Former United States president Bill Clinton now says President Barack Obama is “getting his groove back”. The same would apply to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. No stranger to New York’s charms, the pious Mahdist – who believes the occult 12th imam will be back soon to deliver us all from evil – will be addressing the United Nations’ annual General Assembly this Thursday.
Ahmadinejad already displayed his mojo on Tuesday – even before appearing on Larry King Live – when he told a summit assessing progress on achieving UN goals to drastically reduce poverty by 2015, “The discriminatory order of capitalism and the hegemonic approaches are facing defeat and are getting close to their end.” So according to Ahmadinejad, hardcore financial capitalism is about to croak. Well, not really, not yet; somebody should take him on a Wall Street tour. As for the UN goals, he’s right; they’re toast.
There could not be a better opportunity for Washington and Tehran to hit a back-channel groove than the UN bash in New York. Both sides are furiously dispatching engagement signals on the record. Ahmadinejad virtually every week says he is ready to meet and negotiate with Obama. Obama told CNBC on Monday, “We continue to be open to diplomatic solutions to resolve this, we don’t think that a war between Israel and Iran, or military options, would be the ideal way to solve this problem. But we are keeping all our options on the table.”
Somebody should page US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is, well, on a slightly different page. Hillary has been stressing what can be considered a white coup perpetrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) last year, during the presidential elections. As the IRGC is in theory totally behind Ahmadinejad, this means she’s still in wishful thinking mode about regime change. That won’t fly in Tehran – it’s trademark neo-con language. Which raises the trillion-dollar question: Is Obama the realist being listened to in Tehran? And as a matter of fact, what the hell is going on in Tehran?
Got oil, will travel
Sanctions, embargoes, blockades – the whole package does not seem to fit the hyperbolic rhetorical fantasies of American ideologues. Because the fact is Ahmadinejad, domestically and regionally, is on a roll. His winning domestic formula is an unlikely remix of pre-Islamic Persian nationalism with Shi’ite values, where Ahmadinejad poses as a reincarnation of Cyrus the Great and at the same time a just – and pious – contemporary ruler.
With oil at around US$74 a barrel, the regime controlling the world’s second-largest oil exporter is steadily filling its coffers. Oil production is at 3.6 million barrels per day (bpd), exports at 2.3 million bpd. Asia is not going to sacrifice economic growth to the altar of UN, US or European Union sanctions; Japan and China are importing increasingly more Iranian oil, and are finding ways to pay for it outside of the global banking system. Western-occupied Afghanistan and “the war is over” Iraq are also doing riotous business with Iran. Legions of Internet users in Afghanistan rely on a company controlled by the IRGC. And to circumvent sanctions, myriad forms of imaginative smuggling are bound to go on unabatedly.
Instead of importing gasoline, the Ahmadinejad administration has made better use of Iran’s petrochemical industry and refineries, slapped some form of rationing, and accelerated investing on more refinery capacity over the next five years – with help from Chinese and Russian companies. Gas is still ridiculously cheap in Iran; and even if prices had to be jacked up, the regime could always blame it on America. Sanctions may corrode the regime’s pocketbooks; but oil prices will inevitably rise, so at the most Iran will not be amassing all the revenue it should.
In foreign policy, things look quite rosy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai – although detested in Washington – has plenty of interlocutors in Iran. Tehran’s strong support for Hamas in Gaza – coupled with Israel’s relentless neo-colonial practices – means the Islamic Republic enjoys continuous respect and admiration all over the Muslim world.
Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s national unity government. Lebanon is getting closer to Syria; that means more power for Hezbollah. Before hitting New York, Ahmadinejad had a stopover in Damascus to discuss “the big picture” with his close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey did not support more UN sanctions; it does support Iran’s civilian nuclear energy research program. The Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Ankara axis of trade is already a reality. Whatever government Iraq comes up with, pro-Iran Shi’ites will be part of the picture. The Arab street has voted – and the verdict is the “Iranian bomb” is not a threat, not even an issue.
As for Washington, its rapid response to Iran’s diplomacy is to (re)arm the awesomely democratic House of Saud to the tune of $60 billion.
After last year’s extremely controversial elections – and that’s a huge understatement – the IRGC is virtually in control of the machinery of government in Iran. In theory, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could fire top IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and replace with him with an unabashed ayatollah-friendly entity. But even that would not be enough to mask the biggest show in town: the open war between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad.
