By now anyone interested in international politics knows who the oligarchs are. They are super-rich individuals who, by taking advantage of special political circumstances, have amassed big fortunes, often undeservedly, as a trampoline for political influence. The breed is most visible in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine, where their presence extends to the top echelons of power. However, oligarchs can also be found in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At the other end of the political spectrum, in traditional Western democracies, we have plutocrats who play a similar hand, albeit within slightly stricter legal and political limits. Western plutocrats often owe their fortunes to their innovative genius and business acumen. But they, too, benefit from close ties to the ruling elite through financial support for election campaigns and, in some cases, outright bribery or insider information advantages.
Western plutocrats may appear more kosher in political terms because they often disguise their political meddling in humanitarian terms. Bill Gates, for example, wants to save the planet while George Soros is worried about the future of democracy in America. France's plutocrats are interested in fighting poverty in Africa and helping immigrants assimilate into their new French culture.
The disastrous consequences of oligarchs meddling in politics are too well known to need more attention here. But what about the plutocrats' record? The question merits attention, because right now two American plutocrats are engaged in erratic attempts at solving two of the hottest international problems. Elon Musk, the owner of X (Twitter), Tesla and SpaceX, and reputed to be the richest on the man planet, says he has a plan to end the Russian war in Ukraine. For his part, George Soros, now operating through his son Alexander, is busy campaigning for a deal between Tehran and Washington to give President Joe Biden's forthcoming election campaign the boost it badly needs. (Assuming Biden gets the Democratic Party nomination again.)
George Soros has been engaged in his grand plan for bringing the Islamic Republic of Iran into the fold for almost three decades. He first put his chips on President Mohammad Khatami, a mild-mannered cleric who liked to quote Western philosophers and preach a "dialogue of civilizations." Soros met a number of top Islamic officials in New York and on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and recruited a contingent of US-educated Iranians working for the ruling mullahs in Tehran. The scheme reached the peak of its success when the so-called "New York Boys" seized control of the executive branch of government in Tehran under President Hassan Rouhani, a British-educated junior cleric dreaming of leading the Islamic Republic into the "modern world".
However, as might have been expected, the Soros scenario ultimately failed because "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has bigger dreams for the Islamic Republic. Khamenei believes that the West is heading south to decline while China, Russia and Iran have emerged as leaders for a "New World Order". Now, however, we know that Khamenei's leadership troika exists only in his fantasies. China and Russia treat Iran as an untouchable to be kept at arm's length.
Surprisingly sharp criticism of both China and Russia are now heard even in Iran's Majlis (Islamic Consultative Assembly), the ersatz parliament in Tehran. Runaway inflation, public discontent of varying intensity, and a growing split within the regime's core base are forcing the "Supreme Guide" and his close aides to consider another pirouette inspired by his "heroic flexibility" theory, according to which Iran adopts a reasonable profile for a while until it weathers the storm unleashed against it by fate and foes.
One more factor is important; Khamenei's age, which makes the choice of a successor or at least a mechanism for succession an urgent issue.
The first timid steps towards "heroic flexibility" have already been taken. Most of the American and dual-national hostages with US passports have been released. In November 2024, Biden, if he ends up as a presidential candidate, could claim that for the first time in almost half a century, no US citizens are held hostage in Iran, something that six presidents before Biden failed to achieve.
Last week in New York, Iran's President Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi was on his best behavior. In his address to the UN General Assembly, he ditched the usual blood-curdling jibes at the US and avoided the usual "Zionist entity must be wiped out" slogan. He also held a meeting with a number of American Jewish figures who, for different reasons including opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a naïve hope that the leopard may shed its spots, support the Soros peace plan.
In exchange, the Biden administration has arranged for the unfreezing of some $6 billion in Iranian assets held in South Korea while ignoring the sanctions against Iranian oil exports beyond the 1.1 million barrel-a-day limit set under President Donald Trump.
Will the plutocrat's peace scenario work? I doubt it. Being anti-American and anti-Israel form the Iranian regime's core identity. Any backtracking on those lines makes demands for full normalization unavoidable, and if that happens it is hardly unlikely that a young Iran that wishes to seize a proper role in the modern world would continue to submit to rule by an increasingly narrow elite of clerics and security figures that have nothing new to offer.
For the past two years, Iran has been moving within a liminal space between two world-views, two visions for the nation's future, and two narratives about what it means to be an Iranian in the 21st century.
In the 1920s, the American plutocrat Armand Hammer orchestrated a similar scenario with the newly-born Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin. He persuaded Washington to give the Bolsheviks a chance to learn the beauty of getting rich through capitalism and trade. Hammer won the argument and Lenin won the civil war that without the "Great Satan " pumping money into his war machine, he would have lost.
The USSR survived for six more decades, challenging the US for world leadership.
In the 1930s, other American plutocrats tried to tame Germany's Adolf Hitler in the name of saving the peace in Europe.
However, Henry Ford's " ship of fools" and his rabid anti-Semitism only sharpened the Nazi leopard's appetite for blood and conquest.
Almost 20 years ago, a group of British plutocrats assembled at the home of the Kuwaiti Ambassador in London told the guests that the "Palestine problem" would be resolved by pumping £200 million into the West Bank's economy, providing "decent housing and modern shopping malls" for Palestinians.
The man orchestrating the miracle was Peter Hain, Minister of State for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.
Well, Hain is gone, along with the £200 million which, god forgive us, may have ended up in the accounts of corrupt Palestinian Authority officials and their own plutocrats in Western banks.
If war is too serious a matter to be left to generals, international politics is even more so if left to oligarchs in the east and plutocrats in the west.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.