A struggle for Iran’s soul

Ahead of the election,the US must encourage gradual reform,and work around Iran’s prickly pride

Written by New York Times | Published: February 11, 2009 3:10 am

What Iran fears most is a Gorbachev figure,somebody from within the regime who in the name of compromise with the West ends up selling out the revolution and destroying its edifice.

The jostling ahead of the June 12 presidential election — the world’s most important since America’s — must be viewed through this prism. The core debate is: can Iran manage a Chinese-style reform where its Islamic hierarchy endures through change,or does opening to America equal Soviet-style implosion?

The “Death to America” chants at rallies,twinned with a punchy “Death to Israel,” seem answer enough. The regime will stick to the game it knows. But Iran is rarely what it seems. It goes out of its way to mask its sophistication.

Jahangir Amirhusseini,a veteran lawyer once imprisoned by the mullahs,told me,“To create trust,deception is necessary.” He was serious. What he meant was politics is about artful gambits; the US has favoured the sledgehammer.

This has proved a lousy instrument. Iranian ascendancy has coincided with American difficulty. Under President Obama,US policy towards Iran should be rooted in convincing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,the supreme leader,that the price of engagement is not extinction.

Herein lies the key to the Persian theocracy over which Khamenei presides.

But his rule is less than absolute. Khamenei is the largest minority shareholder (albeit one with God-given preferred stock) in a system where repression and hard-won freedoms vie,as do authoritarianism and democracy.

Which brings us to the critical June election and former President Mohammad Khatami,the reformist once seen as Iran’s Gorbachev-in-waiting. He wasn’t. His 1997-2005 presidency left many Iranians disappointed. At the breach,he retreated. Student protests in 1999 and 2003 died before gaining traction.

Still,liberalising economic reform and dialogue were as much the Khatami hallmark as bombastic mismanagement has been that of his successor,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As tumbling oil compounds the cost of Ahmadinejad’s crony-rewarding profligacy,and Iranians wonder where on earth (or beyond) the billions went,the announcement Sunday of Khatami’s candidacy galvanised the race.

Khatami laid to rest days of rumours by saying Iran’s “historical demand for freedom,independence and justice” obliged him to run. It was significant that he placed freedom,an unfulfilled promise of the shah-toppling revolution,first.

His chief opponent will be the incumbent,Ahmadinejad,who remains the favourite. The president’s success in projecting Iran as the voice of the world’s disinherited,his fast-forwarding of the nuclear program and his popular touch have impressed Khamenei.

But the impetuosity that has made Ahmadinejad the Unidentified Flying Object of global politics has given the guardian of the revolution — and many millions of voters — pause.

One theory holds that Ahmadinejad would favour Iranian glasnost in response to Obama because he believes it’s not Iranian theocracy that would collapse,but America! He’s been swayed by signs of capitalism following Communism onto history’s trash heap. But I’m not convinced he’d ever shift from a hard line.

The West’s strong interest lies in stopping another Ahmadinejad term. Given that Ahmadinejad thrives on confrontation,this isn’t what Obama should dish out. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent patronising tone — “Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation” — was dead wrong.

Mostafa Tajzadeh,Khatami’s former deputy interior minister,told me: “Bush did a lot of damage to the reform movement. We would welcome an immediate calming of the atmosphere from Obama,with the military option set aside.” Kazem Jalali,the spokesman for the parliamentary national security committee,said America should “stop looking down from a domineering viewpoint.”

Before the election,Obama must declare that the US does not seek regime change. He should also clarify that America wants an “honest broker” role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to supplant Bush’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

Such measures would help Khatami or perhaps a conservative pragmatist like Tehran’s mayor,Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf,by undercutting Ahmadinejad’s tirades. A moderate president wouldn’t solve the nuclear issue (Khamenei leans toward intransigence) but would help.

The Iranian Revolution,at 30,has independence at its core. The satellite launch,like the nuclear program,is about national pride. To open the system,without overthrowing it,which must be the US aim,requires ingenious indulgence of that pride,not finger-wagging. The time for change young Iranians can believe in is well before June 12.

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