From the Supreme Leader to the economy to nuclear weapons, the west is all wrong on Iran—and these misconceptions will have consequences.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran. Photo: DragonFire1024
Though Iran remains the intense focus of western media and politicians, it is largely misunderstood. Common notions of the Islamic Republic are that it is: a puritanical and religious state; dominated by an austere dictator; presided over by a fanatical xenophobe; burdened by an economy that is collapsing due to sanctions; developing the nuclear bomb. But these are all myths.
First, Iran is theocratic only to a degree and is not puritanical. It has a written constitution, separation of powers, periodic elections and a judicial system. The country’s civil and penal codes are not strictly Islamic and women enjoy more civil and political rights than in most Islamic countries. Leadership is not hereditary and several grand ayatollahs are openly critical of the notion of velayat-e-faqih, the theological concept that gives jurists custodianship of the people. Gourmet dining, alcohol, gambling, drug use and pleasures of the flesh are tolerated and enjoyed by both rulers and ruled.
Second, the powers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are limited. He is neither a supreme religious authority, nor personally above the law. His occasional fatwas (religious edicts) are often ridiculed, his proclamations issued from the bully pulpit ignored. He is the titular head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but his powers are circumscribed by the constitution. Unlike Machiavelli’s ideal prince, Khamenei is neither widely respected nor truly feared. He is routinely obeyed only because he has convinced other members of the ruling oligarchy that, in any shake-up, they would all come out losers.
Third, President Ahmadinejad’s religious fanaticism and his repeated references to the imminent return of Imam Mahdi are nothing but a political stratagem, designed to clip the clergy’s wings. As for Ahmadinejad’s regular grandstanding against the United States, this too has been largely an act, a parroting of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fulminations against the “Great Satan” in the 1980s. In fact, among Iran’s current political leaders, Ahmadinejad is probably the most ardent closet advocate of a resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States. He is the only president of the Islamic Republic who has congratulated an American president on an election victory. He has written to both Presidents Bush and Obama proposing dialogue. On his annual trips to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, he has repeatedly asked to meet US leaders, to no avail. During his last trip, in September, he welcomed the establishment of a hotline between Iranian and American naval units in the Persian Gulf, to avoid unintended mishaps. And his many suggestions for solving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program have been the most conciliatory of any Iranian leader. Iranian rumour has it that the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy in Washington was hatched by Ahmadinejad’s enemies, to nullify his pro-American leanings.
Fourth, Iran’s economy has been damaged by sanctions. Annual economic growth has slowed to 2-3 per cent. Inflation is over 20 per cent, and unemployment is in the high teens; private estimates are much higher in both cases. Iran is economically weaker and more chaotic, isolated and altogether more vulnerable than before. Yet, with $100bn or more in receipts from oil and non-oil exports estimated for this year, reserves of $120bn in cash and gold, a healthy balance-of-payments surplus, a relatively small and serviceable foreign debt, and thriving smuggling in both directions, the Iranian economy is not collapsing. It will endure—as long as oil stays above $100 per barrel, and exports remain over 2 million barrels a day.
Fifth, the claim that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons is largely a fabrication of certain political groups in the US and Israel. These groups point out that: four of Iran’s neighbours are nuclear-armed; no country possessing an atomic bomb has ever been attacked; Iran cannot afford to match its adversaries in conventional weapons; and there can be no other reason for Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 20 per cent in a small, underground facility. Iran’s nuclear programme, the argument goes, will lead to a regional nuclear arms race and poses an existential threat to Israel.
This ignores Tehran’s repeated objection to nuclear weapons as Islamic sins. It also overlooks the defensive nature of Iran’s security doctrines: Iran has not invaded any country in the last 200 years, but has been repeatedly invaded. Although a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency in November 2011 suggested that Tehran has been involved in “efforts to master the technology needed for atomic weapons,” an effort to master relevant technology is vastly different from actually building the bomb.
Finally, both the Iranian clergy’s alleged suicidal inclinations and the idea of “hereafter-fixated mullahs” are complete fictions. A cursory look at the ruling clergy’s way of life—multiple wives, spacious living quarters, luxury cars, foreign bank accounts—attests to their love of life and fear of death. Shiite clerics in Iran may reject certain aspects of western culture, but they are hardly suicidal.
These misconceptions have practical consequences. The exaggeration of Ayatollah Khamenei’s authority distracts attention from the multifaceted nature of power in Iran. The myth of Ahmadinejad’s hostility to the US obscures the profound mistrust on both sides as the real source of the negotiation impasse. The myth of Iran’s collapsing economy and the possibility of popular uprising has made the west reluctant to give ground in its nuclear negotiations. And, the fiction around Iran’s nuclear ambitions has complicated normal relations with neighbours and the international community.
A clearer understanding of these myths may not end the west’s Iranian conundrum, but it might lead to less posturing by politicians and more effective policies for dealing with it.