The New Gorbachev of Iran: Deception and Survival

ByFiras Elias

It is no exaggeration when we compare the political reality of Iran today to that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s nor are we playing with the truth when likening Mikhail Gorbachev’s burden to what falls on the shoulders of Rouhani now. The dismemberment state of the Warsaw Pact at the time is quite like that of the Axis of Resistance nowadays. Roughly speaking, here again, history repeats itself.
Perestroika, the economic reform policy of Gorbachev, which rested on transparency with the Russian people and the international community by unfolding the truth of the country’s economic situation, played an integral role in accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union. The same goes for Rouhani’s reform policy; he stuck to the nuclear agreement, expressed greater openness to the West, and called to discard the “resistance economy” -established for military purposes- In other words, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards must stop interfering in national economic affairs. Gorbachev’s story is being repeated with Rouhani.
When exploring modern-ideological transformations adopted by governments to overcome an imminent collapse, China and Russia are two major examples of failure and success in this regard. Reviewing thoroughly international changes, China realized wealth then power was at the roots of any global crisis; therefore, China maintained its political system but opened its economy to the world, and eventually turned into a new capitalist beast that invaded the United States and the whole world. Russia held on to its statist economic system based on Scientific Communism to adopt a transparent policy in administration and carried out changes to its political system, which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet system. Therefore, Iran’s success or failure in addressing the current and future U.S. sanctions is dependent on which example Iran will follow, the Chinese or the Russian—taking into account Iran’s peculiarities. Rouhani recognizes the changes needed and the necessity to forge an economic reform policy, as well as, being transparent with the public, allowing him to explain the main reasons for the current economic crisis. The crisis was primarily caused by Iran’s negative role and interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, recruiting proxies, exploiting destabilizing tools in other countries, turning a blind eye to corruption and the abuse of power by the Supreme Leader and prominent officials in the so-called ‘deep state’. In addition, the mismanagement of human resources has contributed to the crisis. Public disclosure unfolds the hidden cause of the crisis, which is the role of the Revolutionary Guards. Its generals and top-ranking officers enjoy high-standards of living and receive significant amounts of money while the Iranian people suffer abject poverty. As passengers’ step into Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, the first toman they spend will go directly into the pocket of the Revolutionary Guards since they completely dominate the airport’s transportation system.
The challenges Iran faces now, especially after the new U.S. sanctions, have subjected the future of the Iranian regime to many scenarios and interpretations. The active protests across Iran; the unprecedented currency decline; the heated political conflict between the reformists and hardliners in parliament; the “compelling commitment” of most countries to U.S. sanctions; the new status-quo in Yemen; the political instability in Iraq; the containment strategy in Syria; and the latest developments in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, have made Iranian decision makers face a complicated political situation. They need to thoroughly assess the possible successes and losses, or else a new political system will rise in Iran.
The Iranian economy is almost crippling. The outflow of foreign capital and the unemployment rate has mounted after the new U.S. sanctions. The crisis is likely to exacerbate after the U.S. imposes oil-related sanctions in November. This worrying reality forced Iran’s parliament to impeach two of Rouhani’s ministers and push for Rouhani’s impeachment over his inability to respond to the economic crisis. The former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Rouhani and the Larijani brothers to resign. The most prominent Marja’ like Noori-Hamedani and Naser Makarem Shirazi also raised the same demand. If the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards find the crisis unbearable, Rouhani will indeed face a severe challenge; his political career will be at stake. However, Iran’s pragmatic approach when dealing with great powers, allows it to walk along the edge of the cliff without falling.
At the height of the crisis, two major events exacerbated Iran’s political situation. First, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that there would be neither war nor negotiations with the United States. This meant that Iran sought a war of attrition with the United States; a zero-sum game. He confirmed that Iran’s proxies will carry out their assigned tasks in the region. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have made significant changes on the ground, especially along the Tehran-Damascus corridor. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s remarks, 14 August 2018, are in perfect harmony with Khamenei’s speech. The Syrian regime and its pro-forces are preparing for attacking Idlib. It seems that they [Iran and its allies] want to destabilize the whole situation in Syria by attacking Idlib to divert attention from U.S. sanctions. In Yemen, the Houthis accelerated their attacks in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, possibly this is a new Iranian strategy to create new frontlines spreading chaos right across the Middle East.
Second, Rouhani made historic concessions at the Caspian Sea Convention on 12 August 2018. Iran lost a significant portion of the sea to Russia. This was apparently an Iranian attempt to keep Russia as a good ally. But it is a historic loss for Iran. Iran concluded a similar agreement when Mullah Abbas Iravani – who acted as the First Minister for the Qajar Ruler- signed a similar accord which significantly contributed to the Qajar dynasty collapsing. It was cited as an example of deep national humiliation. Many Iranian members of parliament expressed their simmering discontent over Rouhani’s concessions.
Iran has resorted to political maneuvers while using the stick when needed. An example can be drawn here from the remark of the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on U.S. sanctions, when he said, “Iran will not change its policy in the Middle East.” Applying a chaotic approach, Iran still cannot differentiate between the “revolutionary mindset” and the “statehood mindset” when dealing with regional countries. Therefore, its imminent collapse has become the most probable scenario so far.

Iran realizes how difficult the upcoming phase will be after August 6. The Iranian regime understands that the U.S. re-imposition of sanctions targets its existence rather than tackling its regional role in the Middle East. Unprecedented and serious internal, regional, and international challenges are facing Iran, yet the regime still underestimates them. If this continues to happen, we would not only end up with a new Iran but with totally new the Middle East. And a semi-new world order may emerge corresponding to that of the post-Soviet Union.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Firas Elias
Firas Elias
International Strategies and Policies Researcher