A Tale of Two Irans

Edward N. Luttwak
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There are two Irans today.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., former commander of US Central Command, spoke of Iran's “overmatch” versus its neighbors: It can attack them with ballistic missiles and bombardment drones without being counter-attacked. That was certainly true of the September 14, 2019 attacks against Saudi Arabia's most important separation plant at Abqaiq, and the major Khurais oilfield. The attacks were devastating—they stopped half of Saudi oil production—but there was no retaliation, evidently because of the fear of Iran's reaction.

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Iran’s same “overmatching” has supported Syria's Assad dictatorship, which has waged war against the Sunni population (three-quarters of the country), powerfully intervenes in Iraq (too powerfully, actually, because even Shi'a leaders are resisting), and supplies the attack drones that have harassed Ukraine's power plants. All the while, Iran insists that it is neutral, and that the drones were all supplied before the war started in February. It is the kind of thing that gives a bad reputation to lying.

Then there is another Iran, in which the minority Baluch, Kurdish, and Arab populations are openly disaffected, in which the two-and-a-half million Sunnis of Tehran are denied Sunni mosques, and in which a large and still increasing percentage of the population of all nationalities and religions really mean it when they shout marg barg diktator, not because they oppose Khamenei, but because they oppose the entire regime root and branch, including Khamenei. In fact, many go much further by abandoning Iran's clerical Twelver Shi'a Islam of the Ayatollahs altogether, this being a very new religion of course: The first “Grand Ayatollah” Mirza Shirazi became prominent after today's ExxonMobil began as the Standard Oil company in 1870. Many are simply leaving the religion, while others try to find a path back to Iran's ancient Zoroastrian religion—starting from the very little that remains in the annual Nowruz celebration, which the clerics could never extinguish. (It is easier for the Kurds, who have their neo-Zoroastrian Yarsan celebrations).

Of late, anti-clerical Iranians have made their position perfectly clear by knocking off the turbans of Hojatollahs they encounter along on their way.

In other words, the Iranian regime that General McKenzie correctly described as powerful enough to "overmatch" its neighbors, is also very weak internally, hollowed out by widespread dissatisfaction with severe economic conditions. All this, in a country where many clerics earn undeserved salaries from the bonyads (trusts) that administer enterprises originally confiscated after the fall of the Shah decades ago, or as part of the vast Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) industrial sector, which has received truly vast sums over the years for its uniquely wasteful pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.

Thirty-eight years ago, German intelligence reviewed Iran's purchases of U-235 separation technology from Pakistan (originally stolen in Western Europe) and concluded that it would have highly enriched Uranium to assemble a "gun-barrel" fission bomb within two years, (ie, 1986)—a reasonable estimate at the time given that Israel's very parsimonious nuclear-weapon endeavors yielded not merely a device but deliverable bombs in 10 years. But that was not the Pasdaran way of doing things: It kept spending billions each year to build more and more facilities for uranium ore processing, uranium hexafluoride production, a reactor for plutonium, weaponization facilities, and centrifuge separation plants—not just the huge Natanz facility that it kept enlarging. This was all accomplished while routinely overpaying for the equipment that was imported legally or illegally, to the great benefit of the Pasdaran-connected traffickers who handled the transactions.

Originally kept strictly secret, the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the nuclear program, and of the Pasdaran's missile and aviation endeavors, has spread among Iran's population—just as knowledge of the bonyad's parasitic sub-culture of salaried clerics has also spread, generating the intense and widespread resentment that is expressed every day by one group of protesters or another somewhere in Iran, in spite of repeated "last warnings" from regime voices, and the Majlis most recently.

The result is a hollowing out of the regime's power: Outside it is still functioning, but inside it is rotting away. All things human must come to an end, even the "dictator," and even though the regime's adversaries are doing very little to accelerate its end (not even the radio broadcasting aimed at Iran has been enhanced, in spite of the scope for much more Azeri and Kurdish, as well as Farsi, programming).

In the past, the regime could generate public support by acting overseas, but that too has ended. In fact, demonstrators now often add "no Gaza, no Lebanon" to “death to the dictator.” Facing Iran's boiling cauldron, the countries that Iran has attacked in the past, and could attack again, should be coordinating their policies very closely to be able to respond quickly and decisively to diversionary action by Iran. But that is plainly not happening at the political level, especially as of this writing, with US elections underway. This is not a new predicament for the United States or its allies: Ever since 1970, foreign passivity in the face of threats, or opportunities, has been the norm. Such passivity has been the key to Iran's power, in spite of its severe limitations. Now, it is present within Iran itself.

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