"Do you want to speak with this tone? If that is your stance, then what is left to talk about?" So said a defiant Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today, in response to Barack Obama's calculated escalation of commentary (from "we respect..." to "we stand behind..." to "I strongly condemn..."). That escalation — and, in turn, the would-be Iranian president's call for Obama to "avoid interfering in Iran's affairs" — is a direct effect of the brave (if waning) uprising in the streets of Tehran and beyond. But the rhetoric reflects a more complex and surprising reality — that we are now at the beginning of what is likely to be a long and nasty internal struggle, one that will inevitably force the Iranian regime to publicly reveal its true colors. And that process alone is, strategically, quite positive for American interests during this widely recognized era of Shia revival throughout the Middle East. At this, the moment of our great weakness and vulnerability — both at home and in the region — we have been incredibly blessed by this spontaneous discrediting of the mullahs' theocratic rule.
But make no mistake: Our diplomatic leverage has everything to do with the dynamics of unrest in Iran, not its de facto leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi. If Obama seems prepared for the long haul, it is because he recognizes this nuance (Ahmadinejad, in comparing him to Bush, seemed to not realize that the times were a-changin'). "This is not about the United States and the West," Obama said at his Tuesday press conference. "This is about the people of Iran, and the future that they — and only they — will choose." America's one true strategic asset in this equation, then, is the widespread desire of the Iranian people for improved relations with the United States. Remember, this is the one country in the region where it's the ruling regime that hates America and the public that admires it. Everywhere else, it's the other way around — and only because we pay through the nose.
But, as I mentioned last week, the Red State-Blue State divide in Iran runs close and deep. Ahmadinejad is truly loved in the countryside because he promises to hold all the scary and libertine forces of globalization at bay. And while the demographics — roughly 70 percent of Iran is under the age of 30 — would seem to lean in favor of the opposition's rise, the opposition (whose stunning courage in the face of violence should not be lost on anyone) remains relatively unorganized, for two reasons:
1. The Revolutionary Guard Is Taking Control
The thugs you see beating up Tehran's educated youth and urban professionals — and, today, allegedly detaining 70 professors for meeting with Moussavi — are members of an expanding elite force of military and security operatives known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are running scared, but they are, like their never-to-be-underestimated leader Ahmadinejad, running straight ahead into their fears as the putch continues.
The danger to the Guards in this case, as The Economist argued this week, "is that Iran's pure Islamic identity will be diluted by a wave of Western materialism, encouraged by a corrupt elite whose revolutionary ardor has faded." Again, it's American-style emancipation (aka globalization) knocking at the door, and while a Moussavi-led candidacy may have exposed the Guard's greatest fears (His wife is campaigning with her progressive fashion sense threatening to sue Ahmadinejad for slander!), the Moussavi-backed protests have exposed the Guard's great, if misogynist, power (it was no accident that one of the first opposition figures targeted for arrest was former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's outspoken daughter, and then, of course, there's Neda).
You need look no further than at the dissident clerics marching with protestors for a sure sign of the mullahs' disintegrating grip. But while the end of clerical rule seems at hand (bye-bye, Supreme Leader; hello, pliant bobblehead!), the internally brutal and externally aggressive rule of the Revolutionary Guard (and, by proxy, Ahmadinejad) is just going into overdrive.
2. Moussavi Is a Mistaken Revolutionary
In another case of today's uptick in rhetoric, Moussavi offered some bite on his Web site: "I will not back down," "it is a must for us to neutralise this evil conspiracy," and "I am prepared to prove that those behind the rigging are responsible for the bloodshed."
But the harsh truth remains: Moussavi was a candidate mischosen by history — a figure not unlike Howard Dean, who in 2004 offered a faint preview of what Obama largely fulfilled four years later. In the televised debates during the long Iranian campaign, the politically astute Ahmadinejad totally kicked the former prime minister's ass. Unfortunately, the truly potential game-changing candidate, current Tehran mayor Muhammed Qalibef, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guard but widely perceived as more the technocratic problem-solver, was talked out of running by the powers-that-be. If Qalibef had been the recipient of the opposition's (still arguably misplaced) fervor, the Guards would have likely acquiesced. And who knows where things could have ended up then?
But, alas, for now the opposition lacks any great unifying figure. This is an upscale Solidarnosc in the making, but it lacks its Lech Walesa (or, perhaps, more befitting of its class origins, a Vaclav Havel). Still, despite the diminishing size of protests in Tehran after the Guard's crackdown (Mehdi Karroubi cancelled his today, and it remained unclear whether Moussavi's encouragement to gather at Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei's shrine had been followed), word abounds that nationwide strikes are the next step for the opposition. That may force the Revolutionary Guards to institute martial law, and we know how that worked out for General Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Polish communist regime.
Obama, for his part (where has Hillary Clinton been?), might consider working quietly and behind the scenes (he does need Tehran's forbearance in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear labs, after all) to encourage such a pathway for a nation-wide opposition. Although Obama may be enjoying some Reagan-esque good timing here, but Ahmadinejad could get caught in some Nixon-esque ambition, and there would be nothing better than protests beyond even the Guard's control to expose to the world the naked ambitions of Iran's "re-elected" president.
Those ambitions, since 2004, have been to openly and aggressively expand the powers of the heretofore weak Iranian presidency. Ahmadinejad's goal all along has been to create a non-clerical ruling power base, and this mishandled "landslide" pulls back the curtains on his quest for an "imperial presidency" reminiscent of Richard Nixon's in that it answers to no opposition — either at home or abroad. Like Nixon, Ahmadinejad is now forced to fight a difficult two-front war: against the furor of both his people and the West. And that immense challenge just may finally render him — believe it or not — our preferred negotiating partner in any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
Foreign policy realists (myelf included) have long maintained that, if "only Nixon can go to China," then logically only a hardliner like Ahmadinejad can come to America. You have to understand that, if Moussavi had been slimly elected, the knives would have come out immediately regarding any potential opening with Obama, who is proving — again, in Reagan-esque fashion — to be an ideological nightmare for the regime. As one conservative told Time magazine's Joe Klein:
Look, for the past 30 years, the Supreme Leader — first Khomeini, now Khamenei — has blamed all our problems on the Great Satan. If you take away the Great Satan and we still have problems, how does he explain it?
But Ahmadinejad, with his record — again, in Nixon-esque fashion — for doggedly hating the regime's avowed enemies (Israel and America), could likewise employ a Nixonian reversal under the right conditions. Just as Beijing's paranoia with the Soviets in the early 1970s left China isolated and internally conflicted, Iran faces a conflict with Israel that it cannot win, even as it might temporarily rally the public around the flag. Moreover, the regime's emerging economic sponsor and largest importer of its oil and gas — China, again — has zero interest in seeing its future supplies put at danger by war.
What would those conditions entail? At best, we might talk Iran into curtailing its nuclear program to a point just shy of open weaponization, in exchange for an ending of economic sanctions and the normalization of ties with the United States. That might not be enough to stave off Israeli strikes, but Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard must realize how much this display of crippling internal weakness has empowered the region's anti-Iran Sunni coalition (led by Saudi Arabia), so beggars can't be choosers.
And, yes, that diplomatic scenario could be politically galling for the Obama administration. And, yes, we're nowhere near the point where Ahmadinejad and the Guards are likely to deal. But we're a helluva lot closer than we were just a dozen days ago. So the longer this unrest continues, the better Obama's poker hand becomes.