Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Iranian forecast

What will Iran look like 10 years from now, asks Mustafa El-Labbad *

Click to view caption
Reformist challengers to the hardline Iranian theocracy in jubilant mood

What will Iran be like in 2020? If predicting the future is difficult enough in view of the plethora of factors that need to be taken into account, the task is all the more difficult when it comes to Iran.

The Iranians themselves have a custom when they need to make a forecast. They consult their famous poet Shamseddin Mohamed Hafez-e Shirazi, known by his penname Hafez. The method of doing so is to pick up a volume of Hafez, close your eyes, flip open the book and place your finger on the verse at which the page falls open.

The verse your finger has landed on is the key to the forecast. In Persian they call this the Faal Hafez -- the Hafez omen. As I am not proficient in this type of augury, I will fall back on a more conventional approach to discerning the shape of Iran in 2020.

A major regional power, the Iranian geopolitical space has continuously intersected with the global political map, both under the former monarchy, which was "open" to the international order, and under the Islamic republican system, which has locked horns with that order.

Indeed, such labels as "friendly" or "hostile", as accurate as they may be to describe Iranian regimes in certain historical periods, fall by the wayside when we take the longer view. Iranian regimes, regardless of their ideological outlooks, intersect with the international order for the very simple reason that regional ambitions form a constant in Iranian foreign policy.

As this constant is applied in an area whose petroleum resources have made it one of the most strategic parts of the globe, Iran has acquired a unique and highly important position in the international order. With a historical and civilisational continuum several thousand years old, Iran is an ancient centralised state. It possesses enormous human resources, with young people nowadays accounting for 65 per cent of the population.

In spite of restrictions on communications as a result of the heavy surveillance of Internet and mobile connections (as has been the case since protests erupted following the 2009 presidential elections), Iran has the third- largest country ratio of bloggers on the web and the highest rate of Internet users in the Middle East.

Iran's human potential extends far beyond the country's borders. Iranians around the world and in the US in particular form a large scientific base that transcends ideology, in the sense that it will remain in place regardless of changes in the regime.

In addition to its human resources, Iran possesses vast energy resources. Iran, which has the most diversely skilled labour force and the most highly educated population in the Middle East, represents only one per cent of the world's population. Yet, it possesses 10 per cent of the world's known oil reserves, and it is the fourth-largest oil producer in the world.

It also possesses 16 per cent of the world's known natural gas reserves, making it the second-largest natural gas producer in the world after Russia. As 3.6 million of the 6.2 million barrels of oil it produces daily are consumed domestically, Iran has a surplus of 2.6 million barrels per day for export. As its known reserves are around 130 billion barrels, Iran could continue to maintain the current level of output for at least the next 40 years. In addition, with estimated natural gas reserves of 27 trillion cubic metres, Iran could also produce 500 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year for the next 55 years.

A country's political future is contingent upon diverse factors, the most prominent being the efficacy of its political system and its ability to optimise the use of its human and material resources. In the light of the above, it follows that Iran theoretically stands an excellent chance of ascending further on the regional power ladder in the coming decade.

Iran's current influence, stretching from its western borders to Lebanon, is the strongest and most extensive in its modern history. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, Iran has locked horns with the US in particular through various proxy wars, economic blockades, and innumerable diplomatic standoffs. However, Washington has not succeeded in changing the Iranian regime. Nor has that regime succeeded in overcoming the US drive to oust it as a regional power.

Today, the confrontation between the two sides has entered a critical phase, which will determine the state of Iran in 2020. The Iranian nuclear question is now on the negotiating table between Iran and the five UN Security Council nations plus Germany. Most recently, Iran has turned down an international offer to have its uranium enriched abroad.

This is not the place to enter into the technical and legal details of the issue. As consequential as it is in its own right, the Iranian nuclear question is the fulcrum of a number of other demands that each side is pressing for. As we have seen, negotiations over Iran's uranium enrichment activities have served as an avenue for the two sides to explore possibilities of reaching an understanding over, for example, guarantees that Iran can keep the regional gains it has acquired over the past seven years since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

These include guarantees that the US can exit safely from Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping its regional interests intact, and arrangements that will help alleviate the general climate of hostility between the US and a large segment of the peoples of the Middle East.

Since concrete interests tend to prevail over ideology in international relations, there appears to be a strong likelihood that Tehran and Washington will eventually reach an understanding. Given Iran's vast human resource potential, energy resources and regional influence, the Obama administration could well deem this the right time to propel Iran further up the scale of regional power balances.

Therefore, as sound as Persian sayings usually are, I doubt whether the following one applies to the relationship between Tehran and Washington: Dusti ve doshmani kessan az pedaran be farzandan ba zamand (friendships and enmities are passed on from father to son).

At all events, this is not exactly a one-way relationship. Washington may need Iran, but not to the extent that it will forge a partnership with Tehran without very strict guidelines and conditions. Simultaneously, as strident as the Iranian ideological line is, as represented by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is not even the most powerful official in the land, Tehran knows that unless it strikes some form of alliance with the world's foremost superpower it stands no chance of gaining recognition as the foremost power in the region.

The operation and development of Iran's gas and oil sectors will require billions of dollars of investment over the next 10 years. Otherwise production levels will fall off, and Iran will be unable to translate its natural-resource potential into cash. Granted, Iran can make deals with China and Russia, but they still do not have the technological prowess that the US has in the petroleum sector.

In addition, unless it normalises relations with the US, Tehran cannot translate the regional influence it has acquired on many fronts into a springboard for leveraging itself to the status of a major regional power in the international order. Iran's situation today reminds one of a big-time gambler in a casino. This gambler has made quite a few successful bets and has raked in several piles of chips, but he cannot change his horde of chips into money. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bipolar world order, the US has run the cashier's cage in the Middle East political casino.

The future of Iran a decade from now is thus contingent on the ability of its government and diplomatic machine to transform the nuclear question into successful negotiations and eventually a form of partnership with the US. Only then will Iran secure its status as a regional power, open doors to the financial and technological investments it needs for its energy sector, and receive the recognition and respect that it seeks.

On the other hand, if Iran squanders its cards and turns the negotiations into an opening for further international pressures and isolation, the country will look much grimmer a decade from now. Iran has endured 30 years of rupture with Washington, and of course it could probably continue for another 10 years. However, the dynamics surrounding the Iranian nuclear question are such as to have made it the pivotal determinant of Iran's geo- strategic position.

It can therefore be said with some confidence that the decisions the Obama administration takes with respect to the Iranian nuclear question and the ways that Tehran responds will have a profound impact on the shape of Iran in 2020.

* Director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.

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