Can the U.S. Deal With a Divided Iran?

Can the U.S. Deal With a Divided Iran?

“The most treacherous government is Britain,” Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, intoned at Friday prayers on June 19, and I had to laugh. The Supreme Leader, in the midst of announcing a crackdown on the Green Revolution demonstrators, was sounding like the lead character in the most famous contemporary Iranian novel, My Uncle Napoleon, a huge hit as a television series in the 1970s. Uncle Napoleon is a beloved paranoid curmudgeon, the Iranian Archie Bunker. He blames everything — the weather, the economy, the moral vagaries of his family — on the British. This has been a constant theme in Iranian public life for at least 100 years, although the U.S. has supplanted Britain as the Great Satan, the source of all Iranian miseries, since the revolution of 1979.

Suddenly, now, the Brits were back, and you had to wonder why. Certainly the BBC’s Persian service, the most popular source of news for better-educated Iranians, was a real problem for the regime. Khamenei and various flunkies also blamed the U.S., especially the CIA, for the unrest, but the attacks on the Great Satan were muted — a curious development. Was it due to Barack Obama’s initial, temperate response to the rigged election results Was it a recognition that Obama’s Cairo speech and New Year’s greeting to the Iranian people had made him popular across the Persian political spectrum, a less convincing Satan than George W. Bush had been Was it a pragmatic recognition that one way for the regime to regain credibility with its own people would be to open negotiations with the Obama Administration, thereby demonstrating that it had credibility with the most powerful country in the world These questions, which roiled Obama’s foreign policy team and the international community as the Iranian crisis ended its second week, reflected a growing sense that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime would prevail against the demonstrators, but had seriously wounded itself in the process.

Of course, Uncle Napoleon had a point. Iran has been a long-standing target of foreign meddling. It was not just the CIA-assisted coup in 1953 against the popular democratic Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which Obama mentioned in his Cairo speech. It was also the Western support for the Shah and, worst of all in the minds of Iranians, the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, including the provision of chemicals that Saddam used to concoct poison gas. This remains an open wound in Iran.

On election day, I interviewed a woman in southern Tehran whose husband was a chemical victim of the war. There are thousands and thousands of such people among the estimated 1 million Iranian casualties of the conflict. Indeed, the war defines the current division at the top of the Iranian establishment: the breach is between the generation that made the revolution of 1979 — leaders like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, among others — and the generation that fought the Iran-Iraq war, led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cohort among the battle-hardened leadership of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The war led to a significant militarization of Iranian society, and the Supreme Leader, a member of the 1970s generation, has drifted away from his contemporaries toward the military. Among the rumors and major questions emerging from the election was whether the rigging was a quiet coup, staged by the Ahmadinejad generation against its revolutionary elders. “It is an open question whether the Supreme Leader is really in charge or is just a front for the military, led by Ahmadinejad,” an Iranian analyst speculated. But the point is moot: Khamenei, who had attempted to stand above the Iranian factions, is now yoked to Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei’s old colleagues consider this a perversion of the role of Supreme Leader — and perhaps the last best hope of the Green Revolution demonstrators was that Rafsanjani, the most powerful of the dissidents, could persuade the Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can dismiss Supreme Leaders, to take action against Khamenei. Various U.S. government sources told me they believe that the Experts are divided: one-third supporting Rafsanjani, one-third supporting the Supreme Leader, one-third undecided. It is likely that the Experts will follow the wind, unwilling to challenge the government unless the situation in the streets becomes decisively more brutal and chaotic. Rafsanjani’s fate — whether he is able to hold on to his posts as chairman of the Assembly of Experts and of the Expediency Council, or perhaps get himself named the next Supreme Leader — may be the clearest barometer of the Green Revolution’s success.

It seems clear that Obama’s carefully calibrated remarks about the events in Iran were intended to address the Uncle Napoleon factor, and also to keep the door open for negotiations with the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime. It seems equally clear that the criticism from Senator John McCain and other neoconservatives was, in part, an emotional response to the events in the streets, but also an effort to score political points against a popular President and, long term, an attempt to prevent any negotiations with Iran from taking place. McCain won and lost during the course of the battle: the terrible events in the streets — especially the public death of young Neda Agha-Soltan, recorded on a cell-phone video — made it necessary, and appropriate, for the President to move in McCain’s direction and use tougher language condemning the Iranian security forces, even if Obama continued to refuse to question the legitimacy of the Iranian government.

But McCain also lost, because of the bluster and false analogies of his comments. He compared Obama’s diffidence to Ronald Reagan’s forcefulness in proclaiming the Soviet Union an “evil empire” in the 1980s — but even the most pro-American Iranians were infuriated by George W. Bush’s attempt to lash their country into an “axis of evil” with their mortal enemy Iraq and North Korea. The situations in Iran and the Soviet Union were nowhere near analogous. Iranians in the streets were looking for greater freedom, not the overthrow of the regime. The neocon effort to turn the Iranians into East European rebels against the Soviet Union was as crudely misleading as Benjamin Netanyahu’s fantasy that the Iranian government is a “messianic apocalyptic cult” led by mad mullahs likely to nuke Israel. The truth is, Iran’s government is a conservative, defensive, rational military dictatorship that manages to subdue its working-class majority softly, by distributing oil revenues downward.

“The Iranian government has been weakened and tainted by the events,” an Arab diplomat told me. The international implications of that weakness are unknowable, for now. “I could give you very convincing arguments either way,” an Obama Administration official told me, speaking of the prospects for negotiations with the regime. The prevailing view was that the Iranians would withdraw for a time and attempt to get their house in order. But it is also possible that the regime will move aggressively toward negotiations with the U.S., in order to convey the impression of stability and international legitimacy to its people. If that happens, the Obama Administration may be in position to gain concessions from the Iranians in the area where the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces were least willing to negotiate — Iran’s nuclear program. “Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they have to reveal all their nuclear activities, which they haven’t done,” a senior Administration official told me.

It is not impossible that a weakened Iranian regime might be willing to engage on these issues — especially if, as the Iranians insist, they are not attempting to weaponize the uranium they are enriching. Such negotiations would be a diplomatic risk worth taking. They would be a significant political risk, however — with McCain and others screaming appeasement. Whether or not to negotiate, now that the Iranian government has disgraced itself in the eyes of the world, is sure to be a defining moment for the Obama Administration.

See pictures of Iran’s presidential elections and their turbulent aftermath.