increase the costs for those committing street crimes”. With presidential elections scheduled for June this year, that message is increasingly important. And increasingly violent.

The real nature of the Iranian regime is revealed by its actions. This is a revolution that long since devoured itself. Now even squalid – but essentially minor – street crimes can result in state-sponsored death.

Rising crime is one consequence of the sanctions – the “most robust” in history, according to United States Vice-President Joe Biden – that are helping to impoverish Iran. Oil exports upon which Iran largely depends have plummeted, down by as much as 50 per cent last year. Inflation ran at an annual rate of 27 per cent in 2012. No wonder the Iranian rial has lost half of its value in the last 12 months. Officially, the unemployment rate is 13 per cent; most analysts believe the real figure is likely to be above 20 per cent.

Chronic economic mismanagement and rampant corruption have combined to make an already painful situation much worse. No wonder, then, that economic misery may now be the biggest threat to the regime. The government’s exhortation to buy Iranian – “National Production: supporting Iranian labour and investment” – is an acknowledgment of defeat. Imports have slumped anyway. There is little choice but to “buy Iranian”.

Elections could hardly come at a worse time for the ruling establishment. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is term-limited and ineligible to run for a third time as president. It seems likely that Iran’s voters will only be allowed a choice between candidates endorsed by the religious establishment. Candidates must be endorsed by at least 100 “experts” (so designated by the regime) and be between 40 and 75 years old. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005 and long considered Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s highest-profile rival, is 78 and thus ineligible to stand. Other opposition figures will also, doubtless, be excluded.

So the ingredients for trouble are all in place. The combination of political oppression and economic hopelessness is powerful. The “Green Revolution” spawned by the 2009 elections was, eventually, suppressed and its titular leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroub, remain under house arrest. Neither they, however, nor the forces that led to 2009’s political uprising have disappeared.

Against that, the hardline Revolutionary Guards – the Islamic Revolution’s “storm troopers” – are increasingly powerful. Moreover, those Iranians who owe their wealth, influence or privilege to the regime’s patronage will not disappear quietly. Ahmadinejad may – as many assume – have stolen the last presidential election; that does not mean he – or other hardline factions – enjoys only negligible support.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme continues. With little prospect of progress in Israel and Palestine, checking Iran remains the most pressing foreign policy issue Barack Obama faces as he begins his second term. The US president has repeatedly declared that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable”, not only on account of the threat Tehran could pose to Israel, but also of the risk of nuclear proliferation throughout the wider Middle East.

But this is a delicate game of feint and counter-feint. The United States cannot rule out the use of force to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, even if the threshold for the use of force is high. Equally, however, the threat of force seems unlikely to be enough to persuade Iran to rethink its weapons programme. Indeed, viewed from an Iranian perspective, nuclear weapons may be Iran’s best protection against being attacked by the United States or Israel.

Even so, there are signs that Iran’s progress towards the bomb has slowed. The Iranians, like their opponents, are playing cautiously.

Moreover, the Obama administration takes an increasingly hesitant view of foreign entanglements. Chuck Hagel, likely to be confirmed as the new US defence secretary, is not an enthusiastic supporter of military action against Iran’s nuclear programme based on what he has termed “flawed assumptions and flawed judgment”. Similarly, John Kerry, the new secretary of state, is wary of the unintended – and unknown – consequences likely to be triggered by any use of force.

The president has surrounded himself with tough-minded sceptics. Obama told the New Republic magazine this week that “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations”. That lesson has been hard-learned in Washington this past decade.

On Saturday, Biden reiterated that the US was prepared to talk to Tehran on a bilateral basis if necessary. This remains an improbable scenario, however, not least on account of the forthcoming Iranian elections. Nevertheless, it is important for Washington to demonstrate its own willingness to contemplate – and offer – talks. Public opinion still counts for something; sharply restricting Obama’s room for manoevre.

The Americans must exhaust all peaceful options first. More importantly, they must be seen to have exhausted all peaceful options. Not least because, far from undermining the regime, there is the grim prospect that any western military strike on Iran will actually buttress it. Many Iranians may despise their rulers; it scarcely follows that they would welcome Israeli or American missiles. On the contrary, the regime’s nationalist credentials would surely be strengthened in the aftermath of any such attack.

At best, perhaps, military action might set Iran’s nuclear programme back a few years, but it may be that achieving this short-term goal comes at the expense of the West’s long-term interest in seeing a change of regime in Tehran.

Time may, however, for once be on the West’s side. Israeli intelligence sources suggested last week that Iran may not be able to build a nuclear bomb until 2015 or even 2016. Patience and prudence may yet prevail.

In truth, Iran is a problem to be managed, not solved. Western policy is, in large degree, a matter of buying time and hoping something – however improbable it may be – will turn up to solve the Tehran dilemma. But if that is true for the United States, it is also true, increasingly, for the embattled Iranian regime too.