Are they or aren’t they? Will they or won’t they?
Before I answer my own questions, it might be as well to give a necessarily brief overview of the Iranian Government structure. Most people will have no difficulty as identifying Iran as a theocratic state, in point of fact the only one in the world today unless you were to count the Vatican as a country, but it’s instructive to look at the actual structure, reporting paths, which positions are filled by elected representatives and where the power actually resides.
The Islamic republic of Iran is run on the principles of velayat e faqih, or the Rule of Islamic Jurisprudence. These principles give the Supreme leader, a cleric, power over secular institutions, whether elected or appointed. The current Supreme Leader of Iran is Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the second person to hold the post since the founding of the Islamic republic of Iran, the first of course being Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei. There are quite possibly thousands of Ayatollahs in Iran, Ayatollah simply meaning one who is well versed in Islamic law, is qualified to act as a judge and can issue edicts. Wikipedia suggests that an equivalent ‘rank’, if one can use that word, would be a bishop, and who am I to argue with the font of all knowledge. A Grand Ayatolla is simply one to whom other Ayatollahs frequently refer to for guidance in interpreting Islamic matters and who publishes this guidance in book form. Important to note that we are talking about Shia Islam, not Sunni, in case there was any question in the readers’ minds.
The Supreme Leader was/is elected by the Assembly of Experts, eighty six Islamic scholars who are elected to an eight year term of office by direct public vote. Whether any more than the chosen eighty six ever stand for election might be open to debate, however they are the only clerical body selected by direct public election and in theory at least can hold the Supreme Leader to account. They have a busy schedule, being charged with meeting twice a year, each meeting to last at least two days. I have not been able to unearth any reports of these meetings so am unable to comment on their ability to censure the Supreme Leader, although in theory at least they are able to replace him.
Next we have the Guardian Council. This consists of twelve members, six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six nominated by the judiciary. The six nominees are then approved by Parliament. One point to note here is that the head of the Judiciary is appointed by the Supreme leader and can presumably be summarily removed from office by him, should the six Judiciary nominees not meet with the Supreme leader’s approval. I have not delved deep enough to assertain whether Parliament has ever not approved the six nominated candidates, but it would come as something of a surprise to me if they had ever rejected a candidate. The powers of the Guardian Council include that of vetoing any bill passed by Parliament that they consider violates Islamic principles or the Iranian constitution and all passed bills must be approved by the Council before becoming law. Finally, the Guardian Council must approve all presidential candidates before they are able to stand for election. This means that a female President of Iran is unlikely any time soon, although in fairness I should point out that several women do hold the ‘equivalent rank’ of Ayatollah and they are known as Lady Mujtahideh.
At the pinnacle of all this we have the Supreme Leader. Apart from selecting six members of the Guardian Council and appointing the head of the Judiciary, he also appoints the chief judge and the chief prosecutor, not to mention all special tribunals. At the risk of sounding a bit like ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ he also appoints the heads of all the armed forces, he himself being Commander of the same. He appoints the head of national radio and television network, all prayer leaders in city mosques, the heads of all religious foundations and members of all National Security Councils. Not a lad to be trifled with and doubtless why he is occasionally pictured smiling. Politicians and other Ayatollahs have fallen out with Khamenei in the past. He is still Supreme Leader whilst in the main they get to spend a lot of time at home. Under house arrest.
So much for the clerics. The President of Iran is elected by direct vote, those over the age of eighteen, male or female, being eligible to vote. Remember though, all candidates have to be approved by the Guardian Council, which in effect means the Supreme Leader. The President has no control over either the military or foreign policy, or even questions of national security. He does however get to nominate the Ministers for Security and defence, subject to approval by the Supreme Leader. The Parliament or Majlis then confirm or not (think so???) these nominees.
The Majlis consists of two hundred and ninety directly elected members, but all candidates must be approved by…… you’ve guessed, the Guardian Council. You remember them, six members appointed by the Supreme Leader and six candidates nominated by the Judiciary for approval by the Majlis. The head of the Judiciary being of course appointed by the Supreme leader (beginning to see a common thread here?). The Majlis are responsible for formulating and voting on all bills, which then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council before becoming law. The Majlis ratifies all international treaties, which considering Foreign Policy is the preserve of the Supreme Leader, the debate probably consists of ‘sign here’. They approve the budget, an interesting process at the moment I should imagine, and can impeach the President. Recently the current incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was summoned to appear before the Majlis to explain the dismal economic performance of the country. Would it be naive to suggest that the Supreme leader was unhappy about the way things are going?
We’re nearly there, stay with me. I know all this is in the public domain, but for those who aren’t familiar with it (my dears, on the Clapham Omnibus I’m told they speak of nothing else) or don’t commute on the aforementioned omnibus, it’s important that you realise who exercises the real power in Iran. Speaking of which, we now come to the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Majlis and the Guardian Council (scroll up to see who selects them) in the event of a passed proposed law being vetoed by the Guardian Council. The Expediency Council consists of around twenty to thirty members appointed by…. the Supreme leader, who appoints them for five year terms but can re-appoint them indefinately. Nothing like having an unbiased mediation council, and from the sound of it this is nothing like an unbiased mediation council. There are other government bodies but for our purposes, and most probably the Supreme leader’s, they are irrelevant.
