In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Obama faces a Persian rebuff

Posted by seumasach on July 1, 2009


Asia Times

1st July, 2009

Twitter can now revert to its plan to shut down its Iran services and attend to maintenance work. Twitter goes into recess pleased that it probably embarrassed a resurgent regional power. The United States government owes Twitter a grand salute for having done something where all other stratagems of war and peace failed in the past three decades.

However, Persian stories have long endings. The Iranian regime shows every sign of closing ranks and pulling its act together in the face of what it assessed to be an existential threat to theVilayat-e faqih (rule of the clergy) system. Even if the US and Britain want to walk away from their nasty spat with Tehran, which would be an eminently sensible and logical thing to do, the latter may not allow them to do that.

When Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used a colorful Persian idiom to characterize European and American officials and when he underscored that the ground on which they stood inevitably gets “soiled”, he made it clear that Tehran will not easily forget the fusillades of mockery that the US and Britain in particular fired over the past fortnight to tarnish its rising regional profile. In a veiled warning, Khamenei said, “Some European and American officials with their idiotic remarks about Iran are speaking as if their own problems [read Iraq, Afghanistan] have all been resolved and Iran remains the only issue for them.”

Iran has had a tortuous history, overflowing with what US President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech called “tension … fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies with regard to their own aspirations”. The “red line” for Tehran through the past three decades has always been any foreign attempt at forcing regime change. That line has been breached.

The Iranian security establishment has begun digging deeper and deeper into what really happened. Gholam Hossein Nohseni Ejei, the powerful Intelligence Minister, has alleged from available data that there has been a concerted attempt to stir up unrest by world powers that were “upset about a stable and secure Iran”, and plots to assassinate Iranian leaders.

Unsubstantiated allegations do not stick. But uncomfortable questions will arise in the coming days and weeks. Doubts arise already about the mysterious death of Neda Aqa-Soltan. Again, the dead included eight trained Basiji militiamen. Who killed them? Indeed, who led the charge of the light brigade?

It is a little-known slice of history that in the countdown to the Anglo-American coup in Tehran against Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953, the US Central Intelligence Agency lost nerve just as the Tehran street protests – eerily similar to the recent unrest – were about to be staged, but the British intelligence outpost in Cyprus which coordinated the entire operation held firm, forced the pace and ultimately created a fait accompli for Washington.

At any rate, Tehran is going after Britain – “the most treacherous of foreign powers”, to use Khamenei’s words. Marching orders have been given to two British diplomats posted in Tehran, and four local employees working in the British Embassy remain under detention for questioning. This is despite robust gesticulations by London that it is not stepping anything up on Tehran’s streets. A Foreign Office statement in London pleaded that it is Iran’s nuclear program that is driving Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and not outrage over civil rights or the death of innocents.

London is manifestly anxious to vacate the scene as quickly as possible, and hopes it can be business as usual with Iran. But Obama faces a much more complex challenge. He cannot emulate Brown. He needs to get engaged with Iran. The challenge facing Obama is that not only has the Iranian regime not cracked, it has shown incredible resilience.

Regime closes ranks
If the rumor was that the intriguing silence of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani meant he was plotting in the holy city of Qom and challenging Khamenei’s writ, it was not to be so. On Sunday, Rafsanjani openly came out with a statement endorsing Khamenei. We see the unmistakable contours of an understanding.

“The developments following the presidential vote were a complex conspiracy plotted by suspicious elements with the aim of creating a rift between the people and the Islamic establishment and causing them to lose their trust in the [Vilayat-e faqih] system. Such plots have always been neutralized whenever the people have entered the scene with vigilance,” Rafsanjani said.

He lauded Khamenei for extending the Guardians Council’s move to extend the deadline by five days to review issues pertaining to the election and removing ambiguities. “This valuable move by the leader to restore the people’s confidence in the election process was very effective,” Rafsanjani pointed out. In a separate meeting with a delegation of majlis (parliament) members on Thursday, Rafsanjani said his attachment to Khamenei is “endless” and that he enjoys a close relationship with the supreme leader and he fully complies withVelayat-e faqih.

On Saturday, the Expediency Council, which is headed by Rafsanjani, called on defeated candidates to “observe the law and resolve conflicts and disputes [concerning the election] through legal channels”. Meanwhile, Mohsen Rezai, the opposition candidate and former head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and former majlis speaker Nateq-Nouri, the leading pillar in Iranian politics, have also reconciled.

