2012 is shaping up to be a potentially pivotal year for Iran. With inflation at nearly 50%, economic sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy over the last several months. Threats of a U.S. and/or Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities also show no signs of receding any time soon. Added to this, in March, Iran is set to hold its first general elections since the disputed 2009 presidential election that resulted in the largest protests since the 1979 Revolution.  With so much strain on both the Iranian people and the government, one has to wonder: Where does Iran go from here? Will the government collapse under the weight of these pressures? Or will it become stronger and more unified than ever before?

These questions have no easy answer. The economic pressures on Iran have the potential to both divide and unite the country. On the one hand, there is little doubt that inflation has as much to do with the government’s mishandling of the Iranian economy as with the economic sanctions leveled by the United States and others. On the other hand, the Iranian government has, unsurprisingly, blamed the international community for its financial woes, a tactic that has and will undoubtedly continue to be effective with a significant portion of the Iranian population.

At the same time, threats of war, while not overt, have become increasingly apparent in U.S. foreign policy toward Iran. While American officials have not directly or explicitly threatened attack, they have made comments that at the least indicate a willingness to entertain the option. Increasing discussion, even advocacy, for a strike against Iran from the U.S. policy community and former government officials add to these concerns. A push for an Iran attack from parts of the Israeli government also continues unabated. That the Iranians will unite together against such a strike is undoubted. Nevertheless, a strike on Iran will inevitably be destablizing for the country. The Iranians literally cannot afford a military confrontation, nor is there reason to believe they could muster support from their regional allies (such as Hezbollah and Syria) for a counter-attack.

The March 2012 parliamentary elections are a persistent source of tension within the country. Splits between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamaeni and President Ahmadinejad, as well as on-going divisions between Iran’s conservatives, ultra-conservatives, and reformists, have been as stark as ever. Although Iran’s elections are tightly controlled by Khamaenei and his inner circle, political infighting between regime elites has become par for the course and will likely be exacerbated during this period.

All this leaves Iran with an unstable and unpredictable future. While it is true that the Iranian government has weathered its fair share of storms, none seems to be as perfect as the one brewing this year. Undoubtedly, survival will be of paramount concern to many within the regime. This, in itself, may yield interesting and unusual outcomes, such as a willingness on the part of hard-liners to compromise ideological positions for the sake or real politik concerns. So far, this much seems to be happening on the nuclear issue. Although the outcome is still unclear, Iranian officials seem to be pressing for a return to the negotiating table. It may be that similar attempts at detante and diplomacy may also happen within Iran’s domestic political circles.

Time shall tell. However things turn out, it seems certain that things in Iran are bound to change, in one way or another.

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