November 19, 2007


Pious Populist: Understanding the rise of Iran's president (Abbas Milani, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007, Boston Review)

Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, one of his chief lieutenants observed after the victory, was no “accident.” It was the result of “two years of complicated, multifaceted planning” by a coalition that included Revolutionary Guards commanders, a handful of clergy, some leaders of the Basiji (unhappy that the government had not yet given them jobs in the coveted civil service), and friends and allies of Ahmadinejad from his days as mayor of Tehran. This coalition was helped to victory by Ayatollah Khamenei. Easily the most powerful man in the country today, Khamenei has legal control of the army, the police, the intelligence agencies, the Revolutionary Guards and Basijis, the judiciary, and the country’s radio and television station. He also controls more than half of the Iranian economy through his control of the foundations (Bonyads) created from wealth confiscated during the revolution.

In the weeks before the election, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was running against Ahmadinejad, promised to work to curtail Khamenei’s power. Rafsanjani, the presumed winner, talked more like a chief of state than a candidate. His message pleased Europeans who had long seen Rafsanjani as a leader with whom they could do business, but it angered Khamenei, who helped secure Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory. While Rafsanjani and the other losing candidates claimed that millions of dollars from public coffers had been illegally poured into the Ahmadinejad campaign, Khamenei “suggested” to all Revolutionary Guard commanders and Basiji leaders that they should vote for Ahmadinejad, each taking as many family members along as they could. Moreover, Ahmadinejad benefited from his rival’s complicity in creating the political situation voters had come to despise. When Rafsanjani—the “moderate” inside the Iranian regime who had arranged the secret Iran-contra negotiations between Iran and the Reagan administration—tried to reinvent himself as a candidate of reform, voters did not take him seriously.

Although Khamenei helped Ahmadinejad to power—it was rumored that after an eight-year troubled relationship with Khatami, the leader wanted an inexperienced and malleable president—he got more than he bargained for. After taking office Ahmadinejad began a massive purge of the Iranian bureaucracy, installing allies in key positions. Ahmadinejad’s administration has rightly been called a “barracks regime,” with a majority of his cabinet officials and top managers coming from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies. The size of this network of allies and supporters surprised nearly all observers and apparently even Khamenei himself. More importantly, Ahmadinejad not only made new appointments but tried to change the criteria for them, recalling the early days of the revolution when publicly demonstrated piety was the sole basis for appointment to key positions in government and the economy. The most recent example of this shift is the appointment of an ex-Basiji leader, with no experience in nuclear matters, as Iran’s chief negotiator in the crucial and tense negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Moreover, in the February 2006 elections this same group of Revolutionary Guards and Basiji commanders captured a majority of seats in the parliament and ministerial positions.

The U.S. war in Iraq has strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand by turning his bid for a nuclear weapons program into an Iranian nationalist cause. In the early 1970s Iran, with encouragement from the United States and Israel, launched an ambitious nuclear program. No fewer than twenty reactors were envisioned for the country. Some sources even claim that Israel had begun planning a joint program to help Iran develop missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. When the revolution came, Ayatollah Khomeini brought these programs to a grinding halt. Iran, he claimed, did not need a nuclear program, and he accused the Shah’s involvement in it as another sign that he was the imperialists’ lackey. Of course ending the nuclear program in 1979 was also something of a necessity. With much of its foreign currency reserves frozen by the United States as punishment for the hostage crisis, Iran was facing a serious financial crisis.

But in 1984, Saddam Hussein began to use chemical weapons against both restive Iraqi Kurds and Iranian forces. While the United States and the rest of the international community remained virtually silent, the regime in Tehran decided that it needed to revive the nuclear program and develop “an Islamic bomb” for its own security. In 1988, according to a recently declassified document, leaders of the Revolutionary Guards told Ayatollah Khomeini that the only way Iran could win the war with Iraq was with the acquisition of nuclear bombs. By then Iran’s nuclear program had already been fully launched.

