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Riding the tiger in Tehran

Riding the tiger in Tehran

Author: Irfan Husain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: July 7, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/187418/Riding-the-tiger-in-Tehran.html

Now that Iran's religious leaders have demonstrated their contempt for domestic and international opinion, it is hard to see how Barack Obama will be able to keep the dogs of war on a leash. The thought of the current leadership in Iran developing a nuclear arsenal will cause sleepless nights

This may seem paradoxical, given the Iranian leader's shrill anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But consider this opinion expressed by Simon Tisdall in a recent issue of the Guardian: "Israel's reaction to the (Iranian) turmoil is a good indicator of how much harder US-led attempts to talk calmly and do business with Iran have suddenly become." "It is a regime whose real nature has been unmasked," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has argued all along that Iran's hardliners are beyond reason and that Barack Obama's diplomatic opening was misguided.

Through their aggressive actions and rhetoric in the past week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have gone a long way to making Mr Netanyahu's case for him. Speaking on American television, Mr Netanyahu didn't quite say "I told you so". He didn't have to.

As Iran's friends and well-wishers watch the appalling events unfolding on the streets of Tehran, the country's rigid hardliners seem to be preparing to take on the world, apart from crushing the domestic Opposition. By predictably blaming the Western media for the massive unrest in their country, the Iranian Government has shown once again how out of touch it is with its own people. Above all, the clerics in Tehran and Qom are blind to the crisis of legitimacy that is haunting the regime due to the widespread belief that the recent election was massively rigged.

I visited Iran several times as a student and travelled extensively around the country in the Shah's days, and can attest to the repressive nature of his regime. But the fact is that when it came to crushing the pro-Khamenei protesters in 1979, he knew he could not endlessly kill and imprison his opponents. This was not because of any innate softness, but due to the Western support he was reliant on. There was a line he could not cross in his crackdown without alienating Washington. The Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are not constrained by any such considerations.

In every authoritarian structure, there are large numbers of people who benefit. Thus, the members of Iran's vast security apparatus fear change as it might expose them to reprisals at worst, and a loss of income and power at best. When the Shah was driven from his throne, thousands of Savak operatives went into exile to escape the wrath of their victims. All the hundreds of thousands of paid and unpaid supporters of the theocratic system thus have every reason to beat up, imprison and even kill protesters.

After a week of bloody riots, Tehran and other Iranian cities have returned to an uneasy calm. At present, the clerical establishment and its cohorts have succeeded in winning back the streets. But it is unlikely they will ever win back the hearts of the millions of Iranians who voted against Mr Ahmadinejad. A tipping point has been reached in Iran, and it's going to be downhill for the regime from here on. They might be able to hang on for a while, but they have been stripped of the moral authority to rule.

Ever since Mr Ahmadinejad broadcast Iran's nuclear ambitions a couple of years ago, there has been a loud chorus of Western and Israeli hawks demanding military action to destroy Iran's nuclear installations. The only reason former US President George Bush did not go along was because American forces were already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, he prevented Israel from acting unilaterally, fearing Iranian reprisals against American interests. Ever since he came to power, Mr Obama has been counselling restraint, seeking to reach a diplomatic resolution.

Now that Iran's religious leaders have demonstrated their contempt for domestic and international public opinion, it is hard to see how Mr Obama will be able to keep the dogs of war on a leash. The thought of the current leadership in Iran developing a nuclear arsenal will cause sleepless nights in Tel Aviv and Washington, to say nothing of nearby Arab capitals.

An aggressive, militant Government in Tehran will also be a source of regional instability. As the West attempts to stabilise the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will be confronted by the clerics who are accusing Washington and London of being behind the current unrest. Clearly, tensions are bound to rise, and any miscalculation can plunge the region into a devastating conflict.

The unpleasant truth is that the ruling coterie in Iran is composed of people who really do not know how the world works. Just as Saddam Hussein invited destruction by invading Kuwait nearly 20 years ago, the present Iranian rulers are capable of provoking war simply because they are unaware of the red lines they will not be allowed to cross.

One of them is the alleged effort to develop nuclear weapons. Many people decry the hypocrisy in a situation where the West turns a blind eye to Israel's nuclear arsenal while trying to stop Iran from developing its own deterrent.

But life isn't fair. And in any case, Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran is. Besides, the three unofficial members of the nuclear club are not deemed to be threatening Western interests.

The brutal nature of the Iranian leadership makes it easier for Israel to sell a pre-emptive attack to Washington, and for Mr Obama to sell it to the American people. None of this can be good news for the Iranian people who, while steeped in the lore of martyrdom, want to live normal, peaceful lives.

There is still time for the clerics to pull back. As Haleh Afshar asked in the Guardian recently: "The obvious question posed again and again is: If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the choice of people, worthy of a landslide victory, then why is he not willing to put this to the test again? Why risk going down the route that led to revolution 30 years ago?" Iran's clerics realise they are now riding a tiger: If they let go, they fear being devoured. We can only wait and see where the tiger carries them.

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