Ahmadinejad as Cyrus the Great?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stopped off in Syria for consultations with his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, this weekend, on his way to New York for the United Nations General Assembly session. Ahmadinejad will make an appearance on Larry King Live on Tuesday.

Although his fate seemed up in the air only a little over a year ago, Ahmadinejad comes to New York with a substantially strengthened position.

It is no accident that Ahmadinejad has even revived a discourse of Iranian imperial greatness by referring to Cyrus the Great. He was asked about the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, which Iran wants back is now exhibiting after an initial tiff.

‘ As for the Cyrus Cylinder… What is the story behind this? 2500 years ago, there was a dictatorship in Iraq that imprisoned people, maimed them, and tortured them. The religion of these people was the divine religion of Moses. The disciples of this prophet were a minority. The minority was imprisoned by this brutal, murderous dictatorship, and they were enslaved. So they were in total desperation.

One of our kings replaced that dictatorship with a just regime. His name was Cyrus. People in the Babylon of that time wanted assistance from Cyrus. They said, “You preach justice, come and help us out. The dictator won’t let us pray, he won’t let us do anything.” I want to make a historical parallel here. Cyrus conquered Babylon and freed people from the brutal regime of Babylon.

However, while going there to free the people, he did not hurt a soul. He does it in a way that the dictatorship in Babylon falls apart. And then he issues the Declaration of Human Rights.’

This discourse met with a firestorm of protest from clerical critics, who insist on rooting Iran’s identity solely in Islamic sources. But the ingredients are there for a new Iranian nationalism reflecting Iran’s influence in places like Shiite Iraq after the fall of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein (likened here to Nebuchadnezzar), and Ahmadinejad is positioning himself as its champion. Of course, he is very much subordinate to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but you couldn’t tell it by his speeches.

While Ahmadinejad’s enemies in the US Congress, especially those closest to the Israel lobbies, had hoped to pressure Iran by cutting off its gasoline imports, it turns out that the regime is not in fact vulnerable on that score. The government imported no gasoline last month, having simply used its petrochemical facilities as refineries and imposed some rationing. While some observers exulted that this move by Iran was a sign that sanctions were working, that sentiment seems ridiculous to me. If gasoline sanctions were supposed to hurt Iran, and Tehran showed that they could not, how is that a victory? It is like a boxer boasting he can knock out the heavy weight champion, and then when the champ just puts up his gloves and consistently blocks the feeble blows, boasts that he put the fighter on his guard.

In fact, Iran is building up refinery capacity over the next five years, with an expectation of doubling gasoline production. It has a huge cushion domestically, since at the moment gasoline is heavily subsidized and just costs pennies up to a certain amount per month. But prices are being raised on consumption beyond the ration, which limits growth in consumption. It is not sure that raising prices further would even hurt the regime with the public, since it can so obviously be blamed on the United States and so borne as a price of national independence.

One source of regime strength has been continued strong pricing for petroleum. Iran nowadays produces about 3.6 million barrels a day of oil, of which it typically exports about 2.3 mn. b/d (it is the world’s second largest exporter). As a result of the global economic near-depression, prices fell to as low as $33 a barrel at some points early in 2009, and as late as July 2009 they were $56 /b. But in late 2009 and through 2010, demand soared again, as China and India turned in impressive growth. Asian demand has sent the price back up to around $70 a barrel. The price of Iran’s heavy crude was $74 a barrel in the first two quarters of 2010, but had only been about $54 a barrel in the same period in 2009.

At anything over $50 a barrel, the regime is sitting pretty. $70 is a great cushion for the Islamic Republic, and if Germany’s recent growth spurt is a harbinger for Europe this coming year, prices could firm further. Any US or Israeli military action toward Iran would only cause prices to skyrocket, ironically strengthening Iran further.

