Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Iran: A Paper Tiger Waiting For A Spark

The matter of the Iranian government’s atomic ambitions and its intention to use them is going to be a regional security concern facing Barack Obama early on. Iran has a lot of strategic weaknesses. More than a few of them are self inflicted.

The most notable strategic weakness of Iran is its lack of petroleum independence. This is not a misprint. I am well aware that Iran is a leading exporter of crude oil. Despite being an exporter of crude petroleum, Iran can not refine its own oil. It must import all of its gasoline. This is a drag on its foreign exchange balance of major proportions. Additionally, it is a major expense to its citizens, who pay prices for gas approaching that paid by Americans out of wages that are a fraction of those earned by American workers. A year and a half ago, in June of 2007, there was widespread rioting in Iran after gasoline rationing was instituted along with steep price increases for gas bought on the open market.

Iran is a fraction more that 50% Iranian. It is a patchwork of different languages with accompanying religious differences as well. The oil exported from Iran comes from areas populated by Iran’s ethnic minorities. Most notably 2.2 million ethnic Arabs in the province of Khuzestan which is the source of 70% of Iran’s crude petroleum.

According to Amir Taheri, “In the ’80s, Arab-Iranians fought bravely against Saddam Hussein’s forces, even though they were linked to the invading Iraqis by ethnic, tribal, linguistic and religious ties going back 1,300 years. Data from the Foundation for the Martyrs (which is supposed to look after war veterans and families of the war dead) show that the number of Arab-Iranians who died for the fatherland was proportionally four times higher than Iranians from other ethnic backgrounds”.

In the past couple of years, the patriotism of Iran’s Arabs has been sorely tested. Their region ranks far behind the rest of Iran in public health and infrastructure development. With hundreds of millions of dollars going to supporting unrest in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, many Iranian Arabs are asking why money that could help Iraan’s citizens live better lives is being spent on death and destruction. It is clear to the Arabs of Khuzestan that the self determination advocated for “Palestinians” is for export only. Local desire for any kind of political autonomy or cultural expression is met with repression. Iran’s strategy in Khuzestan resembles that of the former Soviet Union towards the Baltic republics. The Iranian strategy seem s to be that of making Iran’s Arabs a minority in their own region. In his June 2007 article, Taheri continues as follows.

First, the discovery of oil in 1908 led to a boom that created job opportunities that the locals couldn’t fulfill. Hundreds of thousands from the Iranian heartland poured into Khuzestan, first as temporary laborers and then as permanent residents.

Second, a government policy, formulated in 1928, seeks to “Persianize” majority-Arab areas by bringing farmers from distant provinces. The newcomers revived the province’s moribund agriculture, introduced new crops and, as they prospered, multiplied faster than native Arabs who remained largely excluded from the new economy.

The majority of Iran’s population was born after the Iranian revolution. They have no recollection of life under the Shah. But satelite TV, internet and travel by Iranians abroad make sealing Iran’s borders to non Islamic ideas a difficult proposition. Sometimes, a strategy is followed of keeping people happy by turning a blind exe to alcohol, foreign movies and other forbidden indulgences. Sigheh, or temporary marriage is even being revived by Islamic authorities. In many instances, the differences between sigheh and what we know as prostitution is a legal technicality.

Iranians have endured widespread corruption from their religious authorities, who have abused their authority to enrich themselves through religiously sanctioned expropriations of rivals. It is fair to say that many in Iran have grown very cynical about theocratic Islam.

Ahmadinejad is banking on a foreign enemy uniting Iran’s discontented people behind him. He is fond of mocking the west as a “paper tiger”. A survey of Iran’s economic, ethnic and political difficulties along with its rampant corruption creates an impression of gilded decay. It is like an old car owner who maintains his rusting old car by painting it without addressing mechanical and structural disrepair.

Iran has squandered its oil wealth on war and subversion. Now it is facing a catastrophic drop in crude oil prices. America when facing Iran is dealing with a

n ailing and imploding adversary. It should do so with resoluteness and confidence. President elect Obama has hired advisors who seem likely to do so. Hopefully, he will heed them.

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