The Need to Look More Closely at Iran

July 12, 2016
The Need to Look More Closely at Iran
Richard Burchill
Richard Burchill Director of Research & Engagement at TRENDS Research & Advisory

In a recent Expert Analysis published by TRENDS, Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield and Dr. Ramesh Sepehrrad presented the view that the USA government and policy analysts are misreading Iran.  They explained there is a long held belief that Iran will change, that the reformist figures in the country seek to, and will be able to, bring about actual change in how Iran operates.  As a result of this belief, the USA has repeatedly taken the view that Iran’s transgressions in relation to international law and norms are the handiwork of factional elements whose influence can be overcome through diplomatic engagement of the regime.   Bloomfield and Sepehrrad make clear that any optimism about Iran’s ability to reform is misplaced given the control the current regime has over the state.   To exemplify this, the Commander of USA Central Command, General Joseph Votel, recently testified that since the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear capability, Iran has become “more aggressive in the days since the agreement.”  As the nuclear agreement is the latest point of optimism for those who believe Iran can reform, it does not appear Iran is changing its behaviour in a positive way.

The belief that Iran can change, as Bloomfield and Sepehrrad discuss, has been a regular feature in assessments of Iran since 1979.  It is difficult to understand where the belief in reform is grounded when one looks at the overall situation in Iran.  In particular, the view that Iran has the ability to reform under the current form of government in power seems difficult to understand in light of its violations and undermining of international law and norms.  The failure of a state to adhere to international law and norms is a possible criticism that can be levelled at every state at one time or another, but in Iran’s case, their violations and disregard are widespread, and a source of pride and even bragging for the Iranian government.   The government has made it very clear that it has no interest to adhere to many accepted international standards, nor is it willing to pay lip service to these ideas.  Despite hopes of Iran reforming, such actions and attitudes indicate Iran is more likely to maintain a disruptive posture that threatens regional and international security than to change positively.

Iran’s extensive disregard for international law and norms is an integral part of its foreign policy and has been a defining characteristic of the government since 1979.   The leadership in Iran has built up the view that Iran is the global leader in bringing about an anti-Western, anti-American revolution in the world.  Their view is not directed only at the Western states, but equally applies to any of its regional neighbours that may ally with the USA.  Bloomfield and Sepehrrad explain that Iran’s current view of the world is a direct result of the internal organisation of regime power, in place since 1979.  The system of religious dictatorship known as velayat-e faqih, the “guardianship of the Islamic jurist,” is the key to understanding how Iran operates.   Khomeini created this system beginning in 1979 and it persists today, regardless of what else the Iranian constitution says about a division of power among the various government institutions.

The system of velayat-e faqih brought in by Khomeini is a system based on the belief of the superiority of religion, and leadership is intended to be exercised through the most righteous rulers. Khomeini from the outset modified the system away from any actual standard of religious piety or knowledge and installed individuals who would loyally enforce his political power into positions all over the country.  When he was near death he bypassed the leading Islamic cleric in favour of a far less credentialed successor.  Khomeini’s version of Shi’a Islam was taught in schools and promulgated in mosques, ensuring the propaganda of the approach became part of the normal discourse.  He also made it clear from the beginning that this version of Islamic governance was to be exported to the world.

We can see as well how the real system of authority is beyond the Constitution and sits with the Supreme Leader.  The Guardian Council is a 12-member body that controls the passage of all laws.  The Council can repeal or veto any law passed by the Parliament. The Council also acts as a constitutional court determining if actions are in line with the Constitution.  The Council also acts as the supervisory body in the conduct of all elections; any potential candidate must apply to the Council for approval, allowing the Council to control who makes it on any of the ballots. Bassij forces loyal to the Supreme Leader collect dossiers chronicling the loyalty of any aspirant to elective office, and report to the Guardian Council.  The composition of the Council is six experts in Islamic law, appointed by the Supreme Leader, and six other legal experts, appointed by the Head of Judicial Power – an individual who himself is appointed by the Supreme Leader.  In short, the most powerful collective body in the constitutional system is appointed by one person, the Supreme Leader. As the Guardian Council wields extensive authority, even though it is possible to appeal its decisions, it is unlikely that any widespread reform is ever possible unless the Supreme Leader wills it — an unlikely scenario.

This high degree of control is not a result of underhanded political manipulation, it is clearly set out in the Constitution.  At the same time, alongside the constitutional power held by the Supreme Leader, over time there has been an increasingly high level of intervention into all aspects of society, with the Supreme Leader and his allies controlling large sections of the economy, as well as the largest firms in the economy, including charitable organisations.  And, lest we forget, the Supreme Leader has full and complete authority over the armed forces (Article 110 of the Constitution).  If the belief in meaningful reform held by the West comes from the structures and processes of the Iranian system (Parliament, elections), the authority of the Supreme Leader shows how difficult, if not impossible, reform will be.  In particular, it is the military dimension as “The IRGC is now a military, political, cultural, and social complex with a nationwide network parallel to the religious network”.  The IRGC has created a substantively deep presence in all aspects of the Iranian system, and it does not appear to offer the reform outlook much hope.

