Hot Spot: Iran, from cnn.com article
Iran: Acting out of weakness
The next country to keep your eye on is Iran. There’s a tendency when we look at Iran to say,
“This country is so powerful; it’s so strong; it’s on the march.” But actually what’s happening in
Iran is the exact opposite: Iran is acting out, because it feels weak.
Internationally-imposed sanctions have hit Iran’s economy quite hard, effectively forcing the
government to cut subsidies and make reforms that are very unpopular at home. The Iranian
regime is clearly straining under enormous external pressure, which has led to deep divisions
within their political establishment.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used to be the favorite candidate of Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei. Now the supreme leader has put forward the idea of dispensing with the presidency
entirely. The ruling elite is in flux. In addition to the president and the supreme leader, you have
the old guard of people like former President Akbar Rafsanjani and reformers like former
President Mohammad Khatami and presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi. It’s within this
context that you have decisions being made both about the nuclear program and about dealing
with Western sanctions.
Iran’s behavior reflects these internal divisions. First, Iran said it was going to block the Straits
of Hormuz and that it would be “as easy as drinking a glass of water.” Then that was disavowed
almost a day and a half later. Iran later made suspicious claims about its nuclear program. And
Iran began testing missiles that are not, in fact, particularly threatening. These actions
collectively convey an impression of weakness and internal division.
Meanwhile, Iran’s big international play, which has been the propping up of Syria, is going very,
very badly. The Syrian government seems to be running out of money and support. Syria will
probably bleed slowly rather than suddenly collapse, but none of it looks very good for the
regime in Damascus.
Now one shouldn’t take too much comfort in Iran’s weakness because countries that are weak
can cause as many problems as countries that are strong. The continued pressures building on
Iran indeed seem pretty dangerous.
Iran’s growing state of desperation
The discussion everywhere these days is about Iran’s strength. Mitt Romney, the Republican
front-runner, describes Iran as “the greatest threat that the world faces over the next decade.” He
and others are impressed by Iran’s recent declarations about its nuclear capacities and its missile
tests. Newt Gingrich has compared the Iranian challenge to the rise of Hitler’s Germany. More
measured commentators also see Iran’s rising influence and power across the Middle East.
In fact, the real story is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed its economy
into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Abroad, its closest ally and
the regime of which it is almost the sole supporter - Syria - is itself crumbling. The Persian Gulf
monarchies have banded together against Iran and shored up their relations with Washington.
Last week, Saudi Arabia closed its largest-ever purchase of U.S. weaponry. Meanwhile, Europe
is close to approving even more intense sanctions against Tehran.
The simplest measure of Iran’s strength is its currency. When Barack Obama became president,
you could buy 9,700 rials with one dollar. Since then, the dollar has appreciated 60
percent against the rial, meaning you can buy 15,600 rials. Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad told parliament recently that the latest sanctions were “the most
extensive . . . sanctions ever” and that “this is the heaviest economic onslaught on a nation in
history . . . every day, all our banking and trade activities and our agreements are being
monitored and blocked.” The price of food staples has soared 40 percent the past few
months, Reuters reported this week.Tehran’s reaction to the prospect of sanctions that affect its
oil exports shows its desperation. In recent days, Iran’s vice president - a figurehead with no
power - and one of its admirals threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz, invoking the Persian
expression that this would be as easy as “drinking a glass of water.” But a senior commander of
the Revolutionary Guards - Iran’s crucial power source - quickly backtracked, explaining
that Tehran had no intention of blocking the straits. It would be madness to do so because Iran
would suffer more than any country. Blocking the straits would result in a total shutdown of
Iran’s exports and imports; with 60 percent of Iran’s economy coming from oil exports, it would
bring the government to a standstill.
These public disagreements are part of the Iranian political system’s disarray. Just two years ago,
Ahmadinejad was allied with the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now they
are adversaries. The reformist bloc, including presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and
former president Mohammad Khatami, is also opposed to Ahmadinejad. The clergy are divided
and losing power. Above all of them sit the Revolutionary Guards, who are turning Iran’s
theocracy into a quasi-military dictatorship. None of this suggests political stability or strength.