Where to for Iran?

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in New York that Israel is confronting three major problems, which he enumerated as Iran, Iran and Iran. The converse could in fact be true, in that Iran is itself confronting a multi-pronged series of problems. While a number of the problems facing Iran are self-inflicted, it would appear that Iran is facing attacks and threats on a number of fronts, for differing reasons.

The immediate challenge Iran faces is the anticipated decision by US President Donald Trump to scrap the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the “nuclear deal”) entered into by his predecessor, Barack Obama. While the implications of such an action are being scoffed at and mocked by the Iranian regime, the reality is that the reintroduction of limited economic sanctions would be a further setback for an already battered Iranian economy.

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The next and even more worrying challenge must be the no-nonsense approach taken by Israel with regard to Iran’s attempts to establish military bases in Syria. Israel has shown a resolute determination not to allow Iran the luxury of bases in Syria, attacking such installations as soon as they are established. While there is often no proof of Israeli involvement in the attacks, there are very few other armed forces with the potential to carry out such precision attacks with such high efficiency and success rates. Both of these challenges are self-inflicted and a direct result of Iran’s twin desires of controlling a land bridge to the Mediterranean and stated determination to attack and destroy Israel.

While these challenges are serious, those faced by the hardline Islamic regime in Tehran from internal sources carry far more potential danger. The country is facing economic challenges unrelated to any sanctions, as a result of the prolonged drought that has been ravaging the country for almost 10 years, while growing unemployment is resulting in an increasingly angry populace. The effects of the drought have been intensified by haphazard agricultural planning as well as the injudicious use of the scarce water resources. With the potential to earn a living from agriculture disappearing, rural people will migrate to the urban centers in ever increasing numbers in the quest to earn a living. This in itself will create great pressure on the Iranian regime.

In tandem with challenges possibly emanating from climate change, the collapse of the Iranian currency, the rial, has severe implications for the country. The government in Tehran has fixed the value of the rial at 42,000 to the US dollar, while in reality the market value is closer to 60,000 to the dollar, which is the going rate as people rush to buy dollars as a hedge against a potential collapse of the economy. The fall in the value of the rial is not related to the actual state of the economy, considering non-oil exports of $47 billion and oil exports of $55b., leaving a trade surplus of $17b. in 2017, after imports were a shade less than $48b. The country does however, have a budget deficit of $9.3b., according to a recent Asia Times report.

Two important factors directly related to the value of the rial are the lack of foreign direct investment brought on by the fear of a reintroduction of sanctions by the Trump administration, and the ever increasing cost of Iran’s military interventions in the Middle East. While the exact cost to Iran in monetary terms is not available, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have each been receiving almost $100 million annually from Iran. Estimates of the cost of Iran’s intervention in Syria vary from $5b. to $20b. annually. Taking a midpoint between these estimates, one arrives at a figure in excess of Iran’s budget deficit, an indication of the harm the Syrian intervention is doing to the economy in Iran.

Iran has proven very adept at issuing regular statements threatening the continued existence of the State of Israel, while it has been very reluctant to become involved in direct action against Israel itself. Proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and to some extent Syria have been Iran’s preferred means of attacking Israel. The effectiveness of Israeli attacks on Iranian installations in Syria speaks volumes about the intelligence that must be available to the IDF, which must be of great concern to Iran. The exposure of the successful Mossad operation to remove hundreds of files from Tehran detailing Iran’s nuclear program must be of even greater concern, although Iran has no choice other than to denounce the files as fake, or suffer the enormous embarrassment of admitting that its security has been severely compromised.

Iran is thus being successfully attacked on the military front by the IDF and by the Israeli intelligence establishment, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mounted a massive public relations campaign against the Islamic Republic. President Trump’s decision on the fate of the nuclear agreement, due by May 12, might be a further arm of the multi-pronged attack on Iran. Add to this the attack by the elements in the form of the drought, and the absence of foreign investment, and we find an Iran with its back to the wall. The question is: how will it react?

The threat of attack against Israel, as well the intervention in Syria, is being driven by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an Islamic fundamentalist army put in place to protect the revolution in Iran, although it has become far more than that, being the power behind the throne of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. The unknown quantity here, according to Henry Kissinger, is that the IRGC is driven by ideology and not by logic or an understanding of the military realities of the Middle East.
The next question that arises is whether or not Israel and the US are deliberately goading the IRGC into taking poorly considered and rash action against Israel, or alternatively to once again lose face, which is considered the ultimate disgrace in much of the Islamic world. Such rash action could have disastrous consequences for Iran.

Should Iran choose to take direct military action against Israel in concert with its proxies, it may well be unleashing forces on its home front that it cannot control. The restive population of Iran, with almost 16 million unemployed and hungry people, has shown an increasing willingness to rise up in protest against the regime and might see conflict between Iran and Israel as the ideal opportunity for an uprising. The forces against Iran and its proxies appear to be rising on many fronts and it remains to be seen whether these challenges can all be successfully met by a repressive regime that is under increasing pressure on several fronts.

The other unknowns in the Iran equation are the possible reactions to an attack on Israel of Iran’s former arch enemies and current allies, Russia and Turkey. Russia and Iran are allied in Syria; they both have identical objectives there, albeit for different reasons. Both seek a military presence in Syria and both want a port on the Mediterranean. Whether these common objectives will result in cooperation or conflict in the future remains to be seen. Russia certainly doesn’t want to be in a Syria that is under constant attack from Israel as a result of Iranian intransigence.

Turkey and Iran share a number of identical ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, and the common problems associated with their demand for autonomy. Turkey is also in the ambiguous position of being a member of NATO; the NATO anti-missile installations on its territory are viewed as an act of aggression by Iran. On the other hand the two countries share an intense dislike for Israel and both offer aid to Hamas. The fundamentalist Islamic route that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is steering his Sunni Islamic country in will inevitably lead to a clash with Shi’ite Iran, with Turkey supporting the Gulf Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. The result of the standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran will potentially also be affected to a very large degree should Iran become embroiled in an armed conflict with Israel.

The logical route for Iran would be to pull back on its threats to Israel, while at the same reining in Hezbollah and Hamas for the foreseeable future. This would remove Israel’s stated reasons for attacking Iranian bases in Syria. A far greater degree of openness from Iran regarding its nuclear objectives and intentions and an agreement to walk away from its nuclear weapons development would reduce a further cause for anxiety in Israel as well in the US.

Actions of this nature by Iran would give it time to rebuild its economy and achieve its political objectives in Syria and Iraq. The likelihood of this eventuating is almost nil, however, because as Kissinger says, Iran is driven by ideology, not logic or common sense, and will most certainly not do what most of the world considers to be “the right thing.”

The author is a retired major in the South African Defence Force and author of Street Names in Israel.