Iran’s ability to reform into some sort of rational, cooperative participant internationally seems limited given the current governmental structure. The fanfare of Iran entering into the global economy following from the lifting of sanctions has not come about, indicating the Supreme Leader is facing a dilemma.  On the one hand, Iran’s entry back into the global economy would bring about substantial benefits for society if the elite do not pocket all of the profits themselves (a real possibility). But on the other, for Iran to engage with the global economy it has to play by the rules, regulations and norms already established, something that is not in line with the Supreme Leader’s doctrinal view.  In a recent public speech, Khamenei talked of how Iran will continue “to move on the path of the revolution and revolutionary spirit,” which includes the maintenance of an “economy of resistance.”    This does not appear to be the cooperative spirit the West was hoping for.

The tensions within Iran regarding its association with the West, engagement with global institutions in economic areas or maintenance of its “economy of resistance” are most apparent in the heavily delayed model contract for oil and gas projects.  The model contract is seen as the key to updating Iran’s oil industry and making it globally competitive, but the country needs Western companies to do this.  The November 2015 outline presentation of the law was greeted with great fanfare, even though no details were released regarding ownership and rights.  At the time of publication, the model contract has still not been published with reports saying there is significant conflict internally.

In many respects, formulating economic and commercial agreements with Iran is perhaps the best way to bring Iran into the fold of global norms.  Once there are legal commitments with verifiable benefits arising for both sides, the use of deceit and violence comes at a price, and becomes less probable.  As the model contract suggests, however, it is unlikely Iran will be willing to accept the obligations upon itself that come with international commercial agreements, or substantial participation in the international trade system. Equally, there should remain high levels of suspicion over Iran’s ability to adhere to any contracts or agreements it enters into.  Given its past practice, Iran will need to prove itself by its actions, in the face of clear evidence of its failure to be a cooperative player in the international system.  Iran remains dedicated, as enshrined in its Constitution, to pursue “anti-imperialism” and anti-Western policies.  Whether or not all elements of the government are of this view, we are back to the key point: those in charge are the most “anti” and the most powerful. The Supreme Leader’s recent speeches have made clear that Iran will continue to maintain, and act upon, an anti-Western view.

This position has also been articulated by IRGC leaders who themselves could prove to be a major threat to security if they conclude that they are being marginalised by any moves to join the international system.  The indicators here are clear:  we have explicit declarations from the military leaders that they see themselves as the directors of Iran’s foreign position and remain determined to continue provoking regional instability.   To provide just a few examples, in December 2015, the IRGC deputy commander Hossein Salami spoke of the victories achieved by Iran’s “offspring in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen” while IRGC Naval Commander, Ali Fadavi, speaking in May 2016, said the USA knew that they had to adhere to Iran’s will in the Gulf and now had Farsi speakers on all of their ships in order to comply with Iran’s will. Supporting the views of the military is Ali Akbar Velayati, director of the Iranian Center for Strategic Research and an advisor and associate of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said, “The line of resistance begins in Iran and passes through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. This line of resistance stands against the spread of the Zionists and their American supporters and [supporters in] some Western countries.”  He went on to explicitly claim that Iran is actively supporting armed non-state actors in other countries, a violation of international law.  Finally, former General Rostam Ghasemi, also formerly Minister of Petroleum, called for Bahrain to be annexed by Iran to repair the split caused by colonialism.  Further intervention in the domestic affairs of regional states came in May 2016 again with Velayati, calling for the implementation of Iran’s version of governance, velayat-e faqih, in Iraq, even though Iraq’s Shia leader, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has rejected this approach of total religious authority over civic matters for Iraq.

We can of course dismiss statements from the military and its supporters about Iran’s engagements in violence and violations of international law as just some “crazies” talking away.  But as these individuals are high profile mainstream power holders and advisers, not the anomaly within Iran’s empowered circle, it is difficult to see how this can be ignored.  The insistence that moderate leaders do exist can be further tested by assessing actions coming from the Parliament, or from time to time the office of the President.  Earlier this year the Parliament passed a law requiring the government to seek the recovery of Iranian funds from the USA that have been, it is claimed, illegally taken or deprived.  They are calling for damages over sixty years. With an interesting touch of irony, the Parliamentarians spoke of how they would use international law (typically seen as Western) to pursue their claims.

