March 15, 2006


In Iran, Dissenting Voices Rise on Its Leaders' Nuclear Strategy (MICHAEL SLACKMAN, 3/15/06, NY Times)

Average Iranians do not seem uniformly confident at the prospect of being hit with United Nations sanctions.

From the streets of Tehran to the ski slopes outside the city, some people have begun to joke about the catch phrase of the government — flippantly saying, "Nuclear energy is our irrefutable right."

Reformers, whose political clout as a movement vanished after the last election, have also begun to speak out. And people with close ties to the government said high-ranking clerics had begun to give criticism of Iran's position to Ayatollah Khamenei, which the political elite sees as a seismic jolt.

"There has been no sign that they will back down," said Ahmad Zeidabady, a political analyst and journalist. "At least Mr. Khamenei has said nothing that we can interpret that there will be change in the policies."

But, he said, "There is more criticism as it is becoming more clear that this policy is not working, especially by those who were in the previous negotiating team."

There are also signs that negotiators are starting to back away, however slightly, from a bare-knuckle strategy and that those who had initially opposed the president's style — but remained silent — are beginning to feel vindicated and are starting to speak up.

A former president, Mohammad Khatami, recently publicly criticized the aggressive approach and called a return to his government's strategy of confidence-building with the west.

"The previous team now feels they were vindicated," said Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University who is close to many members of the government. "The new team feels they have to justify their actions."

Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say, issued a strong defense of Iran's position on Tuesday.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran considers retreat over the nuclear issue, which is the demand of the Iranian people, as breaking the country's independence that will impose huge costs on the Iranian nation," he said.

"Peaceful use of nuclear technology is a must and is necessary for scientific growth in all fields," Ayatollah Khamenei said. "Any kind of retreat will bring a series of pressures and retreats. So, this is an irreversible path and our foreign diplomacy should defend this right courageously."

The people and the Ayatollah are leaving an opening big enough to drive a significant wedge through. All the Administration and the world community need do is keep backing nuclear energy and denying the possibility of weapons -- as well as uses of energy that can lead to weapons -- and Ahmedinejad is isolated even within Iran.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2006 8:41 AM

Again, the debate in the regime is all about style, not substance. Khatami's "strategy of confidence-building with the west" is a strategy of lying. Ahmadinejad's "bare-knuckle strategy" is a strategy of honesty and openness about their activities.

When they got a few nukes from North Korea in 2004, they started getting cocky and thought they could speak more forthrightly. They are starting to realize that nukes are crude and inflexible weapons, that Iran is still not strong enough to bully people, and that deceitful diplomacy is still in their interest, as it exploits the Western (especially leftist) tendency toward self-delusion. But nothing indicates that either faction in the regime is interested in halting the construction of a mass-production system for new nukes. Remember, that system was massively pushed forward during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 9:16 AM

Khanenei would happily trade the weapons program for economic growth.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 9:24 AM

I recall from the 2004 debates that Kerry inarticulately advocated the idea of encouraging nuclear power with active outside support (similar to the Russian proposal) in exchange for more transparancy from Iran. Not that this makes it a bad idea. What was missing from Kerry's analysis is that the theocracy does not meet the other economic needs of the people and needs to be pressured regardless of what we do on uranium.

Posted by: JAB at March 15, 2006 10:05 AM

No, he wouldn't. He's had years to make that decision, and he hasn't. He is not as shrill as Hamas or Islamic Jihad, and he is not as isolated as Al Qaeda, but he is one of their fellow travelers, no?

I suspect he has calculated that he cannot do what China has done (opened its economy, even in an oligarchical way), so they stumble along, with much of the substantive economy taking place in the shadows. It seems to suit his version of Islam, anyway. It is not sustainable, but he probably doesn't care about that. After all, the people are robots, to be driven to their knees.

It's too bad Khatami didn't kill the Council and surge forward - the people of Iran would have turned him into Caesar and George Washington all at once. He would have probably won the Nobel.

Khameini is not going to play by our rules. He isn't Gorbachev or Jaruzelski or even Tito.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 15, 2006 10:05 AM



Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 10:09 AM


Not only was Kerry right, but because we waited until the Reformers were out of power to do so we need to thread the needle to not make it look like a victory for Ahmedinejad.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 10:11 AM

OJ: I agree though I think Kerry would have made whatever deal he struck seem like a victory for theocracy.