Instead of following the protocols of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran had been one of the first signatories, the Islamic Republic, worried about reactions from the United States and Israel, embarked on a covert program. Their hope, according to Ayatollah Rouhani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator before Ahmadinejad’s presidency, was “to do a North Korea on the world” and force the West to accept Iran’s nuclear program as a fait accompli. Since the program based in the city of Natanz was discovered five years ago, it has dominated Iran’s relations with the United States, the European Union, and even Russia. Ahmadinejad has been able to use the nuclear program to ride a wave of nationalism at home, and Muslim anger and frustration globally.

Ahmadinejad has used his defiance of the United States and Israel, and his infamous comments about the Holocaust and the destruction of Israel, to similar political advantage. And through coverage in the Iranian media, he has parlayed this popularity and his rock star treatment in the American media into more power at home. He even used to great advantage Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger’s grandstanding when Ahmadinejad spoke on that campus this fall. Instead of setting up a confrontation between Bollinger’s denunciation and Ahmadinejad’s wounded innocence, the university might have conditioned Ahmadinejad’s appearance on his willingness to participate on a panel of scholars, activists, and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities. It would have shown the Iranian president requisite respect yet denied him another chance to assume the role of insulted victim.

* * *

Ahmadinejad has turned many things to his advantage, but neither Israel, nor the Holocaust, nor Iran’s nuclear program figured in his presidential campaign. Ahmadinejad was brought to power by his ability to understand and connect with the poor. He had mastered—in his words and deeds, his gestures and dress—a kind of populism that plays on fears and anxieties, especially among Iran’s poor. Not only did he do well in the poorer sections of the cities, he also easily carried the countryside. Even some from the middle class, unwilling to vote for Rafsanjani, voted for Ahmadinejad. To appeal to their technocratic impulses he uses the title of doctor, received when he finished his graduate studies in traffic engineering. Moreover, after Khamenei’s “suggestion,” the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, along with their families, voted in the millions for him.

In interviews and speeches in Iran, he uses vernacular expressions and street idioms. He nearly always wears his uniform—an oversize jacket (or tunic), baggy pants, and a baggy shirt (Islam forbids any clothing, on men or women, that might betray bodily curves), all invariably light in color. He never wears a tie—the unmistakable sign of modernity. And since Islam forbids the frivolous sensation of a razor blade on a man’s face, Ahmadinejad’s beard is also part of his persona. All aspects of his appearance are intended to signal the sharp tension between moderns and traditionalists.

In the international media his traditional appearance is intended to be a challenge to the West, but at home it is equally provocative. Iran is a divided society, with a dedicated minority of about fifteen to twenty percent committed to the regime and its clerical leadership, and a disgruntled majority—some angry for economic reasons, others (especially women) alienated by the regime’s cultural policies and the sheer social and legal constraints on their lives.

Pulsating beneath the restrictions of Islamic Iran, however, is a world of vibrant youthful cosmopolitanism. Three out of every five Iranians are under the age of thirty. Their dress and values are drawn less from traditional Islam than from the norms of a global avant-garde. They are Internet savvy: indeed Iran ranks number one in the world in number of bloggers per capita.

The decidedly modern aesthetic accomplishments of Iranian cinema—embodied in the work of masters like Abbas Kiarostami—are now a matter of global acclaim, and a less well-known but no less vibrant renaissance is taking place in Iranian music. A generation of new composers, lyricists, musicians, and vocalists, equally at home with Western musical forms and the complexities of Persian classical music, have created a new genre that combines subtle social criticism with an ironic bite. Mohsen Namjoo—an internationally acclaimed artist from a traditional family—uses traditional “tar” to render jazz melodies and the guitar to play classical Persian music; Kiosk, easily Iran’s most popular rock band, melds the gruff timbre of Bob Dylan’s voice with the bitter lyricism of Leonard Cohen, and hints of Persian classical music.

