May 5, 2006


Playing to the Home Crowd in Iran (MARK BOWDEN, 5/05/06, NY Times)

Hard as it may be for Americans to believe, in November 1979 Iran's theocratic future was hardly assured. There had been a revolution, of course, but many different forces had combined to overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The mosque network, which had sunk deep roots that had spread wide during years of political oppression, provided the popular muscle; it was the force that propelled millions into the streets. But despite fervent and widespread reverence for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the new Iran could have taken any number of identities.

Among those who had cast out the shah were Communists, nationalists, socialists and others — many of whom envisioned at least some flavor of democracy. Some of these groups were highly organized and well-financed, especially Tudeh, Iran's Communist party. These groups had varying ideas about the new Iran, but were united in preferring a secular state.

Ayatollah Khomeini himself was of two minds on the subject: he did not immediately seize power on his triumphant return to Iran from Paris but retreated to the holy city of Qom, appointed a provisional government manned by the secular political leaders who had surrounded him in exile, and established a revolutionary council to write Iran's new constitution.

The idealistic young Iranians who seized the American Embassy that month and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year, however, wanted a total Islamic revolution. They faced intense competition on college campuses from Tudeh and other secular groups. Feeling outnumbered, they formed the umbrella group Strengthen the Unity to combine the Islamist students scattered throughout the city into a single force.

In the confusing, violent aftermath of the revolution, there were plots galore. Mr. Ahmadinejad feared the influence of Tudeh most of all; he argued that the better embassy to occupy would have been the one belonging to that party's sponsor, the Soviet Union. He lost that debate to those in his group who felt the greater threat was America, the nation that had propped up the shah for more than 25 years.

The embassy seizure worked beyond its plotters' wildest expectations.

The one thing Ahmadinejad has learned is how to push American buttons.

Beyond the bluster: Iran at a crossroads (Kaveh L Afrasiabi , 5/06/06, Asia Times)

Iran is fairly well equipped to deal with the rather toothless sanctions posed by the US that date back to the hostage crisis of 1979. Short of an oil embargo, Iran can financially withstand any lesser sanctions such as travel bans, a freeze on assets of leaders and the like.

On the other hand, the Iranian economy will suffer grievously should foreign investors stay away, foreign contracts be canceled or put in indefinite limbo, and the bills for foreign imports skyrocket, translating into higher unemployment and economic stagnation. That would come on top of a war economy where more and more of the government's budget is swallowed up by defense spending. At a minimum, it will slow Iran's economic growth, about which Ahmadinejad boasted recently.

Thus, looking ahead, a year or so from now, with Iran under international isolation, the picture that emerges is rather bleak - an Iran turned into a Middle Eastern version of isolated North Korea. That is hardly what Iran's foreign-policy establishment aimed to achieve during the past two decades.

The pressure on Iran could, of course, worsen if there are additional punitive measures such as the exclusion of Iran from international sports, cultural and scientific events, as advocated by certain hawkish politicians in the West. The very stigma of becoming a pariah state is unwelcome news to Iran's foreign-policy decision-makers who have, over the years, expended considerable energy in cultivating Iran's foreign ties, regionally and internationally. Without doubt, the negative repercussions of UN actions against Iran would be far-reaching, adversely impacting the whole edifice of Iran's foreign policy.

To avoid or minimize the regime's vulnerabilities, Iran's behavior has been characterized by a fluid, mixed response, evincing the tough line in public - "we don't give a damn" - with an increasingly finessed diplomatic approach geared toward stalling the US-EU march to sanctions.

This might explain why Iran rebutted the recent statement by a military leader, regarding Iran's intention to attack Israel in case of an assault by the US, saying it was not "valid". The pendulum had swung too far in the direction of bellicose rhetoric supplanting diplomacy, and as Dr Hassan Rowhani, the former chief nuclear negotiator, has candidly stated, Iran welcomes dialogue and diplomacy.

