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Political Paralysis Syndrome
The case of Iran

May 3, 2003
The Iranian

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 and elsewhere.

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 away.

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 anyway.

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 them.

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 Features See Bio See Homepage

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