The society ruled by the mullahs is also undergoing something of a sexual revolution. For men and women, bodies have become vessels of protest, sometimes defiant and dangerously promiscuous. A recent study by Pomona College anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi reported that at least half the married women interviewed in the more affluent parts of Tehran admit to having extra-marital affairs. The number is startling when we remember that adultery is a capital crime in Iran. The law is no less draconian with regard to homosexuality. After Ahmadinejad’s recent New York visit many commentators questioned his strange claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran, not simply because it is obviously false, but because the regime has executed a number of people accused of homosexuality in the last few years. The regime is so averse to homosexuality—which they consider a sin, and its discussion a form of cultural imperialism—that it has, for many years now, offered to pay for sex change operations for anyone with a “problematic” sexual identity. Nonetheless, in Tehran there are parks and restaurants openly identified as homosexual meeting places. Those who are part of the Iranian Diaspora publish online magazines dedicated to serious discussion of the social condition of Iran’s gay men and lesbians.

Ahmadinejad’s conservatism quickly put him at odds with university students. In the early days of his presidency he planned to re-bury martyrs on university campuses, repeating his symbolic gesture as mayor of Tehran. Students rejected the idea and resisted vigorously, insisting on keeping university campuses free of religious iconography. Objecting to the idea afforded students an opportunity to show their dissatisfaction with the new president and his insistence on etching symbols of piety and martyrdom on the city landscape. The episode was one in a long series of confrontations between Ahmadinejad and university students who have been in the vanguard of the fight for justice and democracy.

Iran’s social divisions were sharply captured in the 2005 presidential campaign. In a now famous film made by his campaign, Ahmadinejad is shown walking into a simple room in a humble house in a lower-middle-class city neighborhood. It is his family home. He sits cross-legged in front of a tablecloth on the floor. His wife appears, clad from head to toe in a black chador. His children, too, are shown exhibiting their father’s simplicity of style. The family is eating lunch; their manners are those of most Iranian working class or peasant families. The contrast with Rafsanjani’s campaign was glaring. In one ad, the candidate sits around a big oval table with young men and women, all dressed in fashionable, affluent, urban attire. One of the girls, a scarf barely covering her hair, complains about the lack of entertainment for youth; the camera then focuses on Rafsanjani, with tears of sympathy for her plight. While Rafsanjani was clearly appealing to society’s upper crust and its youth, Ahmadinejad, in all he said and did during the campaign, was appealing to the society’s poor and playing upon their anxieties and resentment about the revolution’s unfulfilled economic promises. He campaigned on a message of ending corruption and giving the poor an equitable share of the country’s oil wealth.

Ahmadinejad’s provincialism is another aspect of his populist appeal. Save for a brief trip to Austria many years ago, Ahmadinejad had not traveled outside of Iran before becoming president. (In this respect, as well as others, he bears striking resemblance to President George W. Bush. According to a popular joke in Iran, there are three things Bush and Ahmadinejad share: both came to power in contested elections, both talk to God, and neither speaks English.) His provincialism has begotten an arrogant swagger and a disdain not just for the West but also for Iranians who know the West or advocate closer ties with it. Compounding his willful insolence is his belief that God has chosen him to perform His will and that a divine force protects him. After returning from his second U.N. trip last year, he told a cleric that during his speech in the General Assembly he was protected by a sacred halo of light. He also recounted how God, to spite America, had fixed the unblinking eyes of all the world’s leaders on Ahmadinejad. While his critics posted a secret tape of this conversation on the Internet (where for months it was a favorite), supporters speak of his “genius,” his “divine wisdom,” and his role as “the miracle of the third millennium.” When he wrote his infamously puzzling, wide-ranging letter to President Bush in May 2006—about history and international affairs, the failure of “liberalism and Western-style democracy” and the centrality of God in global aspirations, and the teachings of the great prophets, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed—his admirers spoke of it as a divinely inspired text, something to be studied in every high school in Iran.

