Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Complexities of the Iranian Government and Nuclear Negotiations

With the impending annual UN General Assembly slated for this coming week, and the anticipation of important political developments, a common story in the news is the potentiality of a diplomatic breakthrough regarding Iran's nuclear program. Much has been made of Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani's increasingly friendly tone towards America and the West and his stated desire for dialogue. From what many have written, it seems an almost foregone conclusion that for the first time in what seems like an eternity, the heads of government for the United States and Iran may meet face to face. For now, this is nothing but blind speculation; no matter how friendly the words of both sides are, no real 'progress' has been made as of yet. 

Iran is one of the most misunderstood places in the world for most Westerners. Beyond the obvious misconceptions about language, culture and ethnicity, there is also a mistaken desire to frame their entire existence within a Western paradigm. As many have pointed out, this is a problem (I would suggest reading Michael Axworthy on this). One of the significant ways in which Westerners fail to understand Iran, and in particular the Islamic Republic, is the governmental structure. The United States has a fairly simple system that many are familiar with. It has clearly delineated Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, where each one of these three acts in a way to compliment and also to prevent the others from becoming too powerful. Iran as well has these three branches but they function in a very different way. 

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As the preceding chart from shows, Iran's government is a convoluted and contradictory organizational mess. Not only is it the only state in the world where the head of government (President Rouhani in this case) does not control the armed forces (this includes the IRGC which is loyal to the revolution, and effectively the Supreme Leader), but also the Judicial is subject to the whims of the indirectly 'elected' Supreme Leader. The fact that certain 'elected' bodies (the President for example) have to be 'approved' by unelected groups, certainly doesn't help make the system any more straight-forward to outsiders.

While the former president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad was in power, many on the right in Israel and America would take his words (whether they were translated well or not) at face-value. They made a sport of raving about how this fanatical and powerful leader was a menace to the world and that he must be stopped etc. Those who spoke to me during this time are probably familiar with the way in which I was sharply dismissive of this idea. President Rouhani does not have the same legal authority as the Supreme Leader, or as much as fear-mongers incorrectly claimed Ahmadi-Nezhad had. However, dismissing him as powerless is just as foolish. It remains to be seen if genuine negotiations can happen on his watch. 

Given the amount of possible disinformation and denials coming from the Iranian side, it is unclear if the hardline backbone of the Iranian government will support any sort of concession on their part. They have created a culture of resistance against the West and its allies (against the Americans, the Iraqis, the Israelis, the Shah and leftist movements such as the Communists and the MEK), and while still on this track, it may be increasingly difficult for them to disengage themselves. This same singularity of thought is also true of the conservative American Congress, and much of the Israeli political establishment. The nervous one-track hive-mind is certainly not helped by it's inability to understand the Iranian government's decision making process and power structure. Speculation can, on occasion, be beneficial, but uneducated speculation based upon a simplified understanding of a very complicated Iranian governmental apparatus helps no one. 

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