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Iran has chosen self-destruction, and is happy to take the world down with it

In World
April 16, 2024

The Iranian regime has chosen suicide. True, it will take some time for the logical conclusion of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatal and probably irreversible course of action to play out. Like a pre-AI automaton incapable of adapting to the input of new information, the BBC will continue to blather about Iran’s capacity for “strategic patience” and the risks of Israel “dragging” the US into a regional war.

But one thing seems clear: the Iranian theocracy has now entered a death loop. Unless Israel throws it a lifeline, it is increasingly likely that Tehran faces either a Soviet-style collapse amid a regional war it cannot afford, or bloody regime change as the revolution is eaten by its children.

By directly attacking Israel from its own soil, Iran has initiated a battle of brinkmanship that it cannot possibly win. Some will argue that it was Israel that ripped up the playbook when an Iranian general was killed in Syria in an airstrike that hit parts of Tehran’s “consulate”. Still, Jerusalem’s new red lines are by now perfectly obvious to anyone of sound mind.

Israel knows that it cannot afford to let the Iranian onslaught pass without a response. It also knows that Tehran – possibly soon with nuclear weapons – is likely to escalate co-ordinated displays of aggression from Syria in the east and from Hezbollah in Lebanon in the north. And with the West whispering that a pivot to Asia looms, Israel may well have decided that it is now or never.

Today, it can count on America’s support in the event of a full-blown regional war; this may not be the case in a few years’ time. In other words, Jerusalem is unlikely to back down.

But while a regional war would test Israel, it would destroy Iran, for the simple reason that Tehran cannot afford to take on its adversary. To raise the billions needed to bankroll its nuclear programme and prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, it has already raised taxes by eye-watering amounts and devalued its currency to dangerous levels.

The situation may have reached a tipping point where Iran cannot increase spending to meet the demands of military escalation without bringing about its effective bankruptcy or presiding over an economic collapse likely to trigger a popular revolt.

It seems equally unlikely, however, that Tehran can back down without a tremendous loss of face. Its credibility among the new generation of Islamists who prop up the regime would surely be destroyed. Khamenei would struggle to revert to his earlier strategy of channelling their bellicose energies into a domestic war on headscarf rebels.

With the theocracy gripped by infighting, it is hardly impossible that its critics could seize on the regime’s temporary weakness to attempt an uprising. Regardless of who prevailed in the resulting power struggle, the elders of the 1979 revolution could be destroyed, spurned by one side as inept and the other as insane.

So why on earth has Khamenei’s inner circle committed to this course of action? Has the regime gone insane? Khamenei himself, the second longest-serving leader of the Middle East, may no longer be acting rationally.

Advocates of the Iranian nuclear deal naively pushed interpretations of the Supreme Leader as a “tactician” and a “pragmatist”. There is an accumulation of evidence pointing in the opposite direction.

As with Putin, Western analysts have struggled to appreciate Khamenei’s sweeping sense of destiny, hovering on that fine line between delusion and apocalypticism.

Unlike his predecessor Ayatollah Khomenei, who feared being corrupted by French decadence while living in exile, Khamenei is said to be obsessed with the perceived depravities of Western civilisation. He devours novels that expose its cruel underbelly (Les Misérables and The Grapes of Wrath are known to be among his favourites) and is reported to have personally translated into Persian the “clash of civilisations” tracts of the Islamist scholar Sayyid Qutb, cited as an inspiration for Osama bin Laden.

Khamenei’s dangerous messianism may also have been underestimated. He is to his predecessor Khomenei what Stalin was to Lenin. Vauntingly ambitious, yet paralysingly insecure, he has sought to create a cult of personality around himself. Since the brief ascendancy of the rival reformist cleric Mohammed Khatami, moderates have been purged, while a hardline loyalist faction has been built up.

Have Khamenei’s delusions of grandeur curdled into downright derangement? His televised word vomits spewed against the “evil Zionist regime”, or American “arrogance”, are so formulaic and circular, that – much like the speeches of Soviet apparatchiks – they can effectively be read top to bottom or bottom to top (lending an illusion perhaps of stability and immutable truth in a society characterised by chaos). While his people eat from bins, and despite official claims that he enjoys only a modest lifestyle, he is believed to spend his time rattling around in the Shah’s restored palaces. He recently raised eyebrows by proclaiming that God speaks through him.

In a country where 60 per cent of people live in poverty and refusal to wear a headscarf has become a powerful symbol of resistance, his strategy appears to have shifted from religious populism to survival. The aim no longer seems to be to convince Iranians to keep the faith in the revolutionary cause but to shore up the support of a narrow base of loyalists who can protect him from being toppled. It is, of course, likely to be this faction that is hell-bent on war, having become radicalised to the point where it is incapable of geopolitical realism or cost-benefit calculations.

The sickness of the regime extends to the wider country. Pathological self-deception has come to oil the theocratic machine as much as black gold. Clerics grant men one-hour marriages to prostitutes, and young women routinely undertake hymenoplasties in advance of marriage.

All of this might seem like irrelevant detail, but having created a virtual reality in which black is white, perversion is modesty, and Iran can win against the Little Satan, the regime may be incapable of escaping the suicidal conclusions of its radicalism even if it wanted to. To show moderation at this crucial juncture would risk unravelling the intricate universe of lies that holds the system together.

This makes for a deadly geopolitical situation. World powers may well call for calm, as if this were a mere game of chicken. But the terrifying reality is that Iran simply may have gone nuts.

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