Bad at chess

Iran’s rulers have piles of uranium but no endgame
January 25, 2012

Ali Motahhari, a prominent conservative member of the Iranian parliament, recently found himself wrangling with a journalist who proved even more hardline than him. Amid questions on Iran’s nuclear programme and foreign policy, the journalist asked him to comment on relations with the west. What did he think of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s line—beloved by many in Ahmadinejad’s government —that Iran should be wary of American praise and pleased by its condemnation? A strong critic of the government, Motahhari replied that this was all well and good, but such statements should not be translated into doctrine. All policy should be judged on the basis of national interest.

Motahhari’s point, buried mid-interview, is a crucial criticism of the posturing and theatrics that define Iran’s otherwise opaque nuclear programme. While pundits debate whether the country has decided to “weaponise,” one thing is certain. Iranian foreign policy is increasingly based on a single question: will this annoy the Americans? If it does, then it must be right.

Some time ago, I mischievously suggested to a senior Iranian diplomat that the Anglo-Americans (the British have to be included for this to have the desired effect) were very clever. Every time they said “no,” Iran insisted on saying “yes,” pouring more money into an incoherent nuclear programme that would bankrupt the country, just as the Soviet Union had been bankrupted before it. The expression of shock on his face was a sight, although he relaxed when he realised I had been (half) joking.

The incoherence I mentioned to him, however, will be recognisable to those familiar with Iranian politics. In Iran, incoherence is often seen as a virtue, a means of confusing one’s foes. It used to be that Iran insisted on the right to enrich uranium. But now that it has achieved this, it seems the government has little idea what to do next.

Just what is all this enriched uranium for? It cannot be for energy since there are no more power plants being constructed or contracted—it takes about seven years to build one. The much-vaunted Bushehr plant, inaugurated last year, is fuelled by a separate supply of uranium from Russia. Meanwhile, the country is producing much larger quantities than those needed for medical isotopes. It is not hard to see why suspicions abound in the west. But the truth may be mundane. The Iranians are enriching because they can. It is, at heart, an emotional reaction; to seek any kind of rationale is ultimately futile.

So what can be done? How does one engage with deliberate incoherence, which is designed to confuse, but which also typifies a Byzantine decision-making process that has raised procrastination to an art form? First, it is important to take it at face value and not to be distracted by vague notions of Iranians as “chess grand masters”. There are some excellent chess players in Iran but few, if any, of them remain in the chain of command—most are in prison or in exile. Ahmadinejad and his bedfellows are famed for their tactical skill, not their strategic vision, which amounts to little more than obscure utopianism. Their success so far is largely down to an abundance of oil money, a ruthlessness that has often surprised opponents and a degree of luck. This last factor has been the most effective in persuading sceptics that the governing elite must “know” something.

But Iran cannot rely on these factors much longer. The money has been squandered, leaving the country vulnerable to financial sanctions when it should be sitting on vast cash reserves of oil wealth. At the same time, the regime’s opponents are becoming more ruthless and, most significantly, Ahmadinejad’s luck is running out. With few answers to the mounting problems, there is a perceptible and growing lack of confidence, not only in the streets but also among the elite. In such circumstances, a normally fractious political system becomes increasingly venomous and, tellingly, paranoid.

Nothing symbolises the internal decay better than the news in early January that Motahhari has been deemed insufficiently “Islamic” to run in March’s parliamentary elections. Perhaps even more revealing was his sanguine response to the news. The regime is doing an excellent job of isolating itself. The best thing the west can do at the moment is to recognise this, monitor it, contain it, and let it run its course.