Thus, Mir Hossein Mousavi stands isolated. Disregarding Mousavi’s demur, the Guardians Council ordered a partial recount of 10% of random ballot boxes across the country in front of state television cameras. The recount reconfirmed late on Monday evening the result of the June 12 poll and advised the Interior Ministry that “the Guardians Council after studying the issues dismisses all the complaints received, and approves the accuracy of the 10th presidential election”.

Monday’s recount showed a slight surge in the votes of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the province of Kerman. Mousavi is now left with the dicey option to resort to “civil disobedience” but he won’t exercise it – to the dismay of Western commentators whom he apparently impressed as “Iran’s Gandhi”.

If the prognosis was that the speaker of the majlis, Ali Larijani, was showing promise as a potential dissident leader, it also has been debunked. On Monday, while addressing the executive committee meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference at Algiers, Larijani lashed out at the US policy of “interfering” in the internal affairs of Middle East countries. He advised Obama to abandon such policy: “This change will be beneficial both to the region and to the US itself.”

The Obama administration has some hard choices to make. It was sustained criticism and pressure mounted by networks of anti-Iranian groups and powerful lobbies ensconced within theUS Congress and the political class – apart from quarters within the security establishment which have an old score to settle with Tehran but have an abominable record of misreading the vicissitudes of Iranian politics – that forced Obama to harden his stance.

Softening the hard stance will be a difficult and politically embarrassing process. Much statesmanship is also needed. The best outcome is that Washington can take a pause and resume its efforts to engage Iran after a decent interval.

A meaningful dialogue in the coming weeks seems improbable. Meanwhile, nitpickings such as the denial of visa for the Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoudi to visit New York to attend the United Nations conference on the world economic crisis do not help. (Davoudi is an advocate of liberal economic perspectives.) Nor will the US’s likely decision to pursue the sanctions route towards Iran at the forthcoming Group of Eight summit meeting in Trieste, Italy, on July 8-10. (In May, Iran surpassed Saudi Arabia as the top oil exporter from the Persian Gulf to China.)

In sum, the Obama administration badly fumbled after a magnificent start in addressing the situation around Iran. As the distinguished policymaker and commentator Leslie H Gelb argues in his new book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, Obama had an option “to use the Libyan model, whereby Washington and Tripoli put all cards on the table and traded them most satisfactorily”.

Iran will retaliate
Also, the regional milieu can only work to Iran’s advantage. Iraq remains dangerously poised. The US’s fortunes in Afghanistan swing from possible defeat to avoidance of defeat. Turkey has distanced itself from the European stance apropos the recent developments in Iran. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan have greeted Ahmadinejad’s victory. Moscow eventually concluded the regime wasn’t threatened.

China emerges as the absolute “winner” in correctly assessing from day 1 the undercurrents of Iran’s obscure revolutionary politics. Beijing has never before expressed so openly such staunch solidarity with the Iranian regime in warding off Western pressure. Neither Syria nor Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza showed any inclination to disengage from Iran.

True, Syria’s ties with Saudi Arabia have improved in the past six months and Damascus welcomes the Obama administration’s recent overtures. But far from adopting the Saudi or US agenda toward Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem questioned the legitimacy of the street protests in Tehran.

He warned last Sunday when Tehran streets were witnessing unrest: “Anyone betting on the fall of the Iranian regime will be a loser. The [1979] Islamic revolution is a reality, deeply rooted in Iran, and the international community [read US] must live with that.”

Moallem called for the “establishment of a dialogue between Iran and the United States based on mutual respect and non-interference in Iran’s affairs”. Equally, success for Saad Hariri as the newly elected prime minister of Lebanon – and the country’s overall stability – will hinge on his reconciliation with rivals allied to Syria and Iran.

All things taken into account, therefore, there has been a policy crisis in Washington. The paradox is that the Obama administration will now deal with a Khamenei who is at the peak of his political power in all his past two decades as supreme leader. As for Ahmadinejad, he will now negotiate from a position of unprecedented strength. Arguably, it helps when your adversary is strong so that he can take tough decisions, but in this case the analogy doesn’t hold.

Ahmadinejad left hardly anything to interpretation when he stated in Tehran on Saturday, “Without doubt, Iran’s new government will have a more decisive and firmer approach towards the West. This time the Iranian nation’s reply will be harsh and more decisive” and will aim at making the West regret its “meddlesome stance”. Most certainly, Tehran will not be replying through the Twitter.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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