Sometime in late November or early December, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gathered his top advisers for an overall strategic review. The atmosphere was highly charged, because Khamenei’s doctors have diagnosed a serious cancer, and do not expect the Supreme Leader to live much more than a year. A succession struggle is already under way, with the apparently unsinkable Hashemi Rafsanjani in the thick of it, even though Khamenei, and his increasingly powerful son Mushtaba, is opposed to the perennial candidate-for-whatever.
Despite this disquieting news, the overall tone of the conversation was upbeat, because the Iranians believe they see many positive developments, above all, the declaration that “it has been promised that by 8 April, we will be in a position to show the entire world that ‘we are members of the club.’” This presumably refers to nuclear weapons. Against this cheery background, the assessment of the Iranian leaders continued:
‐The weakness of the Bush administration is notable. Recent public opinion polls show the country seriously divided, and the top Iranian experts on North America have concluded that the president is paralyzed, unable to make any tough decision (and hence unable to order an attack against Iran);
‐2006 is an election year, and even some Republicans are distancing themselves from Bush, weakening the White House even further;
‐Israel is facing the darkest moment in its history (remember that this conversation took place before Sharon’s stroke). Likud is divided, Netanyahu is openly against Sharon, and the Labor party has lost its old guard. No strong government is possible (and hence Israel is similarly unable to order an attack against Iran). Therefore this is a moment for Iran to take maximum advantage;
‐Iranian power and prestige is at an all-time high among the Palestinian terrorist groups, from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah, to secular, even Communist groups. Terrorists who in the past had rejected Iranian approaches now travel to Tehran for support;
‐The Syrians have given Iran final say over the activities of Sunni terrorist groups in their country;
‐Iran now exercises effective control over groups ranging from Hezbollah, Ansar al-Islam, al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jaish-e-Mahdi, and Jaish-e-Huti (Yemen) to the Joint Shi’ite Army of Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and part of Saudi Arabia, as well as Islamic movements in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia;
‐In the four and a half months since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become president, he has brought the extremist group led by Mezbah Yazdi under control, and, notably, he has forced Syria to resist all pressure from the United States;
‐The Europeans are no longer necessary for the Iranian strategy, and can now be “thrown out of our game.” They are in no position to do any damage because they are too busy fighting with one another;
‐Khamenei called for two urgent missions. The first was to do everything possible to drive up oil prices by an additional 30 percent by the first week in April. The second was to intensify the propaganda war against the West in the same period. He stressed that it was important to compel the United States to face at least three crises by the April 8.
In short, the Iranians at the highest levels of the regime believe they have good reason for behaving quite feisty, and if you look at the events that have taken place since then, you will see that the mullahs are acting consistently with the analysis presented to (and in part by) Khamenei. The propaganda war–lately and dramatically in the form of the cartoon crusades–has indeed been intensified. The Europeans have been systematically dissed, and more: their embassies in Tehran have been stoned, Iranian diplomats have insulted them with regularity, and the regime slapped a trade embargo on all goods coming from the infidel Europeans. When the French announced that the Iranian nuclear program was undoubtedly designed to produce weapons, Tehran demanded an apology. Above all, there is no longer any pretense of cooperation with the Big Three negotiators on the nuclear program.
This suggests that the mullahs do indeed believe they have acquired nuclear weapons, and there is no longer any need to play stalling games with the Germans, French, and Brits. Nor is there any reason to feign humanity in the treatment of their own people. The repression of any and all groups which might conceivably organize an anti-mullah revolution looks to reach the historic levels of the immediate post-revolutionary period, when hanging judges routinely ordered the execution of thousands of citizens for often-fabricated crimes. Of late, the regime has beaten, tortured, and incarcerated thousands of Tehran bus drivers, Bahais, Sufis, and Ahwaz Arabs, and they have even threatened the families of political prisoners, saying that the whole lot of dissidents will be killed if the U.N. votes for sanctions.
