Volker Perthes' Study: "Iran – a Political Challenge"

Behind the Scenes of the Islamic Republic

Middle East expert Volker Perthes has written an objective, balanced analysis of the diverse and difficult subject of Iran. Particularly impressive is his success in representing the heterogeneity of Iranian society. Sebastian Sons read the study

An Iranian woman in front a poster depicting Khomeini (photo: DW/dpa)
Between youthful vigour and post-revolutionary rigidity: for foreign observers, the political system and the countless social contradictions of the Islamic Republic are almost impossible to understand

​​When it comes to current news coverage, Iran is undoubtedly one of the most controversial and frequently debated countries on the world map – and the hardest to understand too.

The diversity of its politics, economy and culture are often ignored in debates about the state. Public discussions are dominated by stigmatisation and populist arguments that emphasise either Iran's "good" or "bad" sides. Sober analyses are rare.

Volker Perthes is one of the positive exceptions to this rule. Head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), he is known not only for his excellent specialised knowledge of the country, but also for his ability to assess the complex issues of contemporary Iran with cool objectivity and balanced attention to detail, as illustrated by his most recent study, Iran – Eine politische Herausforderung (Iran – A Political Challenge).

The heterogeneity of Iranian society

In his 156-page study, Perthes succeeds in detailing Iran's main features and dismantling the stereotypes associated with the country. Whereas President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statements are often misinterpreted as representing the opinions of an entire nation, Perthes succeeds in using simple, succinct language to depict the heterogeneous nature of Iranian society.

Among other things, he convincingly shows that criticism of the president is very much part of daily political life in Iran.

Ahmadinejad's failing economic policies and his polemical stance on foreign issues are two key factors that have increasingly forced the president into the defensive during his term in office.

Map of Iran and Iraq (photo: AP)
Following the fall of Iraq and in view of the conspicuous presence of the US in the region, Iran hopes to assume a dominant role in the Middle East

​​Perthes rises to the challenge of depicting Iran as it really is: a state incorporating various political tendencies and movements, with social and party-political differences and divisions that must be included comprehensively in any evaluation of its political landscape if sustainable dialogue with Iran is to be possible in the future.

Blocked policies, blocked economy

Perthes also sheds light on the country's economic situation; despite its extensive oil and gas reserves, Iran remains a "developing country", he says. Growth and development are still hindered by subsidies, aging refineries, the enormous, continued influence of the bonyads, the religious trusts, as well as inflexible state control of the economy.

Parts of the elite are pushing for an opening up of the economy, for privatisation and liberalisation, and are not afraid to criticise the president's "populist economic policy", which has so far proved wholly ineffectual. A powerful faction of the conservative wing, however, supports the policies of isolation and protectionism.

A rational agent

​​That being said, Iranian policies are not as irrational or incomprehensible as often claimed by western critics. The opposite is in fact the case. Volker Perthes suggests that the "Islamic Republic is an agent that acts rationally or 'logically', weighing up opportunities and risks and attempting to enhance its existing advantages."

To this end, he writes, Iran hopes to assume a dominant role in the Middle East, especially since the regime in Iraq has been toppled and in view of the conspicuous presence of the US in the region.

According to Perthes, Iran trusts nobody. There are historical reasons for this too, one of which is the overthrow of the first and so far only freely and democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, a coup that was organised by the American CIA and British MI5.

Nevertheless, Perthes feels that it would be a mistake to conclude that Iran sets no store by a good relationship with the US. Perthes is of the opinion that despite his denunciations of America, even Ahmadinejad is interested in improving relations.

Assurances should be accepted with caution

Perthes retains his balanced approach when it comes to the subject of Iran's nuclear programme and shows himself to be refreshingly sober and analytical. Although many in the West assume Iran is working on "the bomb", in reality it is not at all clear what the country intends.

Says Perthes: "It can be assumed that significant parts of the establishment see the nuclear programme simply as a question of equality in a world where Iran is forbidden from doing something others are allowed to do."

Volker Perthes (photo: dpa)
Volker Perthes is an expert on the Middle East and head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin

​​At any rate, Perthes makes it very clear that Iran's assurances that it intends to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes should be received with the utmost caution, and he certainly does not deny the potential dangers. The aim must therefore be to develop a sustainable strategy for dealing with Iran.

Above all, a normalisation of US-Iranian relations is needed, he says, as this would encourage gradual liberalisation within Iran. Perthes suggests South Africa as a mediator; the country is not allied with either side and, due to its work on its own nuclear programme, a credible negotiating partner.

Pragmatism and objectivity

Perthes describes Iran as a country of internal divisions – divisions between hardliners, reformers and pragmatists, between traditionalists and modernists, between religious and western elites, between state and society, between youthful vigour and post-revolutionary rigidity.

Perthes' book is suitable for both knowledgeable experts and those interested in learning more about Iran, an illustration of the fact that it is possible to address the political challenge that is Iran with pragmatism and objectivity, but without losing sight of the dangers or the risks involved.

Sebastian Sons

© Qantara.de 2009

Perthes, Volker: Iran – Eine politische Herausforderung, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2008.

Translated from the German by Steph Morris.

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