The United States has served the Middle East on a silver platter for Iran
It is 40 years since the Iranian Revolution took place. Despite partial isolation and sanctions, the Iranian government is still standing – thanks to, among other things, to the failure of US policies in the region.
Amin Saikal, Professor and Head of Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Australia's National University, assesses
Interview by AF ULLA POULSEN published in 'Kristeligt Dagblad' on I October 2018
Iran has been treated as a pariah in the West for decades and part of the ‘axis of evil’ seen with American eyes since 2002, when President George W. Bush used the expression in his- annual speech to the nation. The country has been feared and ridiculed for its political structure with a guardian counsel at the top, the command of bearded men in their cloaks and turbans, and it has been subject to extensive sanctions.
US President Donald Trump pursued the same line during his speech last week to the UN General Assembly in New York, claiming ‘the corrupt dictatorship in Iran’ to spread ‘chaos, death and destruction’ in the Middle East. The United States has already withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran and will impose further sanctions on the country in November. But Iran and its Islamic Revolution from 1979 are still standing - and that's probably going to remain the case. Nothing suggests that the country will succumb to US pressure, says Amin Saikal, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Australia's National University. He has worked on Iran for years and will publish in a few months, Iran Rising. The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic (Princeton University Press) on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Afghan-Australian Amin Saikal was a guest researcher at the Defense Academy in Hellerup in September.
‘Iran's leadership is both strong and vulnerable. The country is under enormous economic pressure and there is a high level of corruption, but the system is still strong enough to maintain control. It would be wrong to assume that it can easily be overthrown. The United States tried to contain Iran for 37 years through a regime of sanctions but failed. It is unlikely to succeed now. Just as it was not possible to break Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein with sanctions. On the contrary, it may strengthen the Iranian Islamic regime if sanctions are sharpened because it would make the public to rally after the regime’, says Amin Saikal.
‘Paradoxically, it is the United States itself that has helped to strengthen Iran's position in the Middle East’, says Amin Saikal. Through the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, once the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were overthrown, the United States had inadvertently opened a Pandora's box of local maggots, which the superpower and its Western Allies could not control.
‘It's the political mistakes of the Americans that have opened the door to the Iranians. The United States has no viable policy of stabilisation for the time being in the region, and this has created a power vacuum that the Iranians have been adept at utilising. Iran has gained benefits from US invasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, given the number of local groups with which Iran has been able to forge alliances’, he says.
‘Of course, it's not all one-sided. Iran has had the ambition to expand their influence in the region, but it has been served to them on a silver platter.’
Amin Saikal recalls that Iran also opposed both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and as such welcomed their overthrow by the United States.
‘Iran has had an aversion to the Arab countries for many years, and Syria is the only Arab state to have entered into a strategic alliance with Iran. But, whilst predominantly Shia Islamic in its ideological disposition, Iran has also been pragmatic. It has quietly built a security structure with the help of the Shia minorities in the region. Today, its influence extends in a crescent from Kabul to Beirut’, he says.
It is Amin Saikal's assessment that Iran today has developed sufficiently both soft and hard power to defend the republic within an asymmetrical warfare strategy. The strategy is thus not to be able to win a war over its opponents, but to ensure that it will ensure very high costs for its opponents to win.
‘An attack on Iran could trigger an uncontrollable situation in the Middle East. Iran does not have as much military firepower as the United States or Saudi Arabia or Israel, but it has sufficient regional affiliates to attack aggressors through them’, says Amin Saikal.
’The Iranian regime is still there because it has become more pragmatic and less ideological. The regime has been willing to turn a blind eye to social sins that it has regarded as unIslamic, as long as the regime is not threatened. Right now there is no alternative to the regime.’
Until now, the regime’s performance has been one of balance between control and expediency. The future challenge is the younger generation, which does not recall the revolution, and has become increasingly restless about the clerical domination of the regime. The question is: will the ruling clerical stratum continue to control the young people, or move towards opening up the system to accommodate them? It is possible that the regime will go the same way as that of China, where the Communist Party is in total political control but has given citizens a high degree of economic and social freedom.
Amin Saikal says: The best way the regime can ensure its future is to become more politically pluralistic at the cost of its theocratic aspects – something that the moderates and reformist factions under President Hassan Rouhani would like to see. The regime has so far spawned a politically pluralistic but strongly theocratic system of governance. ’There is an elected presidency within the Islamic framework laid down by the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, but there are also other groups that control the levers of power’, says Amin Saikal.