Does President Obama have the strategic patience he’ll need to deal with Iran?
It isn’t clear.
Things are exceedingly unsettled inside Iran, and it’s not likely that Iranian leaders will respond any time soon to US overtures or to the multilateral effort to restart serious talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The opposition in Iran isn’t going away. Yesterday, the leaders of the Green Movement called for a silent rally of mourning for the death of Neda Agha-Soltan on Thursday at Mosalla, the gigantic, half-finished prayer hall in central Tehran, and although permission for the event was denied, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and other leaders of the movement have called for it to take place anyway. Instead of Mosalla, Mousavi and Karroubi plan to hold the memorial at Tehran’s main cemetery, which is heavy with symbolism because it was used in 1978-79 as a rallying point for the revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Thursday protest is likely to result in new clashes between security forces and protesters. There’ve been scattered protests in Tehran recently, and the opposition movement is trying other, quieter tactics too, such as boycotts. Meanwhile, outrage is building over the treatment of those arrested, tortured, and killed by the regime’s security forces. Some detainees (including one of the most prominent, Saeed Hajjarian, a key adviser and strategist for Mousavi) have been or will soon be freed, although hundreds (or thousands) remain in prison. And Iran’s radical-right court system has announced plans to begin trials of protesters, charging, according to the BBC, that they committed crimes “including bombings, carrying weapons and attacking security forces.” Outrage over the treatment of prisoners spans the Iranian political spectrum, from liberal reformists to hardliners to several outspoken clergy, including grand ayatollahs.
Meanwhile, among the hardliners, there is a growing, increasingly bitter dispute between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Leader, and President Ahmadinejad, that could have explosive consequences. It began last week, when Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a controversial rightist who had infuriated hardliners by once saying that Iran has no quarrel with the Israeli people, as his deputy. For a time, Ahmadinejad defied Khamenei’s demands to dump Mashaie, finally relenting — and then naming Mashaie to the presidential staff. (Mashaie happens to be Ahmadinejad’s son-in-law.) Then, perhaps in response, Ahmadinejad fired several members of the Cabinet, including the minister of intelligence, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, and the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi. It’s gotten so rough that some hardliners, including a group close to Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament and a key conservative, are warning that Ahmadinejad could be deposed, i.e., ousted. Another bloc of hardliners, including Mohsen Rezai, the founder of the Revolutionary Guard, and his allies — among them, the former mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, and Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Khamenei — continue to oppose Ahmadinejad. On June 12, Rezai ran against Ahmadinejad, and he’s keeping his powder dry: two weeks ago, Rezai appeared silently beside Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and billionaire, when he delivered a blistering, opposition sermon at Friday Prayer in the presence of Mousavi and Karroubi.
Bottom line: the opposition is staying strong and organized, and pressure is building on all sides against Ahmadinejad. Though it’s unlikely, it isn’t impossible that Khamenei could decide to dump Ahmadinejad in order to placate the opposition. At the very least, it isn’t clear in Iran who has the upper hand: Ahmadinejad or Khamenei. It isn’t clear to Iranian analysts who really controls the security forces and the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, Iran remains in grave turmoil.
That’s why it’s especially troubling that the drumbeat of US and Israeli confrontation with Iran is getting louder.
Iran is too unsettled to respond intelligently, if at all, to US diplomatic overtures. The Associated Press reports today: “The U.S. is hearing only silence from Iran on its offers of dialogue. Iran’s leaders, who initially seemed to welcome engagement, are turning inward to deal with the post-election crisis. … Too much is in flux to answer the two main questions: Whether Khamenei and the rest of the leadership even want a dialogue — and, if they do, whether they are in a position to pursue it.”
But that doesn’t stop hardliners — and some Israelis — from pushing for a showdown. The always reliable John Bolton, writing from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute, blasts Defense Secretary Robert Gates for his efforts during his trip to Israeli this week to “dissuade Israel from carrying out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.” And Bolton orgasms:
“Striking Iran’s nuclear program will not be precipitous or poorly thought out. Israel’s attack, if it happens, will have followed enormously difficult deliberation over terrible imponderables, and years of patiently waiting on innumerable failed diplomatic efforts. Absent Israeli action, prepare for a nuclear Iran.”
Other hardliners are weighing in, too, and in response both Gates and Hillary Clinton have started making more and more noises about supposed “deadlines” for the US overture toward Iran. Unfortunately, President Obama has fed that fire, first with his talk in May — during his news conference with Bibi Netanyahu — about a December timetable for measuring progress with Iran, and then during the G-8 meeting in Europe when there was talk about setting a deadline of September for the start of talks. In fact, neither deadline will be met. Perhaps September will come and go, with no talks. So what? By moving toward a harder line — say, unilateral Western sanctions or a gasoline blockade — Obama will strengthen the hardliners in Iran. He’ll undo a lot of the progress made by the opposition in Tehran, and he’ll give Khamenei and Ahmadinejad a justification for a tougher attitude toward the West — and a more violent crackdown on the opposition.
That’s why Obama will need to exercise strategic patience. And he needs to start making that case now, to the American public.
The Wall Street Journal reports on what it calls the “simmering dispute between the U.S. and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program,” and other US hardliners.