For the moment let’s overlook the rhetoric of the Iranians who exercise real power and look at how the country has actually behaved.  A quick look at Iran’s record regarding international law and norms demonstrates there should be continued high levels of concern and less optimism about Iran’s willingness to reform.  The USA and Canada continue to have Iran listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.  The USA has three states listed as state sponsors of terrorism, Iran, Sudan and Syria, not exactly a list of the world’s most admired and trusted states.  Regarding Iran, the 2015 US State Department Report on Terrorism says “In 2015, Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished through the IRGC, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah, which remained a significant threat to the stability of Lebanon and the broader region.”  The report talks of Iran’s provision of weapons and training to known terrorist groups and direct responsibility for a high number of deaths.  It also says Iran is arming, training and funding militants in Bahrain and Iraq for the purpose of causing unrest and furthering sectarian tensions.  The report clearly states that the IRGC is using terrorism to further the foreign policy goals of Iran and creating instability in the Middle East. A view that was reaffirmed by the USA Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in very clear terms:

“Iran—the foremost state sponsor of terrorism—continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hizballah, and proxy groups. It also provides military and economic aid to its allies in the region. Iran and Hizballah remain a continuing terrorist threat to US interests and partners worldwide.”

With the intelligence services able to provide a clear view on the difficulties being caused by Iran, in the region and globally, it appears reform is a long way away.

Iran’s lack of capacity for reform extends beyond its support for terrorism. In January 2016, there occurred an incident where the IRGC seized two US Navy vessels.  The vessels had violated the territorial waters of Iran due to manifest errors.  However, their treatment by the IRGC violated longstanding maritime tradition and a wide range of international norms.  The sailors were reportedly interrogated at gunpoint, paraded around for videos that were then shown on national Iranian state television; the vessels were damaged, and the IRGC put its flag on one of them.  All of these measures, in addition to being highly unprofessional from a military perspective, are illegal and universally considered unacceptable in times of peace and in war.  In response, the Supreme Leader gave the IRGC commanders awards for their actions.  The American sailors were quickly released.  However, the US response was difficult to figure.  The Iranian media clearly exposed how the IRGC inappropriately dealt with the sailors but the USA’s response was minimal.  Secretary of State Kerry said he was “angry and frustrated” by the actions, but this sentiment did not last long as the USA ended up thanking the Iranians for how they dealt with the sailors.  Even if the event came at a difficult time for international diplomacy, it is hard to figure out why the USA would thank Iran for violating international norms and customs in relation to its military personnel.

In the area of human rights, it is always a contentious issue in attributing blame to another state.  However, Iran ranks in a different category as one of the more abhorrent violators of human rights.   Iran’s use of the death penalty has been widely documented as they come second only to China in executing the most people.  More of a concern is the widespread use of the death penalty for children.  Even more abhorrent is the reported story where in 2016 Iran executed every male person, adults and children in a village accused of high levels of drug trafficking.  The government would not specify where the event occurred or how many were killed, but Shahindokht Molaverdi, the vice-president for the government’s office for women and family affairs affirmed the story adding “Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families.”  The UN Human Rights Council has, since 1984, appointed a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran.  There was a gap of nine years where a Special Rapporteur was not appointed.  The Special Rapporteur’s most recent report sets out the continued “serious human rights violations” occurring through all institutions of government, including the extensive use of the death penalty and widespread use of death penalty on children.  Many observers also believe that Iran imprisons and executes many of its political critics and dissidents, concealing the true reason by referring to social or behavioural indiscretions.

In the area of global finance and banking, Iran does not rate very well in terms of adherence to international standards either.  The G7 group created the Financial Action Task force in 1989 to set international standards on money laundering and terrorist financing, amongst other international financial activities.  Iran has been identified as a state that has failed to meet the necessary standards set by the FATF, labelled as a “high-risk and non-cooperative jurisdiction.”  Such a designation prevents the expansion of international trade deals as other states are able to make use of counter measures to prevent companies from trading with Iran. All of these practices better support Iran’s own view of itself as the force of resistance in the world against Western/American imperialistic tendencies.  In light of the extensive evidence that Iran is not on the reforming trend, it is difficult to justify continued optimism.   Yet optimism remains with US Secretary of State John Kerry, recently speaking very favourably of the cooperative support the US is receiving from Iran in the pursuit of common interests.  Of course Kerry’s comments were limited to a couple of specific events, but he did not suggest any wider degree of caution.

The current situation within the Iranian leadership structures appears unstable. The Supreme Leader is now approaching 80, and there were concerns over his health a few years back.  The succession question will bring uncertainty to the situation as there is no clear line or procedure that specifies the successor.  The Supreme Council, which will have the responsibility to appoint, has been stacked to ensure that any of the reform-minded individuals the West are hoping for will have no input.  The main concern from a regional perspective will be the IRGC.  An Iran that reforms as the West hopes it will, means the IRGC has to be marginalised; in fact, their name has to change to drop the revolutionary designation.  Given the ways in which the military elite control the economy and political structures, it is unlikely they will accept any diminution of their power and authority.  If the IRGC feel they are being pushed out too quickly, we may see elements from this group attempting to seize or control power.  The current religious leaders and the military have a mutual interest in solidifying their control over the country.  This control determines Iran’s ability to change, regardless of what external observers believe is the potential for reform from within.  This means the violence and instability of the “revolution,” and the “resistance” continues with no real prospect for reform.