The Iranian exile journalist Amir Taheri, the dean of regime critics writing in the English language press, says that civil war is unlikely in Iran. In the most convincing analysis I have seen to date, Taheri points out that Ahmadinejad has his back to the wall, while regime critics have the option of a comfortable exile. Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guards will fight to the death and—more importantly—kill as much as they need to in order to keep power. Back in 1979, by contrast, it was the Shah and his supporters who preferred exile to bloodsheed. He writes:
In 1979 the ruling elite had little stomach for a fight. Many of its members had homes and investments abroad and thus were not forced to fight with their backs to the wall. Thousands of them just packed up and left. Now, however, the overwhelming majority of the ruling elite has no fallback position.
There is yet another difference. In 1979, a majority of Iranians would probably have voted for the Shah had there been elections. However, few of them were prepared to fight for him in the streets. This time, the regime may well lose a free and fair election, but is still capable of fielding large numbers of supporters who are ready to kill and die for it.
The perception that the Shah was weak and unwilling to hit back played a crucial role in disheartening his supporters and encouraging his opponents. That perception was one reason so many of the Shah’s closest aides simply fled the country at the first opportunity.
Is Iran heading for a civil war? My answer is a cautious no.
The reason for this is that as a power struggle develops, Iranians are adept at distinguishing which side is going to win. Once they have identified the winner, they all rally to his side. No one is left on the other side to provoke a civil war.
Call it opportunism if you like, but this is a part of the template of Iranian politics.
Along with George Friedman of Stratfor, M.K. Bhadrakumar of Asia Times Online, and other experienced analysts, Taheri rejects the facile enthusiasm with which most of the press has greeted every Twitter out of Tehran. His point is well taken: where could Ahmadinejad go were he to lose power? There is no other Shi’ite state in the world, and he has made himself anathema to Sunnis as well as non-Muslims. He speaks only Persian. Hossein Moussavi, on the other hand, could count on a thinktank or university job in any of a dozen countries. Ahmadinejad’s Revolutionary Guards still are willing to fight to the death against the free-thinking, freedom-loving young people of Tehran.
That is where the danger begins. The Persians invented chess. What opponent’s move would Ayatollah Khameini anticipate? Israel now has more leeway to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities than ever before, on the grounds that a regime that massacres peaceful demonstrators asking for their rights under law cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Whether Israel plans to attack, I do not know, but that is the obvious move on the chessboard. Were Israel to strike successfully and set back nuclear weapons development by a number of years, it might humiliate the regime further, rather than rallying nationalist support.
What countermoves might Iran offer against an Israeli air raid? Iran is not without resources: it has the rocketeers of Hizbollah and Hamas, terrorist sleeper cells throughout the world, and considerable covert action capability inside Iraq. The price Israel likely would pay for a raid against Iran would be terrorist attacks against Jews overseas, on the model of the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people and wounded hundreds. A warrant is outstanding from Argentine prosecutors for the arrest of Hashem Rafsanjani in that affair.
Iran might seek to pre-empt what it anticipates to be the next move from Israel by demonstrating its capacity to inflict injury on Israel or on Jewish targets elsewhere. That would require careful judgment, for a heavy-handed action could provide a pretext for even more serious action by the Israelis and others. The same sort of consideration applies to Iranian support for Pakistan Shi’ites, for Hizbollah in Lebanon, and other vehicles of Iran’s program of imperial expansion.
This is an exceptionally dangerous moment, and it is important for the peripheral vision of Western security agencies to keep in view Iran’s external interests and vulnerabilities. The demonstrations in Tehran are in a sense the least interesting thing to watch from the standpoint of intelligence evaluation, because their evolution is the most predictable.