Israel’s Gift to Iran’s Hard-Liners
Posted on Jun 10, 2010
By Juan Cole
Suppressing the Green Movement
From last summer through last winter, the hardliners of the Islamic Republic of Iran were powerfully challenged by reformists, who charged that the June 12, 2009, presidential election had been marked by extensive fraud. Street protests were so large, crowds so enthusiastic, and the opposition so steadfast that it seemed as if Iran were on the brink of a significant change in its way of doing business, possibly even internationally. The opposition—the most massive since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79—was dubbed the Green Movement, because green is the color of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, among whom losing presidential candidate Mirhossein Moussavi is counted. Although some movement supporters were secularists, many were religious, and so disarmingly capable of deploying the religious slogans and symbols of the Islamic Republic against the regime itself.
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The Israeli government liked what it was hearing; Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu even went on “Meet the Press” last summer to praise the Green Movement fulsomely. “I think something very deep, very fundamental is going on,” he said, “and there’s an expression of a deep desire amid the people of Iran for freedom, certainly for greater freedom.”
Popular unrest only became possible thanks to a split at the top among the civilian ruling elite of clerics and fundamentalists. When presidential candidates Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and their clerical backers, including Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanaei and wily former president and billionaire entrepreneur Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, began to challenge the country’s authoritarian methods of governance, its repression of personal liberties, and the quixotic foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad (whom Moussavi accused of making Iran a global laughingstock), it opened space below.
The reformers would be opposed by Iran’s supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who defended the presidential election results as valid, even as he admitted to his preference for Ahmadinejad’s views. He was, in turn, supported by most senior clerics and politicians, the great merchants of the bazaar, and most significantly, the officer corps of the police, the basij (civilian militia), the regular army, and the Revolutionary Guards. Because there would be no significant splits among those armed to defend the regime, it retained an almost unbounded ability to crackdown relentlessly. In the process, the Revolutionary Guards, generally Ahmadinejad partisans, only grew in power.
A year later, it’s clear that the hardliners have won decisively through massive repression, deploying basij armed with clubs on motorcycles to curb crowds, jailing thousands of protesters, and torturing and executing some of them. The main arrow in the opposition’s quiver was flashmobs, relatively spontaneous mass urban demonstrations orchestrated through Twitter, cell phones, and Facebook. The regime gradually learned how to repress this tactic through the careful jamming of electronic media and domestic surveillance. (Apparently the Revolutionary Guards now even have a Facebook Espionage Division.) While the opposition can hope to keep itself alive as an underground civil rights movement, for the moment its chances for overt political change appear slim.
Though few have noted this, the Green Movement actually threw a monkey wrench into President Obama’s hopes to jump-start direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. His team could hardly sit down with representatives of Ayatollah Khamenei while the latter was summarily tossing protesters in filthy prisons to be mistreated and even killed. On October 1, 2009, however, with the masses no longer regularly in the streets, representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany met directly with a representative of Khamenei in Geneva.
A potentially pathbreaking nuclear agreement was hammered out whereby Iran would ship the bulk of its already-produced low-enriched uranium (LEU) to another country. In return, it would receive enriched rods with which it could run its single small medical reactor, producing isotopes for treating cancer. That reactor had been given to the Shah’s Iran in 1969, and the last consignment of nuclear fuel purchased for it, from Argentina, was running out. The agreement appealed to the West, because it would deprive Iran of a couple of tons of LEU that, at some point, could theoretically be cycled back through its centrifuges and enriched from 3.5% to over 90%, or weapons grade, for the possible construction of nuclear warheads. There is no evidence that Iran has such a capability or intention, but the Security Council members agreed that safe was better than sorry.
With Khamenei’s representative back in Iran on October 2, the Iranians suddenly announced that they would take a timeout to study it. That timeout never ended, assumedly because Khamenei had gotten a case of cold feet. Though we can only speculate, perhaps nuclear hardliners argued that holding onto the country’s stock of LEU seemed to the hardliners like a crucial form of deterrence in itself, a signal to the world that Iran could turn to bomb-making activities if a war atmosphere built.
Given that nuclear latency—the ability to launch a successful bomb-making program—has geopolitical consequences nearly as important as the actual possession of a bomb, Washington, Tel Aviv, and the major Western European powers remain eager to forestall Iran from reaching that status. As the Geneva fiasco left the impression that the Iranian regime was not ready to negotiate in good faith, the Obama team evidently decided to respond by ratcheting up sanctions on Iran at the Security Council, evidently in hopes of forcing its nuclear negotiators back to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was loudly demanding the imposition of “crippling” international sanctions on Tehran.
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