This brutal and open use of the mailed fist bespeaks utter contempt for the West; Khamenei & Co. do not think we will respond, do not fear Western action, and believe this is a historic movement for the advance of their vision of clerical fascism. But it also bespeaks a chilling recognition of their nemesis: the Iranian people. President Ahmadinejad recently canceled most foreign travel by regime officials, for example, which is not the sign of a confident mullahcracy; quite the contrary, in their heart of hearts, they know that they are walking a fragile tightrope, and their incessant preventive actions against normal Iranians look very much like Mickey Mouse in <i.Fantasia, racing frantically to stop an army of bucket-carrying brooms from drowning him.
Moreover, the runaway optimism (which in many clerical minds goes hand in hand with the conviction that the Shiite Messiah, the 12th Imam, is about to reappear, thereby ushering in the End of Days) is not as solidly grounded as the mullahs might wish. For starters, oil prices are headed south, not toward the 30-percent increase ordered by the supreme leader. And the analysis of the perceived “paralysis” of the United States is nothing more than a replay of the usual blunder committed by our enemies, who look at us and see fractious politics, widespread self-indulgence, and an unwillingness or inability to face up to real war. In this, as in so many other ways, the mullahs of the Islamic Republic are emulating failed tyrants, from the German Kaiser and Führer to the Italian Duce, the Iraqi dictator, and the Soviet Communist first secretaries, all of whom learned, to their ruin, that free societies are quite capable of turning on a dime and defending their interests and values with unanticipated ferocity.
And indeed, after years of dithering, we now have the first encouraging signs that this administration is inclined to support revolution in Iran. Secretary of State Rice, after her laudable reform of the Foreign Service, has now asked Congress for an additional $75 million to advance the cause of freedom in Iran. This is good news indeed, especially since there were hints in her testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that we have already begun supporting Iranian trade unions, and even training some of their leaders. To be sure, the bulk of the money–$50 million–will go to the bureaucratic, and thus far utterly uninspiring, group running radio and TV Farda for the State Department, and the profoundly disappointing and feckless National Endowment for Democracy and the Democratic and Republic Institutes, but at least some money is promised for independent Farsi language broadcasters. Even with these shortcomings, we should celebrate Rice’s embrace of the cause of Iranian freedom so concretely.
On the other hand, there is no reason for joy at the news that assistant secretary Steve Rademacher seems to have gratuitously and foolishly promised that we will not use military power against Iran’s nuclear facilities. There is every reason to leave such stratagems in the haze of uncertainty, even if–as I have long argued–you believe it would not be a good idea, at least at this moment. Such declarations will reinforce the mullahs’ conviction that they have nothing to fear from us, and encourage them to race ahead with their murderous actions.
Even the world at large is beginning to bestir itself. Wednesday was a day of support for the Iranian bus drivers all across the civilized world. The AFL-CIO, driven by Teamsters’ President James Hoffa, in tandem with Senator Rick Santorum, has been leading the charge, now joined by unions in France, Britain, Spain, Austria, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Bermuda. The appeasers in the Italian trade unions, like their opportunistic bosses, sat it out. Still, it’s an impressive list.
It’s a small and long overdue step forward, to be sure, but great journeys sometimes begin slowly and uncertainly. The great thing is that, after years of empty rhetoric, stalled internal debates, and the paralysis so dear to Khamenei’s heart, we have finally gotten started. Will it succeed? Do the tens of millions of Iranians who rightly hate their rulers have the stomach, the imagination, and the discipline to organize the downfall of the regime?
Nobody knows, perhaps not even the revolutionaries themselves. But America has moved, and when America moves, even gingerly, there will be ripples throughout Iran and throughout the region. The key imperative is that, now that we are in, we must persist and prevail. So far, so good: in the State of the Union the president spoke eloquently of our respect for the Iranian people and our determination to help them if they show the will and the capacity to act effectively. That was exactly the right note. And the secretary of State was similarly and appropriately modest in her rhetoric, speaking of our desire to support freedom–not announcing a national crusade, and not threatening dramatic action. It is for the Iranians to liberate their country. If they are willing to fight for freedom, we should stand with them.
Now, finally, they know we will. And the cry of “faster, please” must quickly go out to them.