As the Bush Administration tightened the economic noose around Iran, particularly stifling the financial network of the Republican Guards, many wonder if this would soften the Iranian regime. Tehran continues to be an enigma to most analysts given the paradox of the theocratic regime of the Ayatollahs. Understanding Iran is essential given its geopolitical and economic significance. For Iran is no push over state, its national identity has deep roots which will not be easily undermined by coercive intimidation of sanctions or by declaring it a pariah. What is more significant is that regime change is not an option in the near future in Tehran, though the future of Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad as President may not be as secure as is denoted by his swagger. A deeper look at contemporary Iran is thus essential.
Iran's national aspirations arise from ancient Persian civilisation roots which go back over two and a half millenniums. Persians as a community are spread across the globe though they perhaps lack the lobbying skills of other communities. Iran is the matrix of the Persian civilization and thus Iranians feel that they should seek their rightful place in the global political order. Given turbulence of past history and recent experience of duplicity of Western power politics, be it in terms of support to the Saddam Hussein regime particularly in the 1980's during the Iran- Iraq war or intervention in 2003 over falsified intelligence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq there is a deep antipathy particularly amongst the conservative Islamic clerics against the United States.
The European Union, Russia and China are seen as more benign but the skewed global power balance indicates to the Iranian, that America will never allow Tehran to assume its rightful place in the Middle East and is effectively using Israel to achieve this aim. This perception is difficult to remove and thus attainment of nuclear capability is seen as the key to position of power in the regional balance in the years ahead.
Another significant aspiration of Iranian leadership not as much of the populace is to proselytize influence of Shia globally. Iran's engagement in Lebanon, Iraq and in defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan needs to be seen in this context. Acquisition of nuclear capability has been touted many times as a, 'Shia' bomb, but it also contains within it roots of a Persian resurgence. There is wide spread support in Iran for developing a nuclear capability which is seen as a legitimate right of the people. This expression is also evident in proliferation of missiles and aircraft for which Iran has built a substantial indigenous capability in the past few years. These national aspirations will be hard to suppress in the years ahead and their manifestation into seeking a greater role for Tehran should be evident.
Iran's paradox is evident by it being a predominantly Shia non Arab state, located within a dominant Sunni Arab comity of nations. 89% follow the Shia faith, which is also the official state religion of the country, 9% comprise of Sunni and other non-Muslim minorities include Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha'is, and Christians. However despite this Iran is a pluralistic society with Turkic and Arab influence.
Apart from the civilisational, cultural and religious rooting, it is also essential to understand the Iranian political system which is of the Velayat e Faqih or absolute clerical rule based on a narrow interpretation of Shia thought. The structure has two tiers, the clerical and a popular elected parliament or Majlis. The Assembly of Experts, which consists of 86 popularly-elected clerics for 8-year terms, chooses the Supreme Leader. The 12 member Council of Guardians comprising primarily of clerical leaders have the role of vetting candidates for the Majlis as well as overruling any decision of the parliament. Thus in the 2004 elections, the reformists were summarily rejected and conservatives were elected occupying 160 of the 290 seats in the Majlis.
The President is the executive head of the government and is elected for a four year term. Here again the contest is primarily between conservatives and liberals. In 2004, Tehran mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad defeated former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani a liberal in the second round with almost 62% of the vote. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2009. While Ahmadi-Nejad has represented the public face of Iran to the West, domestically he is neither very popular nor very influential. The authority lies with the Ayatollah and his indulgence of Ahmadi-Nejad provides him the power that the West sees in Iran.
What emerges is a proud nation of Persians with deep civilisational roots which is seeking its rightful place in the comity of nations. The insecurities arise from a contrarian religious and ethnic mix in the Middle East as well as non acceptance of a theocratic democracy by the world order at large. This only increases support to the theocracy at home. Despite all this, Iran is perhaps far more democratic than other countries in the region. Dialogue may prove more fruitful than confrontation even if the latter is undertaken by the sole super power today the US. Though engagement itself is a problem, for the Iranians are known to be hard bargainers, shifting goal posts till they have squeezed the last ounce of advantage. Patience, perseverance and firmness is the way ahead, a chart perhaps being attempted by China, Russia and India, what ever be their geopolitical inclinations of undermining the growing influence of White House.