It’s hard to see through the dust clouds and make sense of the present turmoil inside Iran, but a number of data points are worth considering. This is NOT an incipient color revolution, a democrats vs. dictators, moderates vs. neanderthals, good guys vs. bad guys contest. It is a nasty fight among sections of the mullahcracy that has had the unintended consequence of drawing out the demoralized, enraged, and hopeless youth of Tehran.
1) Hossein Moussavi was the candidate sponsored by Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani
2) Rafsanjani is one of the fathers of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. According to Con Coughlin’s recent book Khomeini’s Ghost (as reviewed by Amir Taheri), ”Khomeini personally ordered the launch of the nuclear program after some of his commanders, backed by Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who acted as the ayatollah’s advisor at the time, argued that they needed the bomb to win the war against Iraq as the first phase of a grand plan to conquer the Middle East.” On May 30 a Rafsanjani-linked institute attacked Ahmadinejad, alleging that “Ahmadinejad has played down his predecessor’s role in the development of the country’s nuclear program, which was launched during Rafsanjani’s term in the 1980s.” In other words, the complaint of the Moussavi camp is that Ahmadinejad doesn’t give them enough credit for having initiated the nuclear weapons program.
3) Some Iranian commentators believe that Moussavi will take a harder line against the US, while Ahmadinejad is in danger of being “duped” by the US. Mahan Abedin wrote in the Asia Times May 28:
But a more long-term challenge for Mousavi is how to deal with the threat of US President Barack Obama and his deceptive strategy of engagement. It is a damning indictment of Ahmadinejad’s personality (if not of aspects of his foreign policy) that he seeks a face-to-face meeting with Obama, a move that would spectacularly undermine the Islamic Republic’s long-standing policy of non-engagement with the United States.
More broadly, Mousavi has the potential to emerge as a true reformer in the long term, thereby fulfilling the empty promises of former president Khatami. His uncharismatic style notwithstanding, Mousavi’s ability to appeal to every key constituency in Iranian society bodes well for the future. But he will need to present a strong relationship - and be prepared to alienate some people - lest he attract the same type of supporters that Khatami did; namely elements who are more interested in bringing down the Islamic Republic than gradually reforming it according to set of rational and consensual objectives.
Abedin portrays Moussavi as the candidate of the middle class, which has suffered under Ahmadinejad’s populist, subsidy-driven economic management.
4) Ahmadinejad ran as the anti-fraud candidate, offering to make public the name of Iranians who had defrauded the state. Moussavi warned that making the names public would create “economic insecurity.” Rafsanjani is the biggest swindler in Iran, and the country’s richest man.
5) Some people in the region see Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary seeking to empower the masses, against Rafsanjani, the leader of the traditional mullahs. In today’s Asia Times, M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador to Turkey, writes:
If Rafsanjani’s putsch succeeds, Iran would at best bear resemblance to a decadent outpost of the “pro-West” Persian Gulf. Would a dubious regime be durable? More important, is it what Obama wishes to see as the destiny of the Iranian people? The Arab street is also watching. Iran is an exception in the Muslim world where people have been empowered. Iran’s multitudes of poor, who form Ahmadinejad’s support base, detest the corrupt, venal clerical establishment. They don’t even hide their visceral hatred of the Rafsanjani family.
Alas, the political class in Washington is clueless about the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy. Egged on by the Israeli lobby, it is obsessed with “regime change”. The temptation will be to engineer a “color revolution”. But the consequence will be far worse than what obtains in Ukraine. Iran is a regional power and the debris will fall all over. The US today has neither the clout nor the stamina to stem the lava flow of a volcanic eruption triggered by a color revolution that may spill over Iran’s borders.
Bhadrakumar is a bit off the rails here, but in essence he is saying something similar to what I argued in my “Spengler” column earlier this week: that the Iranian election ultimately is about Iran’s regional role with respect to Iraqi, Pakistani and other Shia.
6) Iran is a society suffering from terminal pathologies, including the fastest decline in fertility ever measured, and the highest rates of drug addiction and prostitution in the world.
America’s interest does not lie in a victory by Moussavi or Adhmadinejad. There is no good outcome for Iran, no way to get there from here. Seeking stability makes America a fixed target; the next best thing is instability among our enemies, and that is what we should promote, silently, unpredictably, and ruthlessly.