The subtle diplomatic approach by Rowhani and his increasingly prominent role in formulating Iran's response to this dangerous crisis suggests that Iran is actually in the throes of a serious soul-search and quite another lurch "back to the past", that is, back to the prudent nuclear diplomacy prior to Ahmadinejad, dictated by the survival prerogatives of the regime and Iran's national interests.

That's all just Ahmedinejad vs. Khamenei.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 5, 2006 8:36 AM

While many like to point to the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut as the moment when Islamic terrorists first learned the U.S. was a paper tiger, it was really the 1979 hostage crisis and Carter's inept Spring 1980 rescue attempt that was the moment when that first happened (and it's also probably why it's been reported that Ahmedinejad and the other Iranian hard-liners are trying to wait President Bush out in hopes that the U.S. will elect a more Carteresque figure to the White House in 2008).

Posted by: John at May 5, 2006 10:32 AM

No, the oil embargo.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 10:37 AM

Yes - Straightforwardness vs deceit; or, as Amir Taheri puts it, vs "Taqiyyah" and "Kitman":

Finally, and possibly the most important point to take into account, is the fact that one can never be sure when and where the Khomeinist interlocutors would have recourse to "Taqiyyah" (Obfuscation) and "Kitman" (dissimulation).

Taqqiyyah, a Shiite theological term, advises the individual and the community not only to hide their true beliefs but even to profess the opposite where this is to their advantage. Kitman, a politico-theological terms, means never revealing one's true intentions, especially when dealing with non-Shiites and "the Infidel".

Muhammad-Baqir Majlesi, the most prolific of ayatollahs, has a famous saying: "Not to be exposed, adopt the prevailing colour!"

Marked by both taqqiyah and kitman from the beginning, Khomeinist diplomacy has prevented Iran from developing a [clear] strategy ...

Ahmadinejad wants a clear, aggressive strategy; Khamenei wants a slower, deceptive strategy. Both want nukes, both want dictatorship, and both want empire.

Posted by: pj at May 5, 2006 11:11 AM

John, I agree with you, but I think not only Iran, but all the leftwing world including the U.N. are waiting Bush out. If a Republican isn't elected in '08, I fear everything Reagan & Bush accomplished will be dismantled and we'll be back in Clinton/Carter country again and this time for keeps.

I hope the uber-conservatives who are criticizing Bush and having a public tantrum realize what will be ramifications of their actions.

Posted by: erp at May 5, 2006 11:35 AM

OJ --

The oil embargo was one part, but there you were also dealing with a U.S. suffering under the self-inflicted wounds of the Nixon Administration. Carter's ineptitude in 1979 showed foreign governments and terrorists that a president ostensibly with no inhibiting scandals and control of both houses of Congress could be paralyized into inaction in the wake of Vietnam (and outside of Joe Lieberman or a don't-you-dare-try-to-deny-me-a-second-term-by-showing-I'm-weak Hillary Clinton being elected to the White House in 2008, the Democrats' military paralysis in the face of a true foreign threat remains in place).

erp --

If they lose, they won't realize until it's too late to do anything, and will then blame the flaws of Bush, McCain or whoever over the next four years out of power, instead of their own demands for 100 percent ideological purity for the loss of the White House.

Posted by: John at May 5, 2006 11:53 AM

The analysis and reports I've read indicate that an ineffectual military strike will help Ahmedinejad and therefore by worse than doing nothing.

If we attack, there are two possible outcomes. One is that the US cannot or will not seriously project power. It will make us look weak and increase pride in a regime that could survive American defiance. The second is that the attack was decisive in its aim (delaying atomic weapons and harming the Mullah's power) and further assaults are impending if Iran does not change its goals.

Any military intervention must be decisive: destroy the current atomic infrastructure, the military sites crucial to maintaining the mullah's power, and seek to kill those members of the Iranian government most hostile. Furthermore, the ability to mount a follow up must be visible and the intent clear. In short, we must be prepared to go to full war.

The hope is that rather than causing people to rally to the regime, they will realize it will mean defeat and ruin, remove the regime, and move towards peace before the US can invade. How realistic is that hope? Uncertain.

