I just watched Talk to Al Jazeera’s latest, an interview of Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi by Teymoor Nabili. I hadn’t seen more than photographs and brief quotes from Qasemi before, so it was quite interesting to see him speaking at length. Watch a few minutes of the interview, get a feel for the man–is it just me, or is he a bit slow? It takes about ten minutes for him to say anything that, in translation at least, doesn’t sound like one of his assistants bullet-pointed a Wikipedia article on the international oil market, and the entire time his eyes are half-closed as he speaks in a monotone. (One wonders whether he’s gotten into Iran’s ample supply of opium.) Most of his answers seem to be little more than a statement of the most basic and uncontroversial facts about whatever is being discussed. His reply to a question on whether OPEC would cut production quotas now that Libyan production is coming back online provides a sample of the trivialities that dribble from his ample jowls:
Well, when it was faced with a crisis, it was natural for Libya to reduce its production. But now they’re in a position to come back to their previous level, and they can revert to a normal situation. It’s the same with Iraq. Iraq is increasing its production. When Libya faced its crisis, OPEC decided to increase its supply to compensate for Libya. But today, we think that Libya is coming back gradually, as is Iraq. And the supply trend really depends on the level of demand in the market. Whenever there is demand in the market, the OPEC countries will continue to increase supply and vice versa. And in the upcoming meeting with OPEC, the member countries will coordinate with each other, and will decide on how to proceed.
Of course, international diplomacy uses very oblique language, and so Qasemi’s post as president of OPEC could mean that he’s trying to be uncontroversial. However, Iran has long been a leader of the high price faction at OPEC–they are not nonpartisan. Even the most cautious international leaders find ways to insinuate their opinions with slight turns of phrase. Qasemi, however, seems to have fallen out of the bus a few blocks short of Tehran’s diplomatic academies.
Could he just be evasive? Persian culture is known for ta’arof, a system of manners in which directness is carefully avoided and even pressing issues are raised slowly and in roundabout ways (note, for instance, the rarity with which Ahmadinejad, in even his fieriest speeches, mentions America by name–code phrases like “global arrogance” are used instead). I will admit that one response clearly was ta’arof–Nabili asked rather directly what “the consequences” would be if Iran were attacked, and after some prodding Qasemi noted that any decrease in Iranian production could have a severe impact on the global economy. This is much milder than even the typical rhetoric from Iran’s leadership on the matter of strikes–Khamenei was only recently warning of a “slap and an iron fist” for those that would harm the Islamic Republic. However, it’s inescapable that even at his most clear, Qasemi made his point by restating a widely-known fact, and that many of these clearer statements seem to be contradicted over the course of the interview, as if he doesn’t know his own government’s positions and must correct himself. (Followers of the Cain campaign here in America will find this quite familiar.)
How did this happen? How did a man whose knowledge of the global oil market seems to have been acquired by skimming brochures at OPEC headquarters come to be in charge of one of the most vital elements of Iran’s economy?
The answer is twofold. First, Qasemi is a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Tehran’s equivalent of the Praetorian Guard. As has happened with many praetorian forces in the past, the regime has cultivated loyalty by allowing the IRGC to profit considerably from the current order. IRGC allies control a huge portion of Iran’s economy–the estimate half a decade ago was a third of the economy, which would give the IRGC a GDP roughly the size of Singapore’s. Contracts are handed out to those with the right connections, not to the best. Qasemi’s recent rise was widely seen as rooted in his IRGC ties and not any particular competence. Men like Qasemi are the face of the new Iranian economy.
Second, lack of intelligence is not always a hindrance in autocratic political systems. Politicians can gain political support from peers who see them as too stupid to pose a threat. Konstantin Chernenko reached the pinnacle of the Soviet politics despite being called “mediocrity on wheels” because his rise did not threaten ambitious rivals, and stopping him would have been more controversial than accepting his rise. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, there was a popular joke that Nasser, fearing challengers, had selected Sadat as his vice president because he was less intelligent, and that Sadat had chosen Mubarak as his vice president for the same reason; Mubarak had no vice president because he could not find anyone stupider than himself. Perhaps Iran’s Machiavellian political system has become so fraught with discord as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei split apart that the jesters have taken the throne.