By the time Ahmadinejad made his third trip to the U.N., in September 2007, another key component of his political vision had become the subject of considerable inquiry and criticism, particularly inside Iran. One of Ahmadinejad’s first acts as president was to have the cabinet sign a covenant with the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam in Iranian Shi’ism, its missing messiah. Iranian Shias are referred to as twelvers; unlike other Shias they believe that there have been twelve Imams, all male descendants of the first Imam, Ali, and his wife, Fateme, daughter of the prophet Mohammad. They also believe that the twelfth Imam, the Mahdi, has gone into hiding, or occultation. This occultation of the twelfth Imam will end with the return of the Mahdi, who will establish a perfectly just Islamic society in a world plunged in chaos and war, laying the basis for the Day of the Resurrection.

Some Hadith—words or deeds attributed to the prophet and his progeny, and next to the Qur’an considered the most important source of Islamic jurisprudence—indicate that the missing messiah will one day emerge from the well at Chamkaran. For centuries Chamkaran (sometimes called Jamkaran) was a dry well and a derelict mosque some hundred miles outside Tehran. When Ahmadinejad came to power, he spent millions from the public coffers to build roads and tourist facilities to facilitate visits to Chamkaran, and successfully turned it into a popular pilgrimage site. He also substantially increased funding for an institute, in the city of Qom, whose mission is to search the sacred texts of Shi’ism for hints about signs of the twelfth Imam’s return. Ahmadinejad has often said that the purpose of his presidency is to help expedite the return of the messiah. Many leading Iranian clergy have recently criticized this aspect of Ahmadinejad’s politics, as well as the corresponding surge of claims by people (including public figures) to have “seen” or “contacted” the twelfth Imam.

* * *

It is a measure of Ahmadinejad’s Machiavellian guile, the paradoxical charisma of his anti-hero persona, and the effectiveness of his populist anti-corruption campaign that in his first months in office he claimed a mandate and amassed more power than even Khatami, who had won two landslide victories. After all, the Iranian Constitution contains serious obstacles to presidential accumulation of power. Moreover, Ahmadinejad won the 2005 election only after a hotly contested election mired in allegations of foul play.

But Ahmadinejad’s meteoric rise was soon followed by a no less spectacular fall from grace. One problem was that Ayatollah Khamenei and other leaders of the Islamic Republic came quickly to see that Ahmadinejad and his verbal outbursts were becoming a serious liability. Nothing was more emblematic of this problem than his vocal anti-Semitism, which, like much else in his vision, was not acquired casually but has roots in his experiences during the early days of the revolution.

Soon after the creation of the Islamic Republic, a series of lectures and discussions were held in Tehran led by a stridently conservative cleric, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, and a philosophy professor named Ahmad Fardid. A student of German philosophy and a disciple of Heidegger, Fardid believed that Freemasons and Jews have for the past century conspired together to dominate the world. When Ayatollah Khomeini won power Fardid abandoned his sycophantic royalism and became not just a devout Moslem, but a passionate advocate of the rule of mullahs as the necessary and anointed prelude to the return of the Hidden Messiah. Together with Mesbah-Yazdi—Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor—Fardid forged key elements of an Islamic pseudo-fascist ideology founded on a sour brew of anti-Semitism, Heideggerian philosophy, and Khomeini’s theory of the guardianship of the jurist.

Whatever their sources, Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic comments were—according to a widely held view in Iran—a key reason for the two U.N. resolutions against Iran.

His domestic policies have been comparably disastrous. For much of the past quarter of a century, the Islamic Republic of Iran—having emerged from the authoritarianism of the Pahlavi dynasty—faced a number of fundamental choices about basic social and economic organization: state planning vs. market coordination; private property vs. public ownership; technocracy vs. piety as a measure of public service; women as subordinate vs. women as equal citizens; export of revolution vs. consolidation of power at home; nuclear power and a full fuel cycle vs. accommodating the international community; fundamentalism vs. acceptance of eclectic new ideas and changing interpretations of the canon; and finally, East vs. West.

