Issues & Insights

Iran-U.S. Strategic Impasse Won’t End With Biden In White House

Iran leader Ali Khamenei. Photo: Beyt Rahbari, source: http://farsi.khamenei.ir/photo-album?id=42027, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en).

In a speech on Wednesday, December 16, Iranian regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei sought to subdue his president Hassan Rouhani’s desperation to negotiate with the United States. Khamenei described the presidential transition in the U.S. as a mirage and said: “The hostilities are not toward Trump alone and will not end with his departure.”

Tellingly, Khamenei added: “The lifting of the sanctions has been delayed for four years, and since 1995 all the sanctions were supposed to be lifted at once, but to this day not only have the sanctions not been lifted, they have also increased.”

In other words, executive power transfers in the U.S. will not force the regime to abandon its “death to America” chants. So, Khamenei concluded: “Instead of thinking about lifting the sanctions, think about neutralizing the sanctions,” before quickly adding: “Of course, I am not saying that we should not try to lift the sanctions.”

Khamenei, clearly showed that he is a prisoner of a paradox: If you can lift the sanctions, then don’t wait to do so; But on the other hand, you should just neutralize their impact.

It is not Khamenei himself but the entire regime that is at an impasse. Khamenei knows better than anyone that he has faced significant protests in recent years, including the January 2018 and November 2019 uprisings. The very poor and disenfranchised, at least half the population, are rising up in growing numbers. They want democracy, a working economy and social justice.

The regime is also worried that it is not in a position to demand major concessions while its economy teeters on collapse and the population lurks in the background. And the new U.S. administration does not seem to want to jump back into the deal straight away.

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, told CBS News a few months ago: “If Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement, we would do the same. But then we would use that as a platform, working with our allies and partners to try to strengthen and lengthen it … so that we can more effectively push back together against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”

The regime’s strategic impasse has three causes:

First is the regime’s inherent nature as a medieval theocracy. It does not belong in the 21st century and cannot respond to the demands of a young population eager to rejoin the international economy. Instead, in order to continue its survival, the regime has to resort to nuclear weapons, terrorism, regional conflicts and gross human rights violations at home. All this is in the regime’s DNA and cannot be surgically removed.

The second cause of the regime’s strategic impasse lies in its imminent economic collapse. Just like the regime could not control the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it will not be able to simply terrorize an army of the hungry and impoverished who have nothing to lose.

That’s due to the growing wherewithal of an organized resistance movement, particularly in the past three years, exemplified in the remarkable increase in the activities of Resistance Units affiliated with the Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), in virtually every city across the country, despite stepped-up security measures.

The state-run Sharq newspaper wrote in December: “One of the most prominent manifestations of the November 2019 protests was the crumbling of the middle class into the lower classes. … Are we facing a movement of the poor?”

These serious socio-economic pressures ultimately manifest themselves in the internal feuds and conflicts brewing within the regime. Some factions see the answer to the regime’s maladies in negotiating with Washington.

But Khamenei knows full well – and has explicitly stated – that negotiations will gradually chip away at the regime’s core strategies, eventually removing the fangs of its snake of terrorism, leaving its suppressive forces without a strategic raison d’être.

For a regime encircled by an infuriated population, further waves of defection within the ranks of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) would be a death knell.

That is why Khamenei has warned his cronies: “The officials should not destroy unity (in the system) and dismember (the system)!”

However, Khamenei is not able to control the inherent and incurable crises surrounding his regime, even for a short period of time. The uncertainty over Khamenei’s own health, the intensification of internal feuds, and a weakened Khamenei’s inability to pull rank may just signal the end of an era for a medieval theocracy that has already overstayed its welcome in the 21st century.

Hamid Enayat (@h_enayat) is an expert on Iran and a writer based in Paris, where he has written frequently on Iranian and regional issues in the past thirty years. 

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