By Ali Ansari

May 9, 2011

In the rush to assess the causes and potential consequences of the 'Arab Spring' which has rocked much of the Arab world from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, some have been keen to place the developments in the wider context of the geo-political contest between the United States and Iran.

This wider context is reminiscent of previous generations, when events were situated squarely within a cold war narrative, and the effects of 'liberation' movements and 'rebellions' were calculated solely on the basis on the overall benefits and costs to the two superpower blocs. This is certainly the view among the leaders of the Islamic Republic, who have argued that the 'Arab Spring' reflects a somewhat belated spread of the values of the Islamic Revolution to the Arab world. Regularly forgotten in all this is the truism that, at heart, all politics is local. Indeed, if one lesson has emerged from the events of the past few months, it is that it remains difficult to generalise and that ultimately, 'revolutions' are not predictable.

On the one hand we have states with large populations and few resources, and on the other, states with small populations and an abundance of riches. Some have been pro-western, others quite distinctly opposed. Almost all have been categorised as functioning and viable states with a monopoly on coercive power. Yet if these are not 'failed states' in the traditional understanding of the term, they are 'fragile states' - they lack authority. And what is true of the contemporary Arab world is doubly true of Iran. The Iranian government is not short on the means of coercion but the Islamic Republic of Iran suffers from a dangerous deficit in authority, almost all of which has been self-inflicted. This crisis of authority came to public attention in the disturbances after the contested presidential election of 2009, following widespread allegations of fraud which the government did little to address. Relying instead on brute force and the generous dispensation of cash to its supporters, it was able to contain the unrest after six months of unprecedented discord which could have quite easily gone the other way. Yet if the symptoms were addressed, the government has singularly failed to tackle the underlying causes, and on the contrary, has tended to exacerbate them.

Most would agree that a well-oiled economy provides any government with a comfortable financial cushion against which it may be able to manage a crisis, through patronage and the retention of large well maintained security forces. Yet recent events in both Libya and Bahrain remind us that money alone does not provide either stability or security. Indeed, if money were the panacea, then the Shah should not have fallen in 1979. Iran in the 1970s was amongst the richest oil economies in the world and even British diplomats wryly noted that the Shah's 'problems' would be the envy of his Arab neighbours. What matters is how you manage the money, and crucially, how you manage expectations. Iran today is not a poor country in crude financial terms. Any passing visitor to Tehran is often struck by the conspicuous wealth on display. But this is, in many ways, exactly the problem. There is rampant conspicuous consumption financed by a boon in oil revenues. Sound familiar? Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first came into office in 2005, he has benefited froma dramatic increase in oil revenues, money that he has injected into the economy in the form of patronage, pensions and loans. This massive injection of capital has been accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the means of accountability and transparency, resulting in a financial opaqueness which makes it difficult to know what is being spent where and how. Even parliament has complained of the lack of accountability, and one wonders whether ministers themselves are aware of where the money is going. Ahmadinejad counters criticisms with his usual hyperbole that Iran is about the join the elite economies. At least when the Shah made these claims, he could point to some statistics.

The real saving grace for President Ahmadinejad has been the continued buoyancy in the oil price, and he recently emphasised this by telling Iranians they could soon expect an oil price of 150 dollars a barrel. But the truth is that Iran is not producing much at all. For all the public relations on technical progress, Iranian factories are being starved of raw materials, wages remain unpaid and people are being laid off. The government recently announced that unemployment had reached ten percent. This, as with other government statistics about inflation, is rightly viewed with scepticism. During the last election campaign, Iran's former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai scathingly pointed out that it was unsurprising unemployment had fallen when the government had changed the criteria for 'employment' to one hour paid work a week.

Conspicuous consumption, mounting inflation, an economy driven by patronage, speculation and rents; all this would be bad enough, but the government is also confronted by a serious crisis of trust. As Iranian economists protested publicly several years ago, perhaps the most serious damage being done is the loss of social capital. People are no longer willing to accept or tolerate what they are being told. You simply cannot expect to fool all of the people all of the time. One might have thought that this message had come through loud and clear in the aftermath of the last elections: people were no longer willing to believe what they were being told and were fed up with being treated as fools. This really was the heart of the political crisis in authority facing the government. We may choose to label it 'democratic' or a 'Green movement', but at its core the problem was not complicated. It was about human dignity and the rights of the citizen, above all to be taken seriously by those who seek to govern them. In this acute sense, the change in attitudes does reflect a profound democratic turn in the Iranian public. But it is one the government has chosen to contemptuously ignore. This insult to injury has only exacerbated and prolonged the crisis of authority between state and society.

All the more so because the government in conjunction with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has chosen not to build bridges with the opposition in the country, or a new political consensus with the 'loyal opposition' within the elite. Far from it. Partly through conviction, and in part through nervousness, the government has sought to reinforce its position by consolidating its base. The trouble is that this base is narrow and requires the adoption of a belief system which most orthodox Shia's find deeply problematic. The notion that belief in the concept of the Guardianship of the Jurist should be an article of Shia faith, and obedience to Khamenei and his chosen president is the equivalent of obedience to God, is regarded by many, not least the senior Ayatollahs in Qom, as an absurdity verging on blasphemy. Yet this is what is now being demanded. The Shah only required people join his political party. Then as now, people may tolerate and grumble, but above all, when confronted, they dissemble. The propensity of people to engage in dissimulation when faced with an uncompromising political situation has a long pedigree in states that seek to ideologically dominate their populations. It is a rare individual who will face discomfort in the interests of the truth. Far better to go with the flow and tell the leader what he wants to hear.

It was said that the main difference between the Shah and his father was that while no one dared to lie to his father, no one dared to tell him the truth. Much the same can be said of his successors. Power, much more than money, has the tendency to corrupt and the greatest crisis in authority is the ability to delude oneself. To listen to Ahmadinejad one would think Iran is the richest, most powerful and technically advanced country in the world, a veritable 'island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world'. Sound familiar? Sooner or later, reality always bites.


Professor Ali Ansari is an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House.


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