In Tehran University’s huge prayer hall, the Islamic regime’s most powerful clerics deliver heated Friday sermons to thousands. These diatribes are normally accompanied by the chant “Death to America!”
But at the last Friday prayers – an electrifying event that will affect the core of President Obama’s foreign policy – the loudest chants were “Death to Russia!” and “Death to China!” Also, “Azadeh!” which means “freedom” in Farsi.
Something basic has changed in Tehran, and the White House must be nimble in responding. Events in Iran are moving so fast that Obama’s plan for engagement with Iran is becoming obsolete.
The prayer service put new life into Iran’s opposition. The regime appeared to have repressed large-scale street protests with large-scale arrests and beatings. Then, on Friday, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – one of Iran’s most powerful clerics – slammed Iran’s leaders for a tainted presidential election process and for arresting those who protested.
Unlike President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani didn’t blame the United States for provoking the demonstrations. When government supporters cried “Death to America!” they were drowned out by those who preferred to damn Russia because Moscow supports Ahmadinejad.
Then Rafsanjani critiqued Iran’s leaders for not protesting Beijing’s suppression of Muslims in western China. Shouts of “Death to China!” rang through the hall.
Consider the impact of this new list of enemies. Ahmadinejad has been trying to distract attention from rigged elections by blaming the West for stirring up demonstrations. He refers constantly to the upheavals in Ukraine and Georgia, where so-called color revolutions led by pro-democracy demonstrators led to governmental changes. (In those countries, U.S. democracy aid to nongovernmental organizations played a role, but not as critical a one as Ahmadinejad thinks.)
The Iranian’s accusations have been undercut by Obama’s smart decision not to endorse Iranian opposition leaders. But in a country whose relations with the West are troubled, some may believe Ahmadinejad’s conspiracy theories.
Rafsanjani’s sermon shot those theories full of holes.
That’s because he is no ordinary cleric. A pillar of the revolution and former Iranian president, he heads key clerical bodies. A consummate insider, he wants to reform the Islamic system, not overthrow it, and he supported opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi in the elections.
But until last week, Rafsanjani had not publicly condemned regime leaders for the postelection violence. On Friday he finally made his move.
His sermon, broadcast nationwide on radio, put the onus for the violence (without naming names) on the Iranian president and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He said the Prophet Muhammad had always “respected the rights” of his people, and accused the government of failing to do likewise. He spoke openly of the dissatisfaction among some of Iran’s most senior Shiite clergy with the government crackdown on protesters.
Such language undercuts the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. It makes clear to Iranians that opposition protests have been sparked by the regime’s injustice to its own people, not by U.S. interference.
How does all this affect Obama’s Middle East policy?
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton repeated Obama’s invitation for a dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Clinton stressed that “neither the president nor I have any illusions” about such dialogue and that the prospects had shifted since the Iranian elections.
But she insisted it was important to offer Iran’s leaders the clear choice of joining the international community (by forgoing nuclear weapons) or going into further isolation. Obama has set a deadline of September for a response.
The concept of engagement made sense before the current crisis in Iran. The United States has always talked with adversaries; moreover, it would be easier to create a consensus for tougher sanctions if Iran stonewalled after we made the effort.
Yet the chance of the current Iranian regime’s engaging in serious dialogue seems about zero. I agree with the University of Hawaii’s Farideh Farhi, a noted Iran expert, who says, “They need to use a confrontational foreign policy to maintain a repressive policy at home.”
So why not stop talking about engagement and wait until the dust settles in Tehran? One can’t rule out an unexpected shift in power. The men with the guns, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, so far support Ahmadinejad, but Rafsanjani’s move may lead to new fissures within the establishment.
Iran’s opposition leaders, Rafsanjani included, are not liberals: They have supported its nuclear program and made outrageous remarks about Israel. But should they gain more power they would be obligated to the mass movement that propelled them. They have indicated greater willingness to deal with the West, which would be vital to resurrect their economy. And, unlike Ahmadinejad, they are pragmatists who don’t harbor millennialist dreams.
Bottom line: Keep quiet about engagement – for now. The answer won’t be satisfactory. But there might be possibilities down the road that no one imagined five weeks ago.
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