In navigating these positions, Ahmadinejad has often embraced ideas and practices that are now widely rejected elsewhere. He has shown little affection for the private sector, advocates statism and a more highly planned economy, and has all but destroyed private banking in Iran. He initially defended some rights for women, such as their ability to watch soccer games at public stadiums, but backed off in the face of stiff opposition from the traditional clergy. And although he has been consistent in his advocacy for the poor—he increased the minimum wage by sixty percent and ordered the establishment of a “Love Fund” to help poor young men defray the cost of marriage—his policies often seem ill-conceived. His casual comment that the stock market is a form of gambling and should be banned led to a massive sell off and a steep fall in stock prices. He has a penchant for throwing money at any problem. One policy, for example, gave low-interest loans to small businesses willing to hire new employees, in an attempt to create jobs and stem inflationary pressures. But because his administration failed to exercise oversight, the loans were used by employers for purposes other than job creation. According to some members of parliament, similar failures of oversight explain the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars of governmental funds. Ahmadinejad’s government has not only spent the entire windfall revenue from oil price increases, but he nearly depleted the currency fund set up to protect the government when the price of oil falls. As always the poor—now a quarter of the country’s population—bear the brunt of these disastrous inflationary policies.

In international relations, Ahmadinejad’s faltering program has had three key components. The first is the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution and creating a “Shia revolutionary arc” in the Muslim world. Like Trotsky, who rejected the idea of socialism in one country, Ahmadinejad believes that Iran’s Islamic Revolution will survive only if it helps lead other Muslims in the fight against a weak and declining West. In recent months, he has talked more ambitiously about Muslims generally, and not only about Shias.

The second component of his program is the idea that the Islamic regime can maintain its dignity and achieve its goals only if it stands firm on plans for a nuclear weapons program. For Ahmadinejad, Khatami and his chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, Rouhani, committed treason when they agreed to suspend the nuclear program. A few days after Iran announced that it had enriched uranium successfully, Ahmadinejad and his allies declared that “the West can do nothing,” adding that Iran must push forward aggressively with all aspects of the program. Shortly after Putin’s recent and historic visit to Iran, Ahmadinejad made two incredible claims in a televised interview: first, that Iran has won the public-opinion battle around the world over the legitimacy of its nuclear program, and that the West might soon give up its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program; and second, still more incredibly, that “Iran is now one of the nine nuclear powers in the world” and that the other eight must begin to share their global power with Iran.

The third component of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is intimately linked with the second, and is referred to by the Iranian policy establishment as the “Asia Look.” According to this notion, Iran’s future no longer rests with the declining West but with the ascendant East—particularly China and India. Multi-billion-dollar oil and gas agreements with both countries, and negotiations for the construction of a new pipeline connecting Iran to India through Pakistan and eventually to China, would allow Iran to have a rapidly growing market for the country’s oil and gas. Moreover, both China and India have nuclear technologies they could share with Iran and, based on their past behavior, neither is likely to “meddle” in Iranian domestic affairs, particularly on issues of human rights and democracy. Ahmadinejad is further convinced that Russia (with its new, more muscular foreign policy and its desire to embarrass the United States) and China (with its insatiable appetite for energy) would never allow the passage of a U.N. resolution against Iran.

* * *

The failure of nearly every aspect of Ahmadinejad’s program—including his failure to fight corruption or improve the economic plight of the poor—has caused his domestic popularity to decline sharply. In a poll conducted in late September, 56 percent of those who had voted for him in the last election declared they would not vote for him again. When we remember that only sixty percent of eligible voters participated in the last presidential election and that Ahmadinejad won barely more than fifty percent of the votes, his precarious political situation at home becomes clear. On the international front, the U.N. passed two resolutions against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, with Chinese and Russian support. Ahmadinejad’s cavalier response to the U.N. resolutions, dismissing them as “nothing more than a worthless piece of paper,” brought him an avalanche of criticism—even from the regime’s strongest supporters. Furthermore, Russia decided to delay completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and the Sunni states are beginning to unite against Shia Iran.

