Saturday, August 15, 2009

What was Mousavi thinking?

Mousavi, ever since his announcement that if he lost it was because of fraud just as Iran's polls were closing has been difficult for me to figure out. His actions have been more difficult to understand because they have been coordinated at least with Khatami's if not with Rafsanjani's which makes it difficult to hypothesize that the actions are the result of a personal decision to commit treason against the country. On the other hand, his actions are exactly those that he'd be expected to take if he had been enlisted in a program to harm Iran.

My current guess is that Mousavi, Khatami and Rafsanjani have concluded, most likely with some urging from the Obama administration, that it is a matter of historic national urgency that Ahmadinejad be removed from office. With this belief they may, possibly, even be or have been open to the idea of taking guidance from the Americans or other parties foreign to Iran in accomplishing their shared objective of removing Ahmadinejad.

The nugget of truth upon which the idea that it is especially critical to remove Ahmadinejad from power is built is that Obama seems very unusually willing to make peace with Muslims. The next US president will not have a Muslim name or father. So if the Rafsanjani faction has been made to believe that rapprochement will not be possible with Ahmadinejad in office, then their own personal ambitions for power come in line with this historic opportunity for Iran itself. Iran does not necessarily have to be defined in opposition to the United States, but breaking from that role can only, or at least best, be done, by this way of thinking, during this Obama term in office, with a president other than Ahmadinejad.

If it was just a matter of personal ambition, the Rafsanjani faction would just wait. Ahmadinejad obviously has a great deal of political appeal but cannot run in 2013. Rafsanjani and his faction could spend these years rebuilding their image and making their arguments to the Iranian people. But because by their calculations, removing Ahmadinejad right now has historic significance, they have been willing to take the most desperate gambles in hopes of getting a slight possibility that Ahmadinejad may be pushed out.

It didn't work. Mousavi and Khatami sacrificed their careers. Rafsanjani lost a tremendous amount of political standing and is saved only by his lifetime terms in his political positions. But any dreams of his succeeding Khamenei have been turned to fantasies. I think they truly believe they made noble sacrifices: they were working to save Iran from permanent hostility with America.

While I do believe their private talks with representatives of the Americans encouraged them to believe removing Ahmadinejad is of crucial importance, I do not believe it is true that Ahmadinejad ever posed a singular obstacle to engagement between the US and Iran. The idea that Ahmadinejad stands in the way of important long-term benefits to Iran is also not the kind of idea that would have needed a huge amount of foreign pushing since it is in line with each member of the Rafsanjani faction's political ambitions. But I find it difficult to believe that the Rafsanjani faction is willing to take the desperate actions we've seen at least since June 12 without some form of confirmation, that they believe ultimately comes from Obama's office, that they are correct in their assessment of the urgency of removing Ahmadinejad in order to engage the US.

The US is currently militarily deterred from attacking Iran (or even stupider, from allowing Israel to attack Iran which would have the all of the same costs - or more - but Israel has fewer resources to actually get any results). Iran knows the US is deterred. Russia knows, China knows, Europe knows, Israel knows, the Arabs know. Everyone knows the US has been militarily deterred from striking Iran except the stupid US press corps that hears "all options are on the table" and gets titillated by the idea of US destructive power and begins screaming "please, please Mr. Obama, don't bomb the poor Iranians". It's a stupid dance that makes Americans feel virile so none ask the question: "when did Bush become such a humanitarian and what would have to change to make the Obama administration less 'humanitarian'?"

Actually, there is a balance of power in Iran's region in which Iran can do a lot to hurt the US just as the US could hurt Iran. An attack on IAEA supervised installations would be far more likely to result in the US being ejected from Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama being disgraced and losing reelection than a positive result from the US point of view. Israel is less concerned with the lives of US soldiers in the region or Obama's political fortunes, but even for Israel, a backlash against the US prioritzation of Israeli interests would likely follow an attack, which is the most imminent 'existential threat' Israel faces in real life.

So given that the US does not have a credible way to compel Iranian behavior but has objectives that Iran can help it reach, any US administration has to engage on some level any Iranian administration. The Obama administration has not and cannot offer Iran much more than the Bush administration did. In fact if Mousavi's desperate post election actions were ultimately aimed at improving relations with the US, that is where those actions failed most decisively. US demands on Iran have become more, not less unreasonable and probably more importantly, Iran's leadership perceives the involvement of the US in a regime change attempt - which already has completely nullified the good will Obama gained with the Nowruz greeting and claims that discussions would from now on be held on the basis of mutual respect.

My take is that the behavior of the Rafsanjani faction has had nearly disasterous consequences for its members and also for the US and Iran, despite the fact that the faction was motivated, in a misguided way - likely encouraged in this by sources they believed spoke for Obama - by the belief that what they were doing was critically important for Iran's future.

1 comment:

99 said...

Arnold! Your thinking here just about precisely matches mine, and is much better articulated. I will have to forward it to my vexed Iranian friends who just can't think what I am going on about when I mention how badly these three have been behaving, how it just screams some sort of involvement with our covert ops. The way you have it set out is kinder to these guys than I have been... and it's probably because I'm such a screaming leftist... but, wow, it's such a relief to read this piece!

Thanks. I really needed it.