Political Paralysis Syndrome
The case of Iran
May 3, 2003
In a charitable mood, one could say that Iran’s politicians
are incapable of being proactive. In truth, they are so slow in
responding to challenges (both domestic and foreign) as to barely
deserve the title of reactive. In the wake of the Iraqi war, Iran’s
internal critics have renewed the charges that the government continues
to miss the boat of Iran’s national interests.
The memory of the Afghan war is painfully fresh. Iran that had
opposed the Taliban, hosted millions of Afghani refugees and supported
the Northern Alliance, insisted on neutrality and was left holding
the bag and the burden of a new pariah status on the wrong side
of the Axis of Evil. The contrast to Pakistan which had procreated
and carried the Taliban for years, was glaring as she turned on
a dime to support the American side and emerged from the conflict
smelling like the rose of moderate Islam.
The record of Iran’s foreign policy failures is so consistent
that even the palpable incompetence of its patronage addled foreign
corps can not account for it. The etiology of Iran’s Political
Paralysis Syndrome (PPS) might be instructive to others in the region
The first full blown case of this syndrome infected the hostage
crisis (1979-80) that was a dangerous misadventure in its own right.
PPS caused the indecision of the authorities who stood by as excellent
chances for resolving the worsening situation (such as the visit
of the Secretary General of the United Nations to Iran) slipped
Finally, the Carter administration prodded Iraq to invade Iran
in order to force the interminable hostage crisis to a conclusion.
This worked. Ayatollah Khomeini took a swig of the “chalice
of poison” that he would later drain at the conclusion of
the Iran-Iraq war and authorized the parliament to resolve the crisis.
In the fog of the imposed war and in slapstick haste a triumvirate
of not entirely sane hatters (Iranian clergy use the word kolahi
or “hatter,” for non-clerics) were given the fool’s
errand of quickly resolving the crisis.
With no experience in international negotiations and negligible
knowledge of Iran’s financial and military stakes, they flew
to Algiers to autograph the infamous, American drawn treaty of Algeria,
giving away the hostages along with the entire store.
The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) ended on the same sour note after
many chances for parley had been squandered by a sleep walking leadership.
For the last two years of the war the top brass knew that due to
Iran’s international isolation and Iraq’s use of unconventional
weapons, a military solution of the conflict was impossible.
And yet, in July of 1987 Iran rejected the UN Security Council
Resolution 598 that called for cesassion of hostilities, a return
to international borders and a UN brokered settlement. Only in August
of 1988 after the Iraqi war machine broke through the front lines
with heavy use of chemical weapons and threatened to reoccupy the
Western Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini capitulated, or as he put it, “quaffed
the chalice of poison.”
At once the Iranian mission to the United Nations was instructed
to accept the Security Council resolution that it had flatly rejected
eleven months earlier. When mission officials informed Tehran that
this could not be done on a Saturday when the UN was closed, they
were told to drive to the home of the Secretary General and do it
The Political Paralysis Syndrome is the plague of authoritarian
regimes. It is caused by compounded irresponsibility: idealist leaders
and their servile functionaries have to simultaneously produce complementary
types of irresponsibility to induce total, systemic paralysis.
Idealist leaders are romantics. They are inflexible because they
are guided by fixed ideas. They are convinced that their mind waves
can bend mundane realities but when this does not work they refuse
to adjust their plans. Instead, they denounce compromises and politics
as the art of the possible. To die in the cause of the impossible,
they profess, is better than settling for what is possible.
Before you know it, they have pledged the last drop of their people’s
blood as collateral for their failed dreams. And, when all falls
apart, they blame the chintzy fabric of the world for its inability
to bring out their noble and bold designs. All this can happen in
absence of malice or malfeasance. A nation can descend to the bowls
of hell on a ladder of its leaders’ capricious delusions.
But, there is no star gazing romance, no nobility to the corporate
irresponsibility of the functionaries of authoritarianism. Their
life suffers not from excess of idealism but from lack thereof.
It is a life defined by daily sacrifice of professionalism at the
altar of careerism.
In its inability to handle political independence, every authoritarian
regime selects against conscientious politicians and in favor of
congenital team players, creating a cadre of slavish bureaucrats
who refuse to bring bad news let alone deal with or attempt to prevent
When crises brew apparatchiks cower to dodge the charges of ideological
impurity. They confess dismay at “the system” to gatherings
of two or fewer and to their dear diaries. But, authoritarian functionaries
never resign or take a stand. They only spring to action when the
crisis has turned into a national disaster as only then initiative
can pass as being practical.
Finally, when the leader drinks from the chalice of poison the
functionary can toast the leader, take a plane to Algiers, drive
uptown in search of the Secretary General’s home and keep
a good career going all at the same time.
Ahmad Sadri, is the Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Sociology and Anthropology at Lake Forest College, IL, USA. See
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