Monday, November 9, 2015

US Admiral: Iranian behavior hasn't changed in the Gulf

Yesterday the AP published an interview with Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, the commander of the US Navy's 5th Fleet (based in Bahrain), in which the admiral stated that Iran's behavior around the Persian Gulf has remained unchanged since the nuclear deal was agreed earlier this year.

While it would seem natural to point to this as proof that Iran cannot and will not change its destructive behavior, this in fact is a limited reading of the situation, one that does not take into account the relatively short time between the deal and now, and additionally the identity of the various interests commanding the military endeavors of the Iranian Navy and IRGC-Navy.

Iran has been a rogue state for years; any change from this will undoubtedly take time and should not be expected to happen over night. For now, the conservative and reactionary institutions of the Iranian regime remain intact, and while they remain in power, they are expected to continue their disruptive practices. These parts of the Iranian ruling class are threatened by a potential opening to the West. It makes sense for them to want to strike out and try to regain the upper hand. I would not be surprised if there are more incidents (like this and this) involving the IRGCN and the maritime industry in the Persian Gulf in the coming months.

Lastly, while this seems quite obvious, it is important to remember that a state is more than its government, and the government itself may be much more diverse than ruling party or coalition. The Iranian people are not of one mind, and must not be stereotyped in this fashion. The IRGC does not speak for every Iranian, and the behavior of certain elements doesn't necessarily reflect the attitude of the people.

I expect change to happen following the next set of elections (early 2016). There is a high probability that many reformist and pragmatist candidates will be banned from running. If this happens I expect there to be a great deal of unhappiness from the Western-inclined portions of society, especially given the perceived success of the Rouhani government in opening towards the West. How this unhappiness is expressed remains to be seen.

A potential pitfall here is that this isn't an election for one position like there was in the 2009 presidential election. It could be much more difficult to organize any sort of civil disobedience without a single shared issue, and a general protest against the handling of elections may not be as appealing for the greater Iranian public. On the other hand it is much easier to fix an election for one race than to fix hundreds of races, so if enough reformist and pragmatist candidates are allowed to run, I would expect there to be a significant chance for Iran's government to change dramatically.

The Iran Deal should not be counted as a failure because of unchanged behavior by the Iranian armed forces. It must be given time, at least until the next elections. If the hardliners win these elections handily AND there is no public backlash then the argument could be made that the deal has failed to provide enough space for reformists to change Iran from within. Until then, we must wait.

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