But the most important cause of Ahmadinejad’s decline has been the near breakdown of the Iranian economy. In spite of record earnings from oil, there has been massive capital flight, a shrinking private sector, a banking crisis, and an increase in oil dependency and subsidies paid by the regime. The oil sector itself is facing serious structural problems due to decaying infrastructure. If trends persist, and Iran cannot attract an estimated six hundred billion dollars of investment in the oil industry, Iranian oil exports may collapse completely within a decade. With unemployment in double digits, the regime is now facing stagflation—high inflation rates and rapidly rising prices—as well as a depression-like “recession.”

Ahmadinejad recently has been facing hostile crowds at college campuses and mounting parliamentary criticism. In the past year Ahmadinejad tried to insure himself against this rising opposition by consolidating his relationship with the Revolutionary Guards with multi-billion-dollar no-bid contracts—in one case, an eleven-billion-dollar contract—to the Guards and their companies. The Guards are an economic juggernaut, active in nearly every aspect of the economy. But even these bribes have not silenced all of the Revolutionary Guard commanders. A few have publicly criticized Ahmadinejad and his policies, believing that he is jeopardizing the future of the regime. The website Baztab, close to Mohsen Rezai, who was for eighteen years the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, has become increasingly and openly critical of Ahmadinejad. In late September, Ahmadinejad closed the website down.

Ironically, Ahmadinejad and his rhetoric of confrontation—his tendency to taunt the United States and Israel with boastful threats about terrorists (“martyrdom seekers,” in his parlance)—no less than his dismissals of any possibility of U.S. invasion, does nothing but enable those in Washington who have for years tried to push the United States into a war with Iran. With about a third of the U.S. Navy patrolling the waters off the Iranian coast, and with more than 150,000 U.S. soldiers standing nose to nose with Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, chances increase that a “mistake” will spark a full-fledged war. In recent months Ahmadinejad and his cabal of radical Revolutionary Guards commanders have engaged, in their own words, in a “show of force” by sending Iranian drones over U.S. ships and, in one case, sending a diver to place a sticker with the logo of the Revolutionary Guards on the hull of an American destroyer.

Even more dangerous is the fact that Bush’s hyperbole, including talk of a third world war, only makes a military confrontation with Iran more likely. And a military confrontation with the United States or Israel would be a god-sent gift for Ahmadinejad. With his popularity plummeting and the economy in decline, only an American or Israeli attack on Iran can help Ahmadinejad and his radical allies consolidate power and save his presidency.

In truth the only solution to the “Iran Problem”—from the nuclear question to Iran’s regional support for Islamist groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah—is for the century-old dream of democracy to become a reality. Ahmadinejad is fully aware of this danger and has done everything to forestall democratic change. [...]

[T]he case for democracy in Iran is now economic and not only political. The only solution to Iran’s dire economic problems is a large infusion of foreign resources, and only democracy can ensure the stability required for such large investments and for a return of the massive intellectual and financial capital in the hands of the Iranian Diaspora. This capital is now estimated to be worth almost a trillion dollars. If democracy is an economic and political exigency, and if the existing models have not yet produced encouraging results, what form can a democratic transition take?

The regime in Iran today is deeply divided, and tensions between different factions have recently intensified. Moreover, of the two-dozen clerics who have dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution, the youngest are septuagenarians. The “spiritual leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, is known to suffer from cancer, and there is no clear heir apparent to his mantle. Many of the younger clerics in Iran, particularly among the advocates of Ayatollah Sistani’s quietist version of Shi’ism, have been more openly critical of the regime’s interpretation of Shi’ism. According to the quietist school, an Islamic government is a government of god on earth; obeying its words and commands is incumbent on all citizens and leaves no room for error. Until the “return” of the twelfth Imam, then, no such government can be created. In the meantime, according to Ayatollah Sistani and others in this school, the duty of the clergy is simply to supervise the moral life of the flock. This view is in direct conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini’s activist version of Shi’ism, which holds that the clergy can and must seize power any time the opportunity avails itself.