Few in the US may know how this has evolved into a monumental catfight – with non-stop rows and mutual acrimony. Ahmadinejad is definitely ready to talk to Washington – an extremely popular stance all across Iran. But the Supreme Leader’s position remains that Iran should not negotiate with the US.
Ahmadinejad used his very close ally, Saeed Jalili, to negotiate the swap of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for fuel for the medical Tehran Research Reactor, agreed with Turkey and Brazil (and immediately sabotaged by the Obama administration).
The key ayatollahs were deeply against the whole scheme. And so was the newspaper Kayhan, directly controlled by the Supreme Leader. The speaker of the Majlis (parliament), Ali Larijani, also very close to the leader, said, “Some were fooled by the Westerners during the nuclear negotiations.” Ahmadinejad counter-attacked fiercely on national TV.
The IRGC controls the crucial Ministry of Intelligence; the minister, Haydar Moslehi, is very close to Ahmadinejad. IRGC-linked companies are being showered by the government with billions of dollars in contracts – including rookie “ghost” companies in the crucial oil and gas industry. Good for the Ahmadinejad faction, but terrible for the country’s prospects.
Essentially, what Ahmadinejad has done is to notice the obvious (for many years now): the absolute majority of Iranians simply can’t stand the mullahs anymore. That curiously pits Ahmadinejad against his own spiritual adviser, the ultra-reactionary Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi; but the president at this stage is betting on political, not spiritual, gains. As for the Supreme Leader, he’s been calling for “unity”.
Recently, the leader and the president have argued – face-to-face, in a very Persian amalgam of tension and politeness – over everything from the administration’s achievements to cultural notions and economic progress.
They argued even the case of the three American hikers detained for over a year in Iran. Ahmadinejad was always in favor of their release – as an incentive for the Obama administration to negotiate. But the judiciary was always against it. The head of the judiciary is none other than Sadegh Larijani, brother of Ali, the Supreme Leader’s ultimate protege and Majlis speaker.
The Supreme Leader particularly abhors Ahmadinejad’s attempted takeover of Iranian diplomacy, bypassing not only himself but also the Majlis. Not content in trying to boot Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki last year – he wanted to replace him with his faithful ally Jalili – Ahmadinejad recently appointed four “special representatives” for the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Asia. Khamenei went ballistic, stating, “Parallel diplomacy is not acceptable.” The leader asserts that diplomacy should be conducted by the Foreign Ministry. Needless to say, Ahmadinejad’s incendiary rhetoric – Holocaust matters included – also was never favored by the leader.
Is this getting out of hand? Rightwing – some of them religious – factions led by Khamenei fear that’s the case. At the same time, Ahmadinejad is increasingly displaying a Louis XIV streak, basically stating that only his faction is a true political party loyal to the ideals of the revolution. Call it L’Etat c’est moi (I am the state) with a Madhist tinge.
Ahmadinejad even went a step further, increasing his visits to the notorious Jamkaran mosque in Qom, where people get in touch with the Mahdi by throwing paper messages to the bottom of a well. The message is unmistakable; nobody needs religious intermediaries – the ayatollahs – to talk to the Mahdi.
On their guard
The IRGC’s top commanders – by the way, all selected by the Supreme Leader – have watched this ruckus from ringside in thunderous silence. Although the elite of the regime is deeply split, there’s no evidence whatsoever the IRGC would try to speed things up and get rid of the Supreme Leader.
And what about regime change? Forget it. The crackdown on the green movement was exemplary. Green movement leaders Mir Hossain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi revealed themselves not as true revolutionary leaders. Tweeter revolutions are a myth. The greens didn’t get to split the army. They didn’t get to seduce the intelligence establishment. And they didn’t cross over to the countryside.
Historical imperatives apart, the green movement needs a Che Guevara; a young, charismatic, larger-than-life leader. The entrenched Tehran power elite does not feel threatened. What does exist in Iran is an enormous, still unchanneled, public disgust.
Khamenei is only 71. Revolution leader ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died at 88. The post-Khamenei era may still be a long way away. The fight for the spoils will involve the Ahmadinejad/IRGC faction, the Rafsanjani faction, the hardliners around the Larijani brothers. No one knows for sure if and how the IRGC is split. And there’s even the possibility of the post-Khamenei era becoming an