Today, Iran goes to the polls. Let’s be clear: neither winner is truly helpful to us. The reformists are all locked up or neutered and so are not even fielding any candidates. The election battle is between the pragmatic Islamic hardliners of Supreme Leader Khamenei or the more irrational Islamic hardliners of President 'I’m-A-Dinner-Jacket'. But the result could have a bearing on Iranian attitudes to the ‘New Great Game’.
The geo-political strategic battle that occurred from the early 1800s almost until WW2 for control and influence in central Asia has been well documented. Iran has always been at the centre of this battle which is partly why it is in the DNA of all Iranians to hate America and Britain and see conspiracy behind every lamppost. We are reaping what our great-grandfathers sowed. And the West and Iran have been playing this new version of ‘The Great Game’ for some time now, not least in various proxy wars - Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine (Hamas) and Lebanon (Hezbollah). So, three questions: how, why and what’s next?
The West seemingly has had a two stranded carrot and stick approach: one diplomatic and the other military.
On the diplomatic front, the stick to provide leverage has been (a) ruling all military options - ie military attack - as still on the table and (b) increasingly strict sanctions. The first one of these has not been working too well as the Iranians don’t believe it and, in any case, the threat just makes them work faster on their nuclear programme to get to the end game more quickly, but more on this later. The second is apparently beginning to bite hard.
The carrot has been endless attempts to engage in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear policy. It has failed. The Iranians look like a cunning street fighter pitched against the Marquis of Queensbury with all his rules. Unsurprisingly, the street fighter has easily run rings around its Western opponent. The second front has been the IAEA trying to use an inspection regime to enforce the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Another Marquis, another failure. And thirdly, it is well documented that all manner of diplomatic back channels - code for Russian ‘behind the scenes’ diplomacy - have also been employed. All to no avail.
On the military front, covert cyber warfare has been deployed - the Stutnext worm and probably others, unreported and unknown. The Israelis have used their well-worn assassination strategy to kill off key Iranian nuclear scientists as and when they can. The Americans and Israelis have continually been mooted as discussing possible military strikes. Under Obama, an American strike will simply never happen and is still extremely unlikely under either of the two probable Republican Presidential nominees - my man Romney and the nut job Santorum. The Israelis, however, are another matter. The closer the Iranians get to the key nuclear development stage, the more likely an Israeli attack becomes. All bets are on an Israeli strike this year if it is going to happen. Read this chilling article if you dare.
So, why does Iran want all this nuclear kerfuffle anyway? Two reasons, simply: the first was beautifully explained a couple of years ago by Mathew Paris on BBC’s Question Time. If your greatest enemies (nuclear armed America and Britain) have in recent years (a) invaded the county on your western border (Iraq), (b )invaded the country on your eastern border (Afghanistan), (c) had a massive military excursion in a country on your southern border (Kuwait) and (d) surrounded you with significant military bases and alliances - Turkey, Saudi, Bahrain, Oman etc - why the fuck wouldn’t you? Particularly, if your ‘Great Game’ ancestry has made you a pathological anti-American conspiracy theorist.
But secondly, taking note of the kid glove treatment these two nuclear armed military ‘aggressors’ give to other nuclear states - Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea - this further enforces the logic that you must be in the nuclear club at all costs as soon as possible.
Short term - The immediate threat is an Israeli attack. If it happens, most money being on April-September apparently, withdraw you money from your bank and fill up those spare petrol cans in the garage sometime soon because Middle East tensions will go into hyper drive. In any case, as is often reported, for an attack to be successful is actually quite tricky and it would only set the Iranian nuclear programme back by a few years.
Mid term - Sanctions are beginning to work - albeit that this is, as ever, terrible for the innocent population - as Iran has once again offered to engage in negotiations, however false their tactics may be. Horrible thought though it may be, it seems that we can starve them to the table. But for us to be able to take this one step further and be a game changer, we need a very big, credible carrot. And no one seems to have one.
Long term - How big a problem is it for the Iranian regime to have nuclear weapons? Unknown. Whilst they have always been reasonably rational geo-political players, who knows who could end up with their fingers on the trigger. And the wider problem is that this will set off a simply inevitable Middle East nuclear arms race, the Saudis already declaring that they would have to arm themselves and Turkey next in line, quite apart from what happens in the end to the mess that is nuclear-aspirational Syria.
However, I firmly believe that the days of this hard line theocracy are numbered. Iran will for sure have its ‘non-arab spring’ moment. The demographics are against the theocrats. With Saddam Hussein taking out a million Iranian men in the eight year Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s population pyramid is lopsided towards a dwindling number of older people and a huge percentage that are young and more outspoken and who want their iPads and freedom. Mullah time is ticking away, assuming Israeli actions don’t kill us all before we get there.
In the meantime, let's hope the Supreme Leader's supporters win the election. At least they're semi-rational.