Still the key point that Iran has the right to nuke power could and should have been made earlier. From what I've read, though, Iran is not building up their power distribution infrastructure at the same time they are building nuke plants. This further arouses suspicion but is likely incompetence. They actually do need more power generation capacity.

Posted by: JAB at March 15, 2006 10:30 AM


No, it was the right deal when Kerry proposed it--it looks like a victory for the loons now. Americvaq expects Iran to forgive it for things like coups but can't get past the hostage crisis, so our policy has been deranged.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 10:34 AM

Fairly or not, anything Kerry did that was remotely conciliatory would have been interpreted at apeasement given his history of admiration for anti-american dictators.

Posted by: JAB at March 15, 2006 10:54 AM

oj - If he wants to trade the weapons program for economic growth, we'll gladly help him: we aid economic liberalization in all countries, friends and enemies alike. But where is the evidence that he wants this? And if he wants it but lacks power to advocate it, what does his desire matter? The regime obviously doesn't want it, whatever "the regime" is.

I think the observable evidence, including their sponsorship of anti-American terrorism in Iraq, suggests that they are agreed in a basic strategy of:
1. Tyranny at home, despite the negative economic consequences.
2. Building military might through nuclear weapons.
3. When they've built sufficient military might, using it to intimidate others, gathering whatever benefits others will give them out of fear and appeasement, and possibly seizing other assets by conquest (as Spengler believes they covet oil reserves in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar).

As far as I can tell, the difference within the regime is only on the question of timing: are they far enough along to begin step 3? Ahmadinejad thinks that we are weak and prone to appeasement, and that the Hidden Imam will aid Iran, so he thinks step 3 can start now. Khatami and Rafsanjani, perhaps Khamanei too, think America is not so soft and Iran should wait and build more nukes before it starts bullying. It is a debate between impatient greed that foreswears deception, and patient caution that buys time by covering the iron fist in a velvet glove.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 11:53 AM


The evidence is his backing of Reformist candidates. He just happens to live in a democracy and the vote backfired on him.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 12:00 PM

It is difficult for judge what was involved in his addition of a few moderates to the ballot in the last election. It's inside politics, and no one there tells us candidly about the machinations in the regime. Why did Khamanei sign off on leaving the moderates off in the first place? Which action, the first (taking them off) or the second (putting them back on) represents his true views? Which faction in the regime wanted them off - Ahmadinejad, because he disagreed with them, or Rafsanjani, because they would draw off votes from him against his main rival Ahmadinejad? Or was it both, and they were added back on to appease the Iranian public? In any case, partly because of vote rigging and partly because of a boycott by liberal voters to protest vote rigging, the moderates were not accorded many votes.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 12:53 PM

OJ sounds like one of those old Kremlinologists assuring us that we shouldn't stand up to the Soviet hardliners lest we undermine the moderate Communists who simply want peace with the West.

Iran wants the bomb. All things being equal, I don't see why any Iranian - fundamentalist, reformer, or democrat - would give it up once they have it. It'll be the last nail in the coffin of non-proliferation and set off a regional nuclear arms race. Our immediate priority is to prevent this. Furthering democracy is a laudable, but secondary, goal to this.

If all our dispute with Iran was the hostage crisis of 25+ years ago, it would be over now. It is Iran's continued support of terrorism and meddling (in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere) that keeps Iran and US apart.

The German generals were ready to kill Hitler in 1938 during the Munich crisis, but when Britain and France sold out, they lost their chance. A firm stance and preparation for war on our part may see the Iranians remove Ahmadinejad themselves, but it cannot be relied upon.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at March 15, 2006 2:02 PM

He set it up so it would be an independent Reformer, Moin, vs. his own reformer, Rafsanjani & he'd have won either way. But he underestimated how much interference by the guardians had disillusioned the reform-minded public which sat out the election--especially the second round.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 3:23 PM


Yes, had the USSR had elections Communism would have fallen.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 3:39 PM

Powerline has a note expressing the same view as me:

I would like to believe that Khamanei aspires to become the Musharraf of Iran, but it hardly seems plausible, given his longstanding ties to terrorists and his longtime leadership of the most repressive dictatorship, outside of Saddam's and the Taliban's, in the Middle East. And I think you underestimate the power of the Revolutionary Guards, who just got their guy Ahmadinejad into the presidency, may have controlled much of the vote counting, and are dominated by extremists. Recall that in China, at every point of decision since Mao's death, it has been the Army that decided matters, and they have always deposed democrats.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 6:01 PM

oj - Remember, the Guardian Council disqualified Moin. Khamanei dominates the Guardian Council and it's unlikely he was fond of Moin. The consensus among Iranian bloggers was that Moin was reinstated shortly before the election only because it became clear that turnout was going to be very low, and Khamanei was worried the regime would lose legitimacy abroad in the event of poor turnout. The goal was to attract voters, but they were never going to let him win.

Of the original six candidates, Ali Larijani was thought to be Khamanei's guy. Khamanei pointed called for "a younger president to lead a young nation" on national television, while Larijani, who's 48, was sitting at his left and Rafsanjani, who's 72, was sitting at his right. Supposedly things got tense between Khamanei and Rafsanjani during Rafsanjani's presidency, due to a great deal of corruption by Rafsanjani benefitting his many relatives.

Again, it's hard to say what the truth is. But I think it's likely that the Revolutionary Guards used their juice / control over the vote counting to get Ahmadinejad elected, even though he's quite unpopular. After the election Khamanei saw that the military was attempting to seize power from the mullahs, and patched up his relation with Rafsanjani to help counterbalance the Revolutionary Guards.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 6:21 PM


That reflects not only a misunderstanding of how Iran works but of simple chronology. Khaneini reversed the Council within a week:

The argument that they rigged the election but not in favor of "Khameini's guy" is just weird.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 6:36 PM

Chronology - Yes, but all this occurred only a few weeks before the election. Iran has a 1-month campaign season.

How Iran works - As your BBC article notes, Khamanei appointed every one of the members of the Guardian Council, and they come from his clique, the mullahs. Surely Khamanei supported the initial exclusion of Moin.

The vote management, like all large-scale government activities that require tens of thousands or more trusted regime supporters, was overseen by the Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad was the head of the Revolutionary Guards, and has emerged as the leader of a military faction that is rivalling the mullahs. Why shouldn't they have rigged the election for Ahmadinejad?

Again, I don't much trust my interpretation of Iranian regime politics. But I don't see much evidence for your view. Having orchestrated the Iranian nuclear program, decades of terror sponsorship, the building up of Hezbollah, and contributing to attacks against Americans in Iraq, Khamenei is supposed to be a moderate reformer now?

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 7:28 PM


No, he isn't a moderate. But he is the leader of Iran and is aware of its problems. If the Revolution and its version of Islam can't improve peoples lives then it is not just a political failure but is a failure according to Allah. He has to accept reform. He hasn't though accepted that the reform must include removing him and his fellow ayatollahs from the power they now hold. Thus the incoherence and dysfunction within the regime.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 7:56 PM

Now you're making sense. But it doesn't mean there aren't regime members, maybe the most powerful ones, who intend to deliver success through oil conquests, or to substitute empire and power for peaceful prosperity.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 8:51 PM

It also could be that a reason for the semi-split between military and mullahs is that the mullahs agree with your logic, the military doesn't.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 8:54 PM


Sure there must be regime members who want to, but Khamenei doesn't appear to be one.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 8:59 PM

Khamenei I think is less of a leader than a broker/dealmaker, who is acceptable to all the regime elements, and brokers compromise among the various regime factions.

Whatever he wants, he's gone along with all the preparations for war.

Posted by: pj at March 15, 2006 9:48 PM

No, he hasn't. He's even issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons. Of course, he also calls for Israel to give its up, which is only fair from an Iranian perspective.

Posted by: oj at March 15, 2006 10:16 PM

Yeah, quite fair: "Give up your nuclear weapons, while we continue to fund terrorist strikes against you."

Even Iranian mullahs can't be that stupid.

Posted by: Noam Chomsky at March 16, 2006 12:16 AM

Would you give up a nuke building program when others had them aimed at you?

We're not gonna give ours up and no one threatens us.

Posted by: oj at March 16, 2006 12:19 AM