An even larger number of those working with the regime, particularly among the thousands of often-Western-educated mid-level managers, are increasingly aware that the status quo is untenable. As the economy continues to falter, and as radicals like Ahmadinejad seek more stringent enforcement of Islamic laws—by, for example, charging more than 160,000 women in the past two months of being insufficiently veiled—it is easy to imagine the emergence of a grand coalition, consisting of technocrats within and outside the regime, disgruntled reformists, quietist clerics, members of the Iranian private sector, women demanding equality, students, democratic parties, and labor unions, all willing to compromise in favor of a better society. That coalition, joined by Iran’s civil society organizations and even members of the Diaspora, could come together on a program of building a more democratic republic, free of the despotic power of the guardian-jurist. Prudent U.S. policy—principled, unconditional negotiations with the regime in Tehran on all outstanding issues, and continuing insistence on the democratic and human rights of the Iranian people—can help expedite the formation of such a coalition. An offer of unconditional negotiations would, if accepted, bring about a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations and improve the political capital of those within the regime who have been advocating such rapprochement.

The speed with which Ayatollah Khamenei acted to place Rafsanjani in a position to thwart Ahmedinejad suggests that he genuinely preferred that the former be elected president in the first place and understood the radicalism of the latter from the get-go. Indeed, the Ayatollah had apparently tried to set up the election so that Rafsanjani's main challenger would be the genuinely reformist Mustafa Moin, who was second in opinion polls going into election day, but was as surprised as everyone else by the degree of disillusionment of the Reformists and the showing of the Twelvers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 4:23 PM

One assumption I wonder about is if the populace would perceive an attack on Iran as an attack on Ahmadinejad or an attack on themselves.

As time goes on the former seems more and more likely.

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 7:51 PM

The populace will dispense with him at the next election.

Posted by: oj at November 19, 2007 10:11 PM

I just hope we give them that much time.

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 10:18 PM

I just got the title by the way. Excellent.

Posted by: Benny at November 19, 2007 10:19 PM

And then, of course, there's Spengler....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at November 20, 2007 3:26 AM

Minus the twelver stuff, Rafsanjani is no different than Mahmoud. He will say what needs to be said to feed the (revolutionary) beast, he will allow the Guard to have their anti-American and anti-Semitic adventures, and he will work for the bomb (as he did before). There are no good mullahs at the highest level, because they were purged long ago (like Montazeri).

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 20, 2007 8:20 AM

They need to save the Republic--they don't care about the bomb.

Posted by: oj at November 20, 2007 11:18 AM

The use of the word "Republic" reminds one of Nero and Caligula (or Mao), does it not?

The government is beyond saving. It can only hunker down, and hope that the implosion is delayed.

As has been written previously, reform will come when someone not on the approved list is elected. Then Ali K. himself (or his successor) will be at the point of decision - to either be a visionary Leader, or to be meat on a hook.

And tyrants inevitably make the wrong choice.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 20, 2007 3:27 PM

No, they were post-Republican. It reminds one of America, predictably.

Posted by: oj at November 20, 2007 6:25 PM

I left out the DPRK (on purpose). Like the others, it is non-republican. Your "post" statement is a bit silly.

The problem for Iran is that a 'compromise' (as the author dreams about in his conclusion) is almost certainly not going to happen. Who will lead it? Their Nobel laurete? She will probably be arrested quite soon for criticizing their nuclear program. A dissident Guard honcho? Too easy to kill. A rebel cleric? The author explains why there are none. A university president? Most of them have been replaced in the past few years. An electricial like Walesa? The citizenry is docile (and is more subdued than smoldering). And there are no Yeltsins (or Mandelas) in Iran, at least not today. Neither are there any Pinochets.

Of course, if Mr. Milani is endorsing regime change, then good for him. Short of that, the revolutionaries are not going to 'compromise'.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 21, 2007 1:49 AM

Read up on a little Roman history and you'll not find anyone who thinks it was still a republic in the time of Nero nor anyone who considers Maoist China a republic.

Iran, on the other hand, is one and quite free.

They have a bad president. He'll be replaced democratically, as in any republic.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2007 7:55 AM