2009-07-21T08_16_38

Iran - What Happens Next

This article was on Associated Content after the Iranian elections of 2009

If you look at the papers, television news, or online news sources, or even occasionally listen to the radio, the fact that tensions between the US and Iran are running high can hardly have escaped your attention. Iran, it is said, is pursuing a nuclear program, funding terrorist organizations, ruthlessly exploiting oil prices, and generally threatening the stability of the world. At least this is the picture presented in much of the West. Occasionally the stories of diabolical threat are tempered with mention of the many years of Persian civilization. But at best the story presented in the West is intended to produce uncertainty if not outright fear.

In Iran there is, we are told, something of a healthy skepticism of American intervention. Iranians have seen much Western influence over the years in the politics of their country. The former Shah of Iran was supported militarily by the United States for many years. Ayatollah Khomeini was given safe haven in France prior to his triumphant return to Tehran during the Islamic revolution. The US supported the Farsi speaking Mujahideen in their fight against communism in Afghanistan and there are those that say that the Islamic revolution was the lesser evil selected by the CIA as the fate of Iran over Communism in the nineteen seventies. Those same Mujahideen organizations are of course the direct ancestors of the insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

While France, Japan, Russia, China and others make extensive and growing use of nuclear power, to the US it seems absurd that Iran should contemplate a nuclear program. The price of oil is rising argues Iran, and at some point nuclear power will be required by Iran. Iran argues that it needs to start its program now so that it can continue to care for its people's energy needs. And now, with the threat of global warming, nuclear power will keep Iran's collective CO2 footprint in check. So Iran's perspective is that nuclear power is the responsible choice of the nation with its responsibility to plan for a long term energy strategy and make the best and cleanest use of available resources.

It seems that in both the US and Iran there is a need for a feared enemy at present, a group that the politicians can use to unite the people. The US has needed a steady precession of enemies in recent years, the Soviet Union, South American communists, dictators in Iraq and North Korea. While former adversaries Britain, Japan and Germany have rapidly morphed into allies, spectators and favored trading nation partners. As Britain found in previous centuries, victories are often not clear cut, but where strong influence is established, there are substantial long term benefits. For politicians with short terms in office, short term enemies are preferred. The voting electorate can identify with the threat, patriotically do its part in the struggle by voting correctly, and be ready for the new opportunities created by the rebuild when hostilities have ceased, ideally before terms in office have needed to be renewed.

Iran's enemies have changed too. The Soviet Union, Iraq, Israel, the US and the UK, have each been the enemy in recent years. Iraq, for example, the hated former enemy is now the recipient of Iranian aid.

The fact is that both Iran and US have significant internal problems. The US is fighting the unruly consumer debt which has propped up the economy for many years. Despite its oil, Iran also has problems. There are shortages, a growing drug problem, a ruling religious elite who educate their children and make their investments abroad. Many Iranians, though they vote, are well aware that voting does not count for much, and are disaffected. Similarly in the US, where fuel prices have doubled in one year, and the country is troubled by the war in Iraq, there is dissatisfaction with politicians. What do weak governments do as an alternative to providing leadership? The tradition demands the definition of an external enemy to justify the hardships that need to be endured. So both the governments of Iran and US benefit from the animosity.

Both countries also see additional benefits. US oil companies, and Iran as a whole, benefit from increases in the price of oil. Iran gains the respect of many countries in their feisty response to pressure from the US. The US gains too in its international standing and its commitment to seeing the responsible use of nuclear power.

In the short term, what will change and when? Left to their own devices the US and Iran would likely not change a thing. The tension is working just fine for the politicians. But external factors might provoke a change. The US presidential election might provide such a catalyst, though it is unlikely. A strike by Israel would likely change the balance, but Iran has quite a collection of weapons at its disposal and Israel would likely prefer to operate at the level of threat rather than actualization. The safest bet here is for no immediate change. The US and Iran currently know where they stand, they know what they gain, the electorates know what they have voted for, and many people who work for oil companies, or are funded by them, are enjoying the higher price of oil.

In both the US and Iran there is a longer term change underway. People are obtaining their information from the internet to a larger extent than ever before. This is currently not at a tipping point; elections are still decided in the main by mandarins who have people that use the internet for them. Newspapers, radio and television are still influential. However, in another ten years this will certainly have changed and it will be even harder for the elites to pick and choose enemies to unite the electorates. It will be interesting to see what replaces the perceived fear factor in determining elections in the future!

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