Finally, wake up there boy/girl at the back! We have the Military, and we all remember who appoints the heads of each of the branches. Iran has an Army, Navy and Airforce, as well as the Revolutionary Guard, who are in charge of Internal Security. There are believed to be approximately eight hundred thousand members of the armed forces and around one hundred and twenty five thousand or so members of the revolutionary Guard. These figures however disguise the true story, because the revolutionary Guard also control an organisation known as the Basjid Militia. Estimates of their numbers varies from four hundred thousand to close to twenty million. This lot function as a cross between the Saudi religious police and the French CRS. They are called upon to ‘deal’ with any civil unrest, but as they are not technically a government force but volunteers, when they throw people out of high rise buildings the government can deny all responsibility. Seems pretty clear to me where the Supreme Leader thinks the real danger to the Islamic republic is.
Right then, now I can answer my own questions, the first one being ‘are they or aren’t they?’ Pursuing the development of Nuclear Weapons that is. Leaving aside the pronouncements of the Rabid Right, be they in America, Israel or elsewhere the nearest we can come to answering this question is the fifteen page report of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), dated the eigth of November 2011. Yes, I did say fifteen pages, read it for yourselves here.
The IAEA expresses concern on page 10, section K para 53. I won’t quote it directly because Amazon apparently don’t like it, even though it is in the public domain. Suffice it to say the IAEA finds reports of activities concerned with non-civilian applications of nuclear power credible. As far as Iran is concerned, the sting in the tale of the report comes in the annexe. There one finds detailed evidence of development of ‘triggers’ necessary to cause a nuclear detonation. Because the IAEA report deals in facts not speculation, it does say that these triggers can have civilian applications, although so limited as to be unlikely to be connected with anything but the development of a nuclear weapon. Pretty conclusive stuff, fact-based and not speculation. Read it for yourself and you’ll understand why the World (OK, most of the World) drew a sharp breath and all of a sudden sanctions were being agreed on.
Are those sanctions working? Well the Majlis (possibly following a subtle hint from the Supreme Leader) summoned Ahmadinejad to explain the under-performance of the Iranian economy. Since then, ‘something’ (please excuse my wry smile) appears to have disrupted operations at the main Iranian Oil Terminal at Kharg Island albeit on a temporary basis and Iranian banks are finding it difficult if not quite impossible to conduct business. There are still countries importing Iranian oil, but they are finding it impossible due to sanctions to obtain insurance cover from companies in the EU and the US and almost impossible to get coverage elsewhere. China did make vague noises about providing such insurance cover but as the old football supporters chant goes ‘it’s all gone quiet over there’. India has said that state run insurance agencies will provide up to $50 million Protection and Indemnity coverage per voyage, but insurance industry commentators have said that this falls below the amount of liability that might arise from any incident. By way of contrast, Japan has offered just $8 million insurance cover per voyage and China is talking about Sovereign Indemnity. That sounds suspiciously like my insurance cover when I hit the reef in Fiji and means that in the event of any liability China will have to open its wallet and say ‘help yourself.
Sunil Thapar of Shipping Corp of India, the country’s largest shipping firm with a fleet of 29 crude carriers, has said that it may take some time for this facility to become available, due to risk to the state insurers. In the meantime, India during fiscal year 2011/12 was contracted to import 362,000 bpd (barrels per day) of Iranian oil but actually imported less than 340,000 bpd. Currently the imports are running at 280,000 bpd. Iran exports most of its 2.2 million bpd to Asia, but for how much longer? Well certainly up to July 1st, when all EU cover ceases for oil spills. Unnamed Indian Shipping Indusry sources have said (last month) that they would continue to transport Iranian oil regardless. They will, until something goes wrong.
Based on the above, I would say that sanctions are biting, and nor just on the Iranian Government. Following the introduction of sanctions in the banking sector, namely refusing to allow Iranian banks to use SWIFT code transactions, the folks back home are going to find it impossible to get money from the folks overseas. Just possibly the up to twenty million members of the Basjid Militia might find themselves gainfully employed in the not too distant future.
So now ‘will they or won’t they?’
This is really a two-part question. Will they continue to develop nuclear weapons and if they do, will they use them before they get unwanted guests?
Now I’ve marginally exceeded my two thousand word self-imposed limit, so you’re going to have to wait a couple of days for the answer, or at least what I think the answer might be. I won’t make you wait a week, but it will be a couple of days. In the meantime, if you see President Ahmadinejad making a statement about Iran’s nuclear program, remember it isn’t his statement, he’s acting as a deniable mouthpiece. He has no say in foreign policy or defence matters. It’s what the Supreme Leader says that counts and although he doesn’t make many public statements, those he has made are providing many people with sleepless night, although they aren’t talking about it much either.