This second option will be very expensive in both expense, economic effects, and blood if we have to invade. If we are not prepared to accept it, then we need to have a plan on how to live with a nuclear Iran and the end to non-proliferation in general.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at May 5, 2006 12:02 PM

Any attack is effectual because it isolates Ahmedinejad even further from the clerics, the military and the reformers.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 12:32 PM

He's going to push the one Saddam pushed if he's not careful

Posted by: Amos at May 5, 2006 1:04 PM

The TV show "24" is a metaphor for Bush administration. Like Jack Bauer, the president is saving the world from the bad guys with one hand while using the other hand to keep the "good" guys from getting in his way. It's a desperate situation and I only hope that Bush has the supernatural strength the script writers have given Bauer.

Posted by: erp at May 5, 2006 3:21 PM

If Khameini wanted to be rid of Ahmedinejad, he would be. As Ahmedinejad is his guy, he doesn't want to be.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 5, 2006 5:08 PM

That's not how democracy works. He has to wait until the next election to be rid of him. Hard to feel too sorry for the Ayatollah though, since it was his own inept manuevering that stuck him with Ahmedinejad in the first place

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 5:14 PM

We are unaware that Ayatollah Khameini is in any way democratic. Have you spoken with him? Does he have a nice art collection?

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 5, 2006 5:45 PM

Edward N. Luttwak in the most current issue of Commentary magazine argues that it is too early to bomb Iran for several reasons. One, is that the Mullahs want us to. It helps rally the populous to look at the outside threat and bolster the current regime. The second major reason is that in order for Iran to go truely nuclear would require a cascade of some 1500 high speed centrifuges. He gives very good reasons why this is several years away just from a technical perspective. This gives the rest of the world and local opposition time to try to change the regime.

If bombing has to happen then taking out just part of the nuclear facilities is all that is needed, because in addition to that the Air Force will also take out Iran's air force, navy, missiles, and its command and control.

Posted by: morry at May 5, 2006 5:47 PM


He's been scrupulous about Iranian democracy during his guardianship, though their form of democracy is too limited and will require reform.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 5:52 PM


He's right that we don't have to worry about their nuclear weapons program but wrong about the Iranian internals.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 5:54 PM

Jim: He's a secret lover of jazz.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 5, 2006 8:29 PM

Khamenei is so scrupulous about democracy that he didn't make any public objection when Ahmadinejad stole the election. The time when Khamenei could reform Iran is past, if it ever existed. It's the time of Ahmadinejad and his backers now.

Posted by: pj at May 5, 2006 9:19 PM

The election wasn't stolen--his mistake was to disillusion the reformers so much that they boycotted. Ahmedinejad is a cipher.

Posted by: oj at May 5, 2006 9:26 PM

As long as he doesn't like rap things will work out.

Ahmadinejad a cipher? Only if he is gaslighting the West. That is possible, but unlikely. You are correct the election wasn't stolen, but it was a dodge, a sham, another act in a dreary play, whatever.

If Ahmadinejad were a 'secular' Islamofacist (like Saddam or even Nasser), the tension between he and Khameini would be real and perhaps they would have a cage match. But because he says the same things that others in the Iranian govt. have been saying since the mid-1990s (including, albeit to a lesser degree, Khatami), he stays.

Now, if the mouthpiece has turned into Frankenstein's monster, then we should approach Khameini and make him an offer he can't refuse. Then the questions about his aesthetics (i.e., wisdom) will suddenly have real import.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 6, 2006 12:02 AM

He stays because was elected. He won't be re-elected.

Posted by: oj at May 6, 2006 12:07 AM

Then he knows his time is short - he has until the summer of 2009 to fulfil his destiny.

Makes him a bit more dangerous, eh? And not just to us, but to the mullahs as well.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 6, 2006 10:23 PM

Yes he'd be dangerous if they were capable of doing anything. They aren't. He's rabble rousing to try to prop hiumself up. It's a sign of his weakness. We should hammer it home.

Posted by: oj at May 6, 2006 10:28 PM