Hopes that global economic sanctions would harm Iranian banking and so make it harder for Iran to export petroleum seem to me completely forlorn. There is every reason to expect oil-thirsty Asia to ignore the US and UNSC sanctions if the alternative is slowed growth or disgruntled drivers. Petroleum is easily smuggled, especially if it is refined into gasoline, and easily turned into cash. The Baath regime in Iraq faced among the strictest sanctions ever visited on a country, and which probably killed 500,000 children, but the Baath party was unfazed and managed to sock away billions from gasoline smuggling. The regime was in no danger of falling spontaneously even after a decade of such treatment, such that Bush had to invade to overthrow it. Iran has more friends than Iraq did and a more favorable political and geographical position.

Iran’s exports to Japan jumped in August, and it has also increased exports to China. So those two countries are finding ways of paying for the oil despite US pressure on banks. Even supposed US allies such as Afghanistan and Iraq are doing a booming business with Iran (and ironically, the US sort of needs them to, if they are to be stabilized.) Afghanistan seems increasingly dependent on Iran for its internet services, and, indeed, dependent on an internet firm owned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. (Bad for me– Iran blocks this blog, and it cannot be received in those parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that get internet service from Iran).

I suppose US and UN sanctions can keep Iran from getting as rich as it otherwise might, but if oil prices rise over the coming years, the West is highly unlikely to be able to stop Iran from benefitting substantially from the increased revenue.

Ahmadinejad only a little over a year ago faced massive and repeated protests in the streets of Tehran, his capital, over the obvious irregularities in the announced voting results of the June, 2009, elections. Observers wondered if his regime might be toppled. But for the government to fall would have required a split in the security forces, which never took place. Other sections of the Iranian elite, including the ranks of the grand ayatollahs and the high civilian politicians, did split. But the opposition leaders, Mirhossain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, ultimately proved unwilling to lead a genuine political revolution, nor could they attract the loyalty of enough military officers and ordinary people to do so. The security forces stood firm with Ahmadinejad and the popular ferment on the streets has subsided into a behind-the-scenes human rights movement that seems to have little prospect of early success, though it could be significant over the medium term.

Regionally, Iran is sitting pretty. Iran benefits from the good will generated for it in the Muslim world by its strong support for the Palestinians (especially Hamas in Gaza). Reckless Israeli moves, including the Gaza War, the attack on the Mavi Marmara civilian aid ship, and continued colonization of Palestinian land, have increased Iran’s stature in the region.

Iran’s other client, Hizbullah of Lebanon, is part of that country’s national unity government. The Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, moved closer to Syria in recent weeks after long years in which he blamed Damascus for the 2005 assassination of his father, a stance that split Lebanon into pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions. Even if Hariri’s motives might be to facilitate a break between Syria and Iran, backed by Saudi Arabia, the step could backfire. With Beirut making up with Damascus, Hizbullah may be strengthened, and a Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Ankara sphere of friendship and economic exchange emerge.

Iran has excellent relations with Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, in contrast to the security problems it had faced from the Taliban in the 1990s. Indeed, it allegedly has many high Afghan officials on its payroll. The US has proved so far unable to unseat the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq in favor of ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi. Pro-Iranian Shiites are likely to play an important role in any government that is formed. Turkey has stood with Iran, declining to support increased sanctions and running interference for Tehran with regard to its civilian nuclear energy research program. Iran is still close to Syria. The Arab street has decided that it is not afraid of an Iranian nuclear warhead.

The US has been reduced to arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth, with a $60 billion arms deal, as its main way of responding to the powerful Iranian diplomatic position in the region. That is, after a period of direct US intervention in the Gulf region during the past 20 years, the US appears to be moving back to the proxy strategy of Nixon-Kissinger in the 1970s– a sign of relative weakness in the region.

Ahmadinejad comes to New York, not as a wounded leader under internal and external siege, but as the confident representative of a fiercely independent Iran, the hydrocarbon treasures of which allow it to withstand Washington’s mere sanctions and opprobrium. Mahmoud the Great?

