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Generational Dynamics Web Log for 21-Sep-2013
21-Sep-13 World View -- Does Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility' signal a real policy change?

Web Log - September, 2013

21-Sep-13 World View -- Does Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility' signal a real policy change?

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani publishes an op-ed

This morning's key headlines from

Iran's policies move in the direction of 'Heroic Flexibility'

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, will visit the United Nations next week
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, will visit the United Nations next week

Iran's extremely hardline Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, surprised Iranian officials this week by using the phrase "Heroic Flexibility" to describe how Iran should negotiate nuclear issues with America and the West.

According to Khamenei:

"Though the world has changed, that cannot be a justification for the change of ideals, goals, or the correct path. ... The nuclear matter must be evaluated within this outlook.

We do not accept nuclear weapons, neither due to nor not due to America, but because of our beliefs. When we say that no one must have nuclear weapons, we certainly do not pursue them, but the true goal of Iran's opposition in this field is another matter.

Of course, these few countries do not want their monopoly to be broken in the nuclear energy field... Therefore, the turmoil and tension created by America, the West and their related currents in the nuclear discussion must be understood and analyzed within the framework of the deep tension between the Dominant System and the Islamic Revolution.

I do not oppose correct diplomatic movements. I believe in what was called 'heroic flexibility' years ago because this movement is very good and necessary in situations but it must be binding to fundamental conditions.

A good wrestler sometimes shows flexibility due to technical reasons but does not forget his opponent or his main goal.

All of these achievements were accomplished in the oven of the enemies' pressure and conspiracies, and this valuable experience demonstrates that no obstacle can stop a faithful, coherent and determined people that know their way."

The phrase "Heroic Flexibility" refers to the act of a Muslim hero, following the death of the prophet Mohamed in the 7th century, to finally reverse his clan's opposition to the message of Mohamed. His reversal is referred to as "History's Most Glorious Heroic Flexibility." It led to major victories of Islam in Arabia, but it also led to the major split in Islam between the Sunni and Shia branches, and a bitter civil war that has been repeated throughout the centuries.

So the deep historic significance of this phrase by the hardline Khamenei was startling to other Iranian leaders, because it was felt that Khamenei would not have used that particular phrase unless he actually intended a major change of policy, rather than simply some West-baiting statement.

Another Iranian leader, Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, reacted to the "heroic flexibility" phrase as follows:

"Just as the Supreme Leader pointed out during the [IRGC] commanders meeting, our country's officials and policy makers must pay attention to America's true personality, behavior and nature.

Negotiations must take place in the framework of a complete and total understanding of the opposing side, and we must not forget America's tricks and deception. We must not forget how they supported this current in the [2009] sedition matter [Green Movement] and were determined to confront the great Iranian nation in their velvet reserves [referring to Velvet Revolution] with their cast iron and steel claws."

American Enterprise Institute (Sept 17) and American Enterprise Institute (Sept 18)

Iran's changing strategy defined by younger generations

Assuming that a change in Iran's policies is actually about to occur, many analysts are attributing it to the American sanctions. This comes from the standard silly view that almost everything in the world occurs because of something that happens in Washington, when in fact very little that happens in the world is caused by Washington policies.

If a policy change occurs, it would be part of a much larger change in Iran's government that Generational Dynamics has been predicting for years. (See for example, "China 'betrays' Iran, as internal problems in both countries mount" from 2008.)

Iran is in a generational Awakening era. That's because its last generational Crisis war began in 1979, with the Great Islamic Revolution, and continued until 1988 with the Iran/Iraq war, during which Iran was the target of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) -- poison gas from Saddam Hussein's Iraq army. The survivors of that war, currently led by Khamenei, have devoted their lives to make sure no such horrific war happens again. From the point of view of the survivors, the way to do this is, first, to keep the country united behind a hardline Islamic state and, second, to have a strategic defense to the WMDs held by Iran's neighbors, including Pakistan and Israel.

What characterizes a generational Awakening era is that, very simply, the crisis war survivors die off, and they are replaced by younger generations of people who grew up after the crisis war, who have no personal memories of the horrors of the crisis war, and who rebel against the survivors, creating a "generation gap." This happened in America in the 1960s, when the presidencies of war survivors John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were all faced with massive student protests, demanding such things as sexual freedoms, the end of the Vietnam War, and racial equality. The student protests triggered police violence that reached a peak in the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago, though the protests continued pretty freely after that.

