US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton vowed recently to continue imposing sanctions on Iran in a bid to stop its uranium enrichment activity. Threats have also been voiced by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who stated that the Jewish state might have to confront Iran militarily by next summer.
Only recently do Western sanctions seem to be reaching their target, devastating Iran's economy. At the beginning of October, the value of the Iranian currency (riyal) dropped by 30% in ten days, skyrocketing prices on medication, basic food items and clothes, and driving thousands into poverty (already estimated at 20% out of the total population).
To protest the tough economic situation, many Iranians took to the streets, demanding the government gain control of the currency. The regime rushed to reassure Iranians that the country's reserves (around $100 billion) were more than enough to tackle the challenge. Simultaneously, in a bid to stop the protests from spreading, police arrested several demonstrators and used tear gas to disperse the crowds, scrapping the possibility of an "Arab Spring" scenario on Iranian soil.
As frustration inside Iran mounts, with crowds blaming President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies for the fiscal crisis, some say the days of the current regime are numbered.
Others disagree. Dr. Rajab Safarov, the director of the Center for Modern Iranian Research (a pro-Iranian think tank based in Moscow) said the tough economic situation was unlikely to trigger a regime change.
"Although the situation fueled panic, hysteria and destabilization, most people still back the authorities," Safarov told Israel Today. "At the same time, some 5-10% of the country's population wants to scrap ideological motivations in favor of better economic conditions and improved ties with the West, though many of them are too scared to voice their opinion in public. Those who do go public are either heavily influenced by western propaganda or are completely detached from reality. Their demands are excessive and difficult to implement."
Despite the public dissatisfaction, Safarov insisted the situation was gradually getting back to normal. "The authorities have managed to stabilize the currency," he claimed. "Iran is a major regional player with an independent economy and time-tested social welfare system. The country can withstand this challenge."
Professor David Menashri, one of Israel's leading experts on Iran, acceded. "A bad economy may trigger public ire, but the tolerance of people in developing countries (like Iran) is higher than of those residing in developed states. If, for example, 5% inflation could lead to upheavals in the US, in Iran even 20-30% inflation may not trigger the eruption of mass protest."
Adapting to Survive
Apart from that, says Menashri – who has been monitoring Iran for the past forty years – regime change is extremely difficult because the Iranian political apparatus is too experienced to let it happen. "This regime is pragmatic. If it's pressured, it will do its best to change its policy [to remain in power]," he told Israel Today. "That being said, nobody actually knows when or if regime change is going to happen. It could occur overnight or in twenty years' time."
Safarov echoed Menashri's assessment, arguing that the Iranian regime would change its position in the event of major revolts threatening the government stability.
"If the situation gets out of control, Tehran might announce concessions in its uranium enrichment project or a revision in its approach to the ties with the West. However, this hasn't happened so far, which means that the current government has the full support of the people," charged the expert.
Why the Iranians Support the Mullahs
Safarov explained that most Iranians fear any concessions on the country's nuclear program would pave the way for broader Western interference in Tehran's domestic and foreign affairs.
"Concessions towards the West may lead to the loss of sovereignty and freedom," Safarov stated. "In the long run, it might translate into the establishment of multiple military bases on the territory of the country and the seizure of Iran's energy sector, where the US is more than eager to dictate its own rules."
Ahmadinejad's Election Chances
Some say Israel need not worry about a preventive strike simply because the Ahmadinejad government is going to be replaced following the 2013 presidential elections.
The Iranian opposition has been actively preparing itself for the upcoming battle over the country's presidency. In February, for example, anti-government elements tried to organize a mass rally in Iran's capital, but failed after being dispersed by police and army forces. In summer, the outskirts of Paris hosted a meeting of Iranian exiles, who gathered to vent their anger with the policies of the current regime. Boasting large sums of money, impressive numbers and connections, some say they could pose a threat to the incumbent leader.