21 Responses

  1. Iran doesn’t want the Cyrus cylinder back, because, of course, it never belonged to Iran. It is Iraqi, found in Babylon. The text is, one supposes, a copy of an Iranian original.

    The origin of the row is that the Iranians wanted to borrow the cylinder, and some in the British Museum didn’t believe Iran would return it. Not surprising, given the demonisation of Ahmedinejad. The problem is in London, not in Tehran.

    • alexno, the place where the Cyrus cylinder was found was actually Iran at the time the cylinder was produced and put into effect. So, yes, it did belong to the older Iranian (Persian) Empire, just as much as it belongs to the current embodiment of that great nation.

  2. RE: “Although his fate seemed up in the air only a little over a year ago, Ahmadinejad comes to New York with a substantially strengthened position. ”

    I’m not sure about this rosy view. See:
    Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens: link to pbs.org

    A Review of the Prevailing Political Situation in Iran
    Near-Strangulation and Deepening Chasms: link to gozaar.org

    As for the dire state of the Iranian petrochemical industry in particular and the economy in general, I strongly recommend this two-part report by Hossein Askari, professor of international business and international affairs at George Washington University:
    THE IRANIAN ECONOMY
    Iran’s slide to the bottom: link to atimes.com
    Ahmadinejad shuns a brighter future: link to atimes.com

  3. Outstanding analysis. Washington tops the worldwide rankings for being skilled at shooting itself in the foot. Bush installed the Shiites by toppling Saddam, then the Shiites transformed Iraq into Iran’s client state. Later, Petraeus strengthened the Shiites’ hold on Baghdad by cleansing the city of Sunnis. Meanwhile the very neocons who urged Bush to invade Iraq have been shrieking about attacking Iran and are now urging Obama to bring the Sunnis back into power in Iraq.

    Sanctions are counter-productive because they represent top-down thinking. Oil will always find a way out, which shows that wars aimed at controlling oil resources are futile, as Hitler found out in WWII when he invaded Russia in order to get at its oil fields.

    For Castro, the lesson is that American sanctions had nothing to do with Cuba’s failed economy. His own top-down thinking in blindly aping the Soviet Kremlin’s doomed economic policies has been just as damaging to Cuba as Washington’s increasingly top-down thinking has been to the USA. Now that Cuba’s opening up, Americans will be the last to benefit.

    Washington’s bleating about Chinese currency manipulation is yet another self-inflicted wound, considering how Washington’s manipulated the dollar for generations. The upshot of Washington’s intervening in the markets is that Americans will be left behind as Asian nations thrive.

  4. If we cared much about Iran, we’d drive less and undermine the world price of oil. Even that leverage (never mind that we are too lazy to pull that lever) will be smaller in the future as the Chinese economy (and oil consumption) grows.

  5. On the Turkish-Iran Economic gains, a few days ago this was widely reported:

    link to online.wsj.com

    “Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Ankara is seeking to triple trade volumes with Iran over the next five years.”

    Iran-Turkey is planning to increase trade from 10 Billion a year currently to 30 Billion a year within 5 years.

  6. Apparently you have not the slightest idea about day to day realities in Iran, otherwise you would not fall for the regime’s propaganda. Even 15 months after the rigged elections AN has not succeeded in solving urgent economic problems: while the 5th Budget Plan (2010-2015) has not yet started, domestic experts say the 4th Budget Plan has been implemented by 40% at most. On the other hand unemployment and inflation rates soar even before subsidy cuts have become operative. And the alleged domestic gasoline production will further reduce national income due to halted exports of petrochemical products.
    All these data are available in English, but obviously do not fit this uninformed comment.
    As for rising political conflicts on the domestic level, I recommend you to read EA’s latest entries: Mahmoud the Great Pretender…

    • But I did not say anything about all that other stuff. I said that the regime has been helped by relatively high oil prices and expansion of its Japan & Chinese markets. And that it cannot be effectively pressured by a gasoline embargo.