In Iran, student protests began in the early 2000s, and police violence reached a peak during the 2009 re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The police violence was so bloody and brutal that open protests have all but ended since then. But the underlying generational changes cannot be stopped by police action. The Iran/Iraq crisis war survivors are retiring and dying off, and the younger generations of people with no personal memory of the crisis war are reaching positions of power and influence. That's going to happen no matter what the police do.

So in order to predict changes in Iran's policies, one needs to look at the opinion of young people, as I've been doing for years, and these are the conclusions that I've reached:

I would add that it's been my opinion for years, in contradiction to almost every American opinion on the left and the right, that even if Iran has nuclear weapons, it has absolutely no intention of using them on Israel.

Furthermore, Iran's leaders know that Israel is not their enemy, and never has been. Their enemies are the Sunni nations, including the Saudis and the Pakistanis.

So as I've been saying for years, I expect Iran's policies to move in the directions dictated by the opinions of young people, as outlined above. Thus, I would expect the hardline social behaviors to be weakened, I would expect the inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric to be softened, but I would expect nuclear weapons development to continue.

In his 'Heroic Flexibility' speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei said that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. I expect Iran to continue development of nuclear weapons, but despite the concerns of Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it's my opinion that Iran has no intention of using them on Israel.

The op-ed by Iran's president Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani is traveling to the United States this week to speak at the United Nations, and possibly to meet with president Barack Obama.

During the last couple of weeks, we've reported on an op-ed by Russia's president Vladimir Putin in the NY Times, and an op-ed by Senator John McCain in

So it's only right that on Friday, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Iran's president Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani has only recently been elected president as a "reformer," which in Iran could mean somebody only slightly less hardline than his predecessors. But my guess is that "reformer" means that he's moving policy away from the hardline policies of the war survivors toward the increasingly popular policies of the young postwar generations.

"Three months ago, my platform of “prudence and hope” gained a broad, popular mandate. Iranians embraced my approach to domestic and international affairs because they saw it as long overdue. I’m committed to fulfilling my promises to my people, including my pledge to engage in constructive interaction with the world. ...

We must pay attention to the complexities of the issues at hand to solve them. Enter my definition of constructive engagement. In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.

Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches. Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences. More than a decade and two wars after 9/11, al-Qaeda and other militant extremists continue to wreak havoc. Syria, a jewel of civilization, has become the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks, which we strongly condemn. In Iraq, 10 years after the American-led invasion, dozens still lose their lives to violence every day. Afghanistan endures similar, endemic bloodshed.

The unilateral approach, which glorifies brute force and breeds violence, is clearly incapable of solving issues we all face, such as terrorism and extremism. I say all because nobody is immune to extremist-fueled violence, even though it might rage thousands of miles away. Americans woke up to this reality 12 years ago. ...

My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve these issues by addressing their underlying causes. We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart. We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.

At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world. The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program. To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world. Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved. ...

After 10 years of back-and-forth, what all sides don’t want in relation to our nuclear file is clear. The same dynamic is evident in the rival approaches to Syria.

This approach can be useful for efforts to prevent cold conflicts from turning hot. But to move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher. Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better. To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want — clearly, concisely and sincerely — and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action. This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.

As I depart for New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, I urge my counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election. I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue. Most of all, I urge them to look beyond the pines and be brave enough to tell me what they see — if not for their national interests, then for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations."

This is a pretty good article, fitting well into the "soaring rhetoric" pattern that we've seen in some politicians' speeches, though none recently. However, it contains little actual content.

What's most noticeable about it is that it contains none of the venom of the op-eds by Putin and McCain, or of the speeches of Obama and Assad. There are no inflammatory remarks about America or Israel, as would certainly have been the case in an article by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the next week, Rouhani will begin to fill out his rhetoric with actual policy positions, and then we'll see whether "Heroic Flexibility" actually means anything. Washington Post

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, see the 21-Sep-13 World View -- Does Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility' signal a real policy change? thread of the Generational Dynamics forum. Comments may be posted anonymously.) (21-Sep-2013) Permanent Link
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