By Stephen Sarty*
Since the revolution, Iranian politics have progressed through a number of phases, becoming progressively more splintered as time passes, where the question of which identity for the nation – whether to continue as a purely Islamic theocratic state or to move towards a more open Islamic Democratic Republic – plays out.
Internally, many of Iran’s political factions believe strongly that the future of the state is in deepening Iran’s relations with the outside world and drastically improving its own economy. In that regard, if one were to take a more holistic view in determining what lessons Iran could learn from other nations with regards to their various approaches to the same questions, one can certainly draw interesting conclusions from countries like North Korea and Indonesia to see how their experiences have helped or hurt their countries.
Inside Iran one of the two main political factions are the ‘Principalists.’ This group represents Iranian Conservatives and is more closely aligned with the Ayatollah and his revolutionary ideology. While they may not like the comparison, this side of Iranian politics tends to prefer an Iran modeled very much in the mold of North Korea. Isolationist and defiant to the greater global world, they oppose such things as the recent nuclear accord and moves toward a more modern lifestyle, combining this with a deep mistrust of the West’s intensions. In North Korea, we see a country that has taken an extreme stance in both its internal and external relations. In exploring its internal politics we see a country where, while its leaders enjoy complete control over the nation’s populace, its people live in absolute poverty, the economy is largely non-existent and in shambles, and the only real means of survival seems to rest on the fact that it possesses a nuclear arsenal and is willing to convince the world it might act irrationally with it.
On the surface Iran and North Korea have a number of similarities: both regimes were born out of revolutions that were largely founded on anti-imperialist sentiments; both regimes have consistently used the United States as a scapegoat for their own economic woes; and both find the development of a nuclear program, whether for peaceful or military means, at odds with the international community and the source of crippling international denouncement and sanctions. Finally, both are topped by non-democratic leaders, with the Ayatollah firmly entrenched as the Supreme Leader of Iran and Kim Jong-un standing as North Korea’s cult of personality. It is this approach to the nuclear issue within the global community that Iran could look towards North Korea to understand the seriousness of potential consequences if it is unable to find a solution amenable to all. While both nations have multiple layers of political and military leadership beneath them, the two Supreme Leaders share a common role in being the final word throughout all of their nations’ foreign and domestic policies.
North Korea, similar to the discussions Iran is currently engaged in, came to an agreement on what the international community felt were acceptable terms with regards to its nuclear program. Adherence to the terms of this agreement would have brought in much needed fuel, food, and financial assistance, creating a major positive impact on the health and well-being of its citizenry. Unfortunately, North Korea’s adherence to the agreement was short-lived and its hardships have worsened. Cut off from the outside world, North Korea has experienced such severe hardships that some estimates horrifyingly claim up to 15 percent of its population has perished during the most recent economic downturn.
These shortages have caused the nation to attempt to erratically leverage its nuclear position to basically ‘extort’ aid. And so continues the never-ending cycle that causes outside nations to be alarmed at the increasing instability and react by attempting to tighten the diplomatic/economic noose in an effort to displace the NK leadership. With the passage of the JCPOA, Iran stands at a precipice similar to where North Korea once stood: abide by the terms of the agreement and move back into the fold of the international community or depart from the terms and sink deeper into the political and economic abyss. It is sincerely hoped that Iran will prove to be less irrational and less petulant compared to North Korea in reacting to such pressures. The main difference in Iran that could prevent this comparison scenario from continuing in a negative light is the existence of identifiable groups within both the main population and elite levels of government that provide a contrary voice and have the power to effect change. It is this voice of potential grassroots pragmatism that has been effectively silenced within North Korea and possibly has the power to force Iran’s more dogmatic leadership to move along a different trajectory, thus preventing the nation from falling into the same despair as North Korea.
In contrast to North Korea, Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim community, provides an excellent example of how a democratic nation and Islam can peacefully co-exist within the global environment. For decades Islamic political pressures boiled in Indonesia as we currently see in many Middle Eastern nations today. These forces were kept largely in check by President Suharto’s military regime until the nation, long tired of authoritarian rule, forced Suharto to resign. We see some of these same pressures today within Iran as large segments of the population disagree with the powers Khamenei wields over the government and look to effect at least quasi-democratic change. While many worry that Islam and democracy will never be allowed to co-exist in Iran, we have seen this as an unfounded worry inside Indonesia. While the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, the state itself is not considered theocratic. As in Indonesia, we see in Iran a populace that is supportive of such fundamental principles as the freedom of political parties, inclusive suffrage, freedom of the press, and a number of other civil rights normally associated with mature consolidated democracies. With an increase in religious and cultural plurality within Iran, the stage could soon be set for a more inclusive form of government similar to the Indonesian path.
Such a successful outcome, however, would require a political disengagement of the current religious leadership that currently sits atop Iran’s power structures. That may well be unattainable at this moment but it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility in the future, through either peaceful or non-peaceful means. Economic hardships combined with Persian nationalism could well force Iran’s leadership to effect change within the state in order to ensure its own political survival, even if at a lessened capacity. Once that door is opened, who knows how swift and dramatic potential changes could be? Peaceful and progressive revolutions aimed at JOINING more tightly to the global community are less noticeable and far harder to predict than strident ideological movements bent on separating further from the international stage. Iran has already had this latter revolution. Now it is time to hope that the former is on the visible horizon.
About the author:
*Stephen Sarty is a graduate student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA. He is a former U.S. Marine and has lived and worked in the Middle East for the last 23 years.
This article was published at Modern Diplomacy.