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Iran: how a troubling actor could transform into a stabilising force

Iran’s nuclear deal promises an era of economic and, by extension, political collaboration with the West. Reuters/Umit Bektas

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

During a historic visit to Tehran in 1977-78, US President Jimmy Carter said:

Iran is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.

This was just one year before the 1979 revolution, which transformed Iran from a key US ally into the region’s most troubling actor. But today it is not unreasonable to claim that Iran’s ruling clergy has fulfilled Carter’s wishful thinking after almost 37 years.

The so-called Arab Spring, which was expected to shake the foundations of all authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, gave way to a somewhat bleak autumn. With the exception of Tunisia, the initial optimistic visions proved unlikely to be born in reality in the remainder of the countries destabilised by the uprisings. National disintegration, the return of merciless jihadists and sectarian conflict have embroiled many nations in full-blown political and military crisis.

A similar uprising occurred in Iran after the contested 2009 presidential elections, posing an existential threat to the clerical establishment. Despite this, the evidence suggests that in both domestic and international politics Iran’s ruling clergy currently enjoys a much more secure position compared to that which they occupied before 9/11, the nuclear crisis and the 2009 post-election uprising.

In domestic politics, the ruling clergy’s theocratic faction has managed not only to put behind the turbulent years of the reformist era (1997 to 2005), but has also successfully dissipated the coalition between in-house opposition and regime-change advocates, which crystallised during the Green Movement (2009 onwards).

Varied reasons may explain the ruling clergy’s somewhat fortunate trajectory during the tumultuous years of regional and international crises. The US undoubtedly played a decisive role in this process (albeit unwittingly), in particular by removing two leading enemies of Tehran – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. In the process, this altered the regional balance of power to the benefit of Iran’s ruling clergy.

Another, often underestimated, factor is the pragmatic trait of Iran’s ruling clergy, which distinguishes them from other radical Islamists. Dressed in seemingly ideological garb, this pragmatism is embedded in Iran’s theological foundations.

Theological pragmatism

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, is repeatedly quoted referring to the government as religiously indispensable, meaning that regime survival is of the highest necessity.

Confronted with the realities of governance as the ruler of a state in the modern age, Ayatollah Khomeini revised his politico-religious doctrine, which was initially articulated to implement Shari’a law. He explicitly authorised violation or disregarding of Shari’a when it came to interests of the state. He said:

It is one of the primary Islamic precepts and takes priority over all subsidiary precepts, even over praying, fasting and pilgrimage … if necessary, a governor can close or destroy mosques … And it can abandon every precept - both worshipping and non-worshipping precepts – which is against the expedience of Islam.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s theological articulation justifies hundreds of examples in which the ruling clergy has disregarded Shari'a principles. One stark example has been the establishment of the Council for the Determination of the Expedient of the State, which is authorised to bypass Islamic principles in the state’s interests.

Although not explicitly pronounced in foreign policy, the ruling clergy has constantly put utilitarian politics ahead of its proclaimed ideological mission. This is evident not only in Iran’s close relations with the world’s most prominent self-declared atheist nation-states – China and North Korea – but also in its discrepancy in supporting Muslims across the globe.

The Ayatollah’s uncompromising position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the clergy’s proclaimed support for oppressed Muslims everywhere, does not match the bold silence regarding Russia’s and China’s brutal suppression of Muslims in Chechnya and Uyghur.

Changed realities on the ground

Decades of what David Crist refers to as the twilight war between Iran and the US might be understood as a political rationale, not an ideological confrontation.

From the time of its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has played the role of a disturbing member of the regional and international order. For this reason, regime change has been the leading objective of US policy towards Iran over the last few decades.

As a result, Iran-US relations have become locked in a cycle of threats and defiance, constantly destabilising the Middle East and beyond. Reflecting the ruling clergy’s domestic politics, this establishes regime survival as the guiding philosophy of their policies in the international community.

For more than a decade the ruling clergy resisted diplomatic and economic pressure to change the reality of their nuclear capacity. Concomitant with new realities, West has had to abandon zero-enrichment policy, allowing Iran to keep almost all of its nuclear sites intact – under constant surveillance and tight constraints.

The nuclear deal reached with P5+1 not only allows Iran to continue its peaceful nuclear program, but also promises an era of economic and, by extension, political collaboration with the West. This era, more than anything else, could push the policy of regime change in Tehran off the table, at least for the foreseeable future.

Shifting balance of power

With few exceptions – in particular Israel – the international community has made peace with the new reality of Iran’s nuclear capacities and agreed upon a middle ground to avoid pushing further Iran’s leaders’ radicalisation of their nuclear ambitions.

President Barack Obama clearly signalled a shift in US policy by acknowledging that preventing Iran from having any enrichment capacity was simply impossible. For their part, Iran’s rulers realised that the very existence of their clerical establishment was at stake. This realisation prompted them to make compromises on their side as well.

It may be that this nuclear deal will prove a point of departure for establishing a collaboration on regional politics between Iran and the West in general and the US in particular. Iran’s ruling clergy has partly managed, and partly been fortunate enough, to claim strongholds in today’s regional political mosaic, assuming a decisive role in the turbulent situation prevailing there.

Acknowledgement of this reality, and integrating Iran into regional politics, could urge Iran’s ruling clergy to undertake a constructive and stabilising role in regional politics.

Naser Ghobadzadeh’s new book, Religious Secularity, will be launched in Sydney on Friday, September 18.

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