Is the Obama administration shedding its illusions about the Khomeinist regime in Tehran?
Six months ago it would have been naive to pose the question.
Today, it is not.
For there are signs that at least some key players in the new American administration are beginning to see beyond Obama’s rose-tinted glasses when it comes to dealing with the Islamic Republic in Iran.
It is, to be sure, too early to speak of any significant policy change. The Obama administration continues to have no credible policy on Iran.
What has changed is the analysis of the problem.
Initially, Obama saw the Iran problem in the same way he analysed other major policy issues: everything was the fault of George W Bush. Thus all that Obama needed to do was to do the opposite of what he thought Bush had been doing for eight years.
Obama’s analysis of the Iran problem was based on four assumptions. The first was that Tehran’s rulers were behaving the way they did, including their quest for a nuclear arsenal and their support for terrorist groups, because they were afraid of an American invasion. Thus it was sufficient for the new president to provide assurances that no such invasion was thought of for the Khomeinist leaders to start changing their behaviour.
There are signs that the Obama administration is beginning to abandon that assumption. Even Vice President Joseph Biden, sympathetic to the Khomeinist regime from its first days, now admits that Tehran’s rulers may indeed be prisoners of mad messianic dreams that cannot be accommodated through diplomatic give-and-take.
Obama’s second assumption was that the Khomeinist leaders had not yet decided to build a nuclear arsenal and that their claim of pursuing only a peaceful programme should not be dismissed out of hand.
That assumption, too, has been blown out of water by facts.
When Obama became president, the Islamic Republic had 400 working centrifuges enriching uranium up to a meagre 3.5 per cent. A year later, there are 8000 working centrifuges in Iran, some enriching uranium up to 20 per cent.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has even claimed that the number of working centrifuges could be raised to 50,000 or more within a few months with a capacity of enriching up to 80 per cent or more.
His message is clear: we can build a bomb when we want!
Obama may still doubt that Tehran wants to build the bomb. But his CIA director, Leon Panetta, thinks otherwise. In a testimony at the Congress in Washington, Panetta said that evidence was mounting that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear project was essentially designed with military objectives in mind.
Obama’s third assumption was that the Islamic Republic, much like the Communist China of 1972 when President Richard Nixon made his famous trip to Peking, had a central leadership capable of imposing its will at home and delivering on its promises to foreign partners.
For more than a year, Obama spokesmen dismissed Ahmadinejad and claimed that all power in the Islamic Republic was in the hands of the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenehi.
Obama sent two hand-written letters to Khamenehi and asked at least four Arab “mutual” friends to deliver verbal messages of reconciliation and friendship to the ayatollah who chose not to answer.
That assumption, too, is being discarded, at least by some key figures of the administration.
It is now clear that Khamenehi, always an indecisive leader, is not an Iranian version of Deng Xiao-ping and in no position to enter into a Grand Bargain with the Great Satan.
The Islamic Republic, having began as a theocracy with a veneer of pseudo-democracy designed to fool the Iranian middle classes, is now well on the way to transformation into a typical Third World- style military-security dictatorship.
Last weekend, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that fact by stating that the Khomeinist regime was now morphing into a military regime.
Many observers of the Iranian scene agree.
As the star of the mullahs, among them Khamenehi, wanes that of the generals running the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rises. Obama would be wiser to send his next hand-written letter to IRGC Commander General Muhammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari rather than Khamenehi.
Obama’s fourth assumption was that the Islamic Republic was a stable system and unlikely to be shaken by domestic upheaval or external pressure.
Thus, Bush’s quest for regime change had been a mirage.
(The fact is that Bush never adopted regime change as a policy and on at least three occasions tried to ‘engage’ the Khomeinist regime with no success.)
That assumption, too, is being abandoned in Washington.
Obama cannot have failed to see what has been happening in Iran since last June’s disputed presidential election. A regime that is forced to have recourse to a full-scale military operation to control its capital simply to stage a demonstration cannot be described as stable.
Some foreign companies with long histories of aiding the Khomeinist regime are beginning to understand that the regime is vulnerable. Austrian companies have just withdrawn from a multi-billion dollar projects designed to build two pipelines to ship Iranian natural gas to Pakistan and India and to Europe.
Germany’s Siemens has terminated all its activities in Iran, ending a presence that dates back to 1875.
A Malaysian group of investors has walked out of a scheme to help Iran sell government bonds on the global capital market.
A plan for creating two new Turkish banks to help their Iranian counterparts beat US sanctions has been abandoned.
Countries such as Spain, Austria, Greece, Dubai and Malaysia that have helped the Islamic Republic beat the sanctions for years are beginning to review their policies.
Overall trade between Iran and the European Union fell by 13 per cent in 2009. Germany, Iran’s main partner in the European Union, has reduced trade with Iran by 17 per cent.
Even China is showing concern about the uncertain future of the Khomeinist regime. Talks about building 10 oil refineries and at least five nuclear power stations remain frozen, despite Ahmadinejad’s promises of “a leap forward” in meeting the nation’s energy needs.
At least some in the Obama administration a re now prepared to consider regime change as a possibility.
Obama’s National Security Advisor General Jim Jones has gone even further by stating publicly that the new set of sanctions being discussed in Washington are designed to “contribute to accelerating regime change” in Tehran.
Although Washington’s analysis seems to be changing, two problems remain.
The first and the most important, is that it is not clear whether Obama himself is prepared to admit that his initial analysis had been wrong. The second problem is that a mere change of analysis may remain an intellectual exercise without generating a new policy.