Jun 20 2009

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End of the Beginning in Iran

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Change is in the Air…

With events in Iran at turns fast-paced, fluid and uncertain, it was the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who used Friday prayers to clarify the current state of play.  He did so in a dramatically plain and straight forward manner.

The elections of June 12th were valid, Khamenei said, apparently dispensing with the cursory and face-saving review of select ballots by the regime’s Guardian Council. The Ayatollah used tired and predictable language to blame the unrest on outside forces, including Israel, the US and Britain.  He used that segue to call for an end to the “illegal” demonstrations and, threateningly, said, “If there is any bloodshed, leaders of the protests will be held directly responsible.”1

If we were led to believe that Iranian government’s silence on the demonstrations over the last several days was, in fact, a sign that leaders were seeking a way out of the election mess that was of its own making, we were mistaken. Assuming a mantle of infallibility normally associated with another theology, Iran’s clerics, unable to reconcile their own actions with the rule of law simply outsourced the problem to a third party bogeyman.

In his speech, Khamenei said, “…the enemies [of Iran] are targeting the Islamic establishments’s legitimacy by questioning the election and its authenticity before and after the vote.”2

A good defense attorney will always know they have the goods when a witness admits something that wasn’t asked. Khamenei’s statement was a back-handed acknowledgement of both what the regime rigged, and what is now at stake as a result.

Instead of considering the implications of overreach, Khamenei was busy with the calculus of power.  In a contest with demonstrators, will police, the Basiji (paramilitary thugs), the Army and the regime’s Praetorian protectors, the Revolutionary Guards stand with the government? Apparently, Khamenei was satisfied enough by what he heard to issue such an unqualified threat to the protestors. Either that, or like the eternal cornered rat, he has no option left but to fight.

In doing so, Khamenei has also clarified that nature of the Islamic Republic to the outside world. The clerics have, in effect, doubled down. Having rigged the elections that caused the protests, they are now willing kill their own people to justify the government’s legitimacy through that flawed vote.

Should Khamenei succeed through intimidation or violence, the window dressing that has made Iran presentable to the world, and a force in revolutionary Islamic expansion, will be shown for the farce that it is. Whatever the passion and idealism that motivated the founders of the Islamic Republic 30 years ago, all that is left today is a shell of corruption and cronyism, whose only remaining goal is to retain power.

With the gauntlet clearly at their feet, the next move is up to the protestors and their leaders.

Whatever the nature of their personal involvement until now, the protestors have been branded as foreign agents by the government, with a very real possibility of death or injury as a result. One cannot also discount the more subtle tools of absolutist power, such as imprisonment, intimidation or loss of livelihood.

So what originally was a simple form of public expression has the very real possibility of becoming a life changing event for the protestors.  As such, this is where we will find out the true strength of the opposition.

Will citizens throw caution to the wind and stand up for their rights?  Will Iranians kill unarmed Iranians in the name of clerical legitimacy? That is the table that Khamenei has set for the coming weeks.

And what role should the US be playing in all this?

Criticism of the Obama administration for not coming out more forcefully in favor of the protestors is one dimensional and lacks strategic virtue at this point in time.

By the same token, however, the Administration needs to radically reshape its presumptions regarding Iran and its apparent, single-minded desire for nuclear talks with the governing clergy, regardless of any externalities.

The demonstrations, and the government’s response to them, open up a tantalizing window of genuine change in Iran.

Consider that over the last several days, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards have been arrested for holding secret meetings with the Army ostensibly to organize support the demonstrators.3  Michael Leeden, a leading Iran expert notes that 24 prominent officials of the regime are currently in prison.  Former President Khatami is apparently planning his own demonstrations for this weekend, even after the Khamenei’s speech.

Tellingly, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was not present during Khamenei’s pivotal Friday address.

Rafsanjani is wily, unpredictable and consequential. He has impeccable revolutionary credentials, having been present at the creation of the Islamic Republic, and was an early advocate for theocratic as opposed to secular government.

Rafsanjani was a pivotal figure in the ill-fated Reagan administration strategic outreach to Iran that provided weapons to Iran and sought the release of hostages in Lebanon. He also served as President of Iran for two terms. Rafsanjani lost to current incumbent Ahmadinejad in the second round balloting in 2005. He is said to be the richest man in Iran, with links to major industries including farming and oil.

When Ayatollah Khomenei died in 1988 without an obvious heir, Rafsanjani was a strong backer of Ayatollah Khamenei – then a middle-ranked cleric of little distinction.  Working with conservatives, Rafsanjani helped Khamenei to become supreme leader.

Rafsanjani’s absence speaks volumes about a potential divide in the Iranian government. Coupled with the actions of Khatami and some Revolutionary Guard leaders, there is suddenly an opportunity for a new and perhaps more pragmatic Iranian leadership.

The Obama administration needs to seize it.

The Administration that came to office placing diplomacy above all else needs to use every back channel available to probe for avenues of cooperation and coordination, and as necessary, to provide American assurances.

The Administration needs to be prepared to ratchet up its quasi impartial statements and take a firm and unequivocal stand if the government fires on protestors. The Administration should be in talks with the Iraqi government about providing safe haven for fellow Shiites fleeing persecution by their Iranian brothers. Administration deputies at the NSC and other agencies should be formulating a package of consequential economic and humanitarian incentives that will be ready to roll out if there is a change in government.

The Administration needs to be talking to the Chinese who have a $100 billion, 25 year contract with the Iranians for oil development among other investments.  The Chinese have already accepted the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad victory and cautioned the US broadly, not to intervene. With the crisis is North Korea occurring simultaneously, coordination is imperative.

But if the Iranian government shoots its own people, the US needs to be prepared to marshal the rhetorical high ground, support harsh sanctions in the UN, and re-evaluate the expediency of doing business with the Islamic Republic if it survives the skirmish with protestors.

As the Washington Post editorialized today, “President Obama’s policy cannot remain unaffected…it is depressingly plausible that he will be facing a cornered, radicalized despotism. It would be unthinkable to attempt to do business with such a regime while pretending that nothing fundamental had changed.”4

One can only speculate on the political and strategic shift that a change in leadership in Tehran would mean.  That the legitimacy of theocratic democracy would be in ruins holds important lessons for the nascent Iraqi experiment, balancing sectarian and ethnic interests in a quasi-secular, Shiite-dominated government.

The irony of a successful street revolution in Iran is that it could up-end the Western foreign policy narrative on Iraq. Far from emboldening Iranian power, the Iraq War and subsequent democracy may well serve as a model for the clerics’ undoing, and a tangible affirmation of the previous Administration’s freedom agenda.

For now, certainty has given way to possibilities. We need to be on the right side of history to advance them.

1. Washington Post, 6-20-09

2. Ibid

3. Cyrus News Agency, 6-15-09

4. Washington Post, 6-20-09


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