      • Thank you for your reply. It is difficult to answer, when you insist on blocking out half of the story, nevertheless I will try to do so. You say “the regime has been helped by relatively high oil prices and expansion of its Japan & Chinese markets”, but you apply this statement to a void, just as if other economic parameters would not exist: due to AN’s disastrous policies Iranian economy suffers from a heavy decline, which started already three or four years ago. Add the sanctions to this bleak picture and you get an idea, how devastating their effects must be.
        Very obviously other nations try to fill the gap, but I doubt that they will succeed in doing so, especially due to heavy additional costs and the losses caused by necessary economic reorientation. Surely the IR has to pay a hefty price for expanding its Japanese and Chinese markets, which reduces its incomes severely. Presumably you assume that the regime acts like other sensible nations, which is certainly not the case. A majority of these trade expansions is directed by the IRGC corporate raiders, mostly interested in their short-term profits.
        On the other hand sanctions have already started to work, even though implemented only two months ago: many major projects in the energy sector were abandoned (e.g. South Pars), and oil exports have been reduced due to bans on shipping companies etc.
        Apart from these international effects, the domestic outcome of sanctions is equally negative: Iranian businessmen shy away from investing in a targeted economy, searching for foreign markets instead (statement of the head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce on Khabar Online).
        Today this same news agency reported that the rate of bounced checks has reached an unprecedented level this year, amounting to a sum of $ 8,524 billions: link to khabaronline.ir
        A healthy regime and economy, unaffected by sanctions, looks different to me…

        • btw, it’s 8,524 billion IRR (Iran rials) equivalent to about 8.5 billion USD (United States Dollar).

  7. One of your more entertaining posts, Juan. I agree with all your assessments, excluding certain election perspectives.

    But are you sure your blog is blocked in Iran? Have you checked your stats lately? I’d be surprised if Informed Comment is currently blocked. On our blog, Uskowi on Iran, we include reporting on Iran’s relatively sensitive military developments, and we are not blocked.

    - Mark Pyruz

  8. As events appear to be drifting, who wouldn’t prefer to offset the growing power of Iran with reinforcement of Sunni intersests through the KSA/GStates. Realpolitik’s sometimes get a bad name for its flinty-eyed lack of humanity. But properly developed, a regional balance of power can be in everybodies best interests. The Gulf Arabs, with all this new weaponry, will have an enhanced ability to defend themselves and inflict pain offensively. But they simply don’t have the population or economy to dream of somehow conquering some part of Iran…the idea is ludicrous. Iran has a great military for trench warfare, but their capability is defensive, with an asymetric ability to cause alot of defensive naval pain; their position is also inherently defensive, like that of a porcupine.

    There keeps seeming to be momentum towards the US somehow reaching a modus vivendi with the Iranians, to the enormous distress of the Israeli’s. The above gives more support to that idea. But it begs the question of whether this drift can carry through, given the influence of the various domestic/foreign lobbies on US policy. If, rationally, this is where things are going and it is the conscious and competent intent of the administration, then Israel has to be able to find that “acceptable”, when it has laid down its marker consistently, that essentially losing their hegemony is unacceptable (an merely potent Iran = a nuclear armed Iran). In the world, you cannot afford to bluff on such things, and Israel’s great strength in managing its neighbors has been the assurance they simply do not bluff. So, where does that ultimate observation, if we decide to acknowledge it, leave us?

  9. Raising gas prices, and removing other subsidies is an almost insurmountable challenge that most oil producing countries have not been able to accomplish, since it usually provokes great popular arrest and demonstrations.

    If Ahmadinejad achieves nothing else but to remove these subsidies he would have made an enormous contribution to the Iranian nation.

    God bless the US imposed sanctions for forcing Iran to do what it otherwise would not have had the will power to achieve !