But Menashri dismissed the power of liberals. "Today, and things may change in the future, the opposition is divided and unorganized. They barely have any power. Radicals do. They know how to approach people, speaking in the name of Islam. Additionally, they enjoy the backing of the police, army and the Revolutionary Guard. But, most importantly, they have a strong desire to fight for power, if need be."
Can Iran Step Away From The Abyss?
Sarfarov believes that whoever wins the next election will certainly be more liberal than Ahmadinejad and bring Iran back closer to the West. "Although Ahmadinejad is perceived as a fair and honest politician, many consider him as too tough and urge the authorities to have a more flexible and diplomatic approach towards the West," he explained. "The new president would probably reset Iran's relations with Western states on condition that it doesn't come at the expense of Iranian freedom and sovereignty."
Menashri elaborated. "If the Islamic Republic ends up heading towards change, it's only going to be liberalism. Unlike Arab countries that opted to become more conservative, chanting Muslim Brotherhood slogans, Iran will choose a different path, primarily because the country has become disillusioned with Islam. Iranians have been living under Islamic law for the past 34 years; they know it's not the solution."
Iranian Liberalism Unlikely To Mean Peace With Israel
But even if change was possible, Safarov warned it wouldn't bring about major shifts in the country's foreign policy.
"Over the years, Iran has developed a system that admitted only the most loyal people to the state's key positions," Safarov pointed out. "Even if a liberal leader does come to power, his stance will still remain unaltered on the most important strategic issues," such as Iran's nuclear program and the resumption of ties with Israel.
"For Iran to take such a step, Israel would first need to solve the Palestinian problem," said Safarov. "As for the US, Tehran is more than willing to 'reset' its relations with Washington, but fears US policy is dominated by a powerful Jewish lobby that dictates the rules of the game to America's top brass."
Menashri argued that even if an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal were signed, it might still not alter relations between the Jewish state and Iran.
"Tehran has no pragmatic reason to change its policy towards Israel," stated Menashri. "In fact, it is in their interest to remain hostile toward the Jewish state. First of all, it boosts Iran's image in the eyes of the Muslim world and, secondly, it helps Iran to divert attention from its own domestic problems."
A Common Enemy Could Breed Cooperation
Yet, with the rise of Sunni radicalism in the area (emanating primarily from the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeeda and the Global Salafi Movement – all of which are sponsored by the Gulf states), Iran and Israel could find common ground for cooperation.
But Menashri was skeptical. "I don't think that Iran and Israel could align in their strife against Sunni radicals. Iran-US dialogue seems much more plausible."
Indeed, Israel might not want to cooperate with a country that despite being suspicious of Sunnis, apparently has little problem supporting Sunni groups like Hamas and the Taliban.
However, Iran's ties with Sunni radicals are disputed. Although Iran might be interested in undermining US efforts in Afghanistan, it is still extremely cautious in siding with the Sunni radical camp, fearing to lose the support of its closest allies like Russia and China.
Hope Remains For Israel-Iran Ties
Despite the numerous challenges and differences, Safarov said Israel and Iran could become partners. "Iran is a far more natural ally of Israel than any of its Arab neighbors. Arabs oppose Iran as much as they oppose Israel. Even more so, they provoke the Jewish state (and its western partners) to attack Iran, pushing the region to the brink of a major conflict. This situation should be averted."
Safarov added that if Israel and Iran could return to friendly cooperation, the friendship could bring stability to the region.
"Iran is ready consider renewing ties with Israel," he claimed, "but the Jewish state should reconsider its foreign policy in a number of important issues, including the Palestinian problem."
Safarov summed up:
"Iran and Israel will feel comfortable in the new and stable Middle East, the West won't have to participate in another bloody conflict, Russia will maintain its role in the Islamic Republic, whereas China will keep the stable energy flow crucial for its economy. The achievements of some radical Arab states will be scrapped while their Salafi influence will be minimized."