The overwhelming media attention paid to Iran’s attempt to develop a nuclear capability has obscured many other highly significant political, economic, social and ethnic factors which taken together will go far to determine the future of the Islamic republic, and perhaps explain otherwise inexplicable events such as the unprecedented Rosh Hashanah greeting sent to the Jewish people everywhere by new President ‘Rouhani.
In the political area there are credible reports of increasing opposition to Supreme Leader Khamanei from within the governing elite, led by former president Rafsanjani, whose incipient presidential campaign was cut short by Khamenei on the ridiculous ground that he was “too old”. It may well be that Rouhani is privately supportive of this internal development.
In the economy, the Iranian news agency ISNA has reported that Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, has declared that due to the precipitous drop in oil export revenues as a result of international sanctions, the government budget will have to be cut by one-third, from USD$68 billion to $45 billion! If this is so, the choices facing the government are horrendous, if one imagines the anguished outcries in other countries if budgets have to be cut by five or ten percent. If the cuts are made primarily in the security and defense areas, Iranian penetration of other regions, directly or through Hezbollah and other proxies, will be seriously degraded, not to mention the nuclear program.
On the other hand, if the cuts are made in domestic programs, a population already hurting seriously from high inflation, shortages and a plunging currency, will find its situation becoming even worse, and instead of political demonstrations, such as those in 2009 in favor of democracy, the result may be rioting due to economic hardship, which is precisely what was behind the toppling of several regimes in the so-called “Arab Spring”.
There is a general belief that the population of Iran is predominantly ethnic Persian. In fact, the Persians are only half of the population of the country A quarter of the Iranian people are ethnic Azeris, a Turkic people who predominate in the northwestern corner of the country, bordering their homeland, Azerbaijan. For a short time after World War II the Iranian Azeris seceded from Iran, supported by the Soviet Union. Khamenei himself is an ethnic Azeri. Seven percent of the population of Iran is Kurdish, bordering on Iraqi Kurdistan, now practically independent from Baghdad and a potent symbol of Kurdish nationalism for their Iranian brothers. The Baluchi people of sparsely populated southeastern Iran, bordering on Pakistani Baluchistan, have been sustaining a low-level insurgency for some years, including ambushes of military and police convoys.
Reuters reports that the ethnic Arab population of Ahwaz Province in Southwestern Iran, about three percent of the total population, has erupted in insurgency, including bombings in the provincial capital and attacks on security personnel. This development is extremely dangerous for the regime, since the Arabs occupy one of the most significant oil-producing areas on Iran and because they are directly across the Gulf from the ethnic cousins in the Arabian Peninsula.
In summary, it behooves the security and intelligence services of Israel and the Western countries to pay much more attention to what is going on in Iran beyond the nuclear push. It may well be that continued or perhaps enhanced sanctions, creating an unstable political and social situation and strengthening the hand of domestic political and social opposition, coupled with growing ethnic unrest, may force the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear quest in order to get the sanctions removed.
Perhaps we can hope for a Hanukkah gift from Rouhani and his colleagues.
Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 10, 2013
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