With all attention focused on the conflict between the Islamic Republic and the United Nations over the nuclear issue, little notice is taken of the power struggle within the Khomeinist ruling elite in Tehran.
What impact will that struggle have on the broader conflict between Tehran and the UN? Would the outcome of that struggle determine whether Iran would provoke a new war in the region?
These questions are currently debated within policymaking circles in both Europe and the United States. While the predominant American view is that any effect that the factional feud in Tehran might have on the nuclear issue is marginal, many in Europe believe that it could radically alter the very contours of the current crisis.
In recent days, have heard the European view from a number of senior British, German and French sources, including two personalities who recently conducted a series of informal talks with the Khomeinist leaders in Tehran.
Put simply, their analysis runs something like this: The economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the US, the European Union and the United Nations are beginning to bite. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the champion of the ultra-radical faction in Tehran, is losing ground against his rivals in the more conservative camp led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The so-called moderates who had tried to carve a separate constituency for themselves have now accepted Rafsanjani’s leadership, as have some disappointed radicals like former National Security advisor Ali Larijani. The showdown between the two factions will take place in the general elections scheduled for next March. If things continue as they are, the coalition led by Rafsanjani could win the election and transform Ahmadinejad into a lame duck. This is why Ahmadinejad is trying to provoke a limited war that would leave the regime in place while enabling him to secure new legitimacy as a defender of the nation.
Analysts draw three conclusions from this analysis:
* The outside world should help Rafsanjani’s faction regain power and purge the radicals under Ahmadinejad,
* The United States and its allies must not take any military action against the Islamic Republic because this would strengthen Ahmadinejad,
* From now until next spring’s election, economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Islamic Republic should be toughened to send a clear message that Iran will suffer as long as the radical faction is in charge.
All this sounds logical. But is it?
Students of Iran’s recent history know that a power struggle has been a permanent feature of the Islamic Republic ever since the mullahs set up their regime in 1979. But the policy of playing one faction against another even preceded the seizure of power by the mullahs.
In 1978, the Carter administration, one of the most inept in recent US history, decided to back the faction led by Khomeini with the claim that this would prevent “the more radical faction” which included Communists and Islamic-Marxists from seizing control of the revolutionary movement.
Early in 1979, once it had become clear that Khomeini was more of a danger for everyone than the Iranian leftists might have been, the Carter administration threw its support behind the clueless Mehdi Bazargan, a good-hearted but naïve man whom Khomeini had named prime minister and used as a liberal façade for a fascist regime.
In the 1980s, the US and other Western powers pinned their hopes on a series of losers, from Abol-Hassan Banisadr to Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti and passing by Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, and, eventually, Rafsanjani, the closest thing to ” man for all seasons” in the Khomeinist era.
At one point even Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s earliest choice as heir, was designated “the man of hope.”
And, yet, none of those champions of hope succeeded in taming the beast let loose by Khomeini. Some were even murdered, exiled or de-frocked and humiliated.
In the 1990s, much hope was pinned on Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah who had abandoned his own radical past and developed a moderate profile. When his first four-year term ended in disappointment, hopes were pinned on his second term. But that too ended without the self-styled “reformists” offering any reforms whatever.
His supporters claim that he offered the US major concessions by suspending Iran’s uranium enrichment plan. That move, however, was the root cause of the current crisis. By keeping the whole issue suspended in a diplomatic vacuum, Khatami made sure that it would be used by the radicals as an excuse for sabotaging any attempt at normalising Iran’s ties with the major democracies.
Let us return to the present time.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly made one thing clear: his no-compromise stance is based on the assumption that no one will dare take military action against his regime. In interviews granted on the margins of the OPEC summit last week, he repeatedly asserted that he US, bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq and “overexposed and exhausted” was in no position to hit the Islamic Republic. “There is not going to be war,” he repeated like a blocked old vinyl record.
Thus to reassure him that no military action will be taken against the Islamic Republic until after the next Iranian election is simply to confirm his analysis. And that, in turn, would enable him to tell the Iranian electorate that he has taken on the “Great Satan” in direct diplomatic combat and won. Under such circumstances, it is unlikely that anyone would want to vote for Rafsanjani and his coalition of corrupt mullahs and businessmen?
At the same time, toughening sanctions against Iran would certainly make life harder for a majority of Iranians. But would it weaken Ahmadinejad’s resolve to “make history”, as he claims, by taking on the major powers and defeating them on a clear issue that everyone understands?
At his joint press conference with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez the other day in Tehran, Ahmadinejad repeated his guest’s analysis that the US was on the verge of collapse.
Ahmadinejad’s defiant and macho talk resonates well with the regime’s revolutionary base that has no time for rich mullahs and their associates. Thus, any sign of weakness by the US and its allies would strengthen, rather than weaken, the most radical faction within the Khomeinist establishment.
A policy based on the assumption that Rafsanjani and the rich mullahs will make a comeback and, anxious to protect their investments, help cool things down may sound attractive in the current gloomy atmosphere if only because it implies a ray of hope. But hope is no substitute for a policy.