  10. Juan,

    I would like to hear/read your opinion on a possible economic unity among the GCC states and how that could affect Iran?

    Some reports seem to agree that a unified currency, customs and possible mini-taxation could create the world 4th largest economic bloc. Will Iran tolerate such an “entity” at its doorstep? Will it promote it in the hope it will ease its trade with these states? Or, will it continue undermining their inner stability by playing the Shia card?

    Thanks.

  11. finally, I could see this page! :)

    I think Ahmadinejad would be happy to see this flattery!

    I agree with you that the sanctions do not hurt this regime but strengthen it; and a war will strengthen it beyond any hope for reforms–a war will only accelerate Ahmadinejad’s march towards fascism. To invoke Cyrus, with a Palestinain chefia, during the unveiling of the “first declaration of human rights” removes any doubt that the little wanna-be-dictator is hoping for an “imperial legacy” for himslef. The situation is turning rather comical, though. Ahmadinejad is a farce; whose posturings are at best Chaplinesque (in the great dictator).

    The TRUTH is, Iran “is” independent and can function well even under American and Israeli threats; but Ahmadinejad cannot exist without them. Sadly; it is Ahmadinejad who has tangibly harmed Iranian independence by gradually ruining manufacturing and now agricultural sectors; it is he and his plagiarising ministers who have set back Iranian academic to such extent that a paper submitted from Iran ends up in editor’s dump before revision.

    One of his cronies; with least education in archeology, has recently suggested to dig in Cyrus’ grave to find his mummy!! Ahmadinejad is utilizing the media, in this age of persuasion, to project an image of his grandiosity that is nonexistant. He is trying to fabricate history. He suggests that Clinton is uneducated to be qualified to comment on the rise of militarism in Iran’s power structure. He is right; but why does Ahmadinejad refuse to speak to Iranians who know Iran and who call him to debate, while he is so eager to be interviewed by the ‘imperial media’; whose ignorance it often criticizes.

    I wonder, has he ever been approached to be interviewed by yourself? By someone who “knows and researches Iran” instead of some pop-NBC journalist?

  12. Listening to whether Diane Rehm will allow that debunked “Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map” hooey. She has allowed this to be repeated on her program numerous times in the past

    Well Diane Rehm just allowed the “Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map” hooey without challenging the claim. She has done this so many times I have lost count. The two guest do not have diversity of opinion what so ever. Prof Cole hope you listen to this show and dissect it with your expert insights and opinion. Weak weak program I think. Not much information. Not many tough questions. Not much diversity of opinion in that hour

  13. Delusions of grandeur and avaricious expansionism trip up so many otherwise graceful realpolitikians.

    Back in 1979 or ’80 I wasted a lunchtime at a “seminar” put on by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. The presenter was one Tariq Aziz, and his pitch was how nice it would be for the world if Iraq were to “return” to its “natural and traditional borders.” Under the benign rulership of one Saddam Hussein, protector of the faith, eminent strongman, would-be Caliph, etc., etc.

    How entertaining that so many of the policy wonks in the Chicago set, from neocon to limp-wristed liberal, applauded this bit of chicanery and felt, ah, “increased in stature” by standing around this little Iraqi after the presentation and lionizing him, not so very long before April Glaspie told Saddam himself, on behalf of the US government and presumably the rest of us mopes, that the US took no position on those intra-Arab disputes, like whether Kuwait was part of “natural Iraq.”

    Same stuff from Ahmadinejad and his coterie inside “natural Iran.” How long before the next idiot US president will say, maybe not in jest, “the bombs are falling as I speak”?

    We are a stupid species with a death wish, as far as I can tell.

    • Just maybe you’re right. We may think Islamaphobia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or maybe at some level we (collectively) want drama and define ourselves by what we are NOT….leading to differentiations that we find offensive, threatening, and ultimately that have to be attacked. Gad.

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