When it comes to Iran, pundits often have one and only one talking point. They typically latch onto Iran’s young population and its supposedly inexorable march toward reconciliation with the West, and its eventual overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Bizarrely, the Iranian party scene is typically described as a hedonist utopia whose “subterranean forces” will inevitably undermine the regime. And the rise of the supposedly moderate president Rouhani and the renewed nuclear negotiations are seen as the beginning of the new, friendly Iran.
This view is hopelessly naive. The Iranian youth issue is little more than wishful thinking, and the Iranian regime is already hedging its bets against the failure of the nuclear negotiations. In fact, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, Iran is going to press on with its ambitions of being a regional power.
It is true that about sixty per cent of Iran’s population is below the age of thirty. Although this demographic includes critics of the regime, it also comprises the volunteer paramilitary group known as the Basij. The Basij is a force of at least one and half million youth subordinate to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is the organization which arrests people for dress-code violations and other supposed threats to public safety, and it is the force that crushed the post-election protests of 2009; the liberal wing of Iranian youth has never had the upper hand and most certainly doesn’t have it now.
The official Iranian view of the ongoing nuclear talks shows that the regime portrays the Western side as negotiating in bad faith and deliberately misrepresenting the negotiations in popular media. In a speech given to regime loyalists on 9 April, Ayatollah Khamenei clearly articulated the Iranian position. (Here is a video of the speech in Persian, and an English translation can be found here).
Khamenei’s first main point is that his regime is discussing the nuclear issue and the full and immediate lifting of all sanctions, and “there is no other matter” up for negotiation. In other words, it is simply not true that the Islamic Republic desires some sort of grand reconciliation with “the international community.” Khamenei states plainly that “only America and three European countries” care about the nuclear deal and “show obstinacy” to Iran. He then insinuates that Iran’s hosting of the Non-Aligned summit in August 2012 in Tehran is proof of Iran’s global leadership. So much for the so-called Obama Doctrine of Iranian engagement and rebuilding diplomatic ties: Iran has no interest in it.
Khamenei’s second main point deals with Yemen. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of arming Shiite rebel forces in Yemen, and Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of helping Yemenite Sunnis persecute Shiites there. Westerners will be shocked to know that Khamenei compares Saudi Arabia to the Muslim world’s chief object of irrational loathing: Israel. He calls Saudi involvement in Yemen “exactly the same thing that the Zionists are doing in Gaza.” This is a deliberate offense which will infuriate and confuse the Saudi political class.
Without mincing words, Khamenei calls Iran’s activities in Yemen an “intervention” -- an intervention which Iran is entitled to undertake unilaterally in defence of fellow Shiites. This is all the more true, says Khamenei, because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has lost all moral, political, and religious authority in the Middle East.
The Iranian regime is not going anywhere any time soon, and this is not the rhetoric of a country poised to make a sudden rapprochement with the West. This is the rhetoric of a regional power. What will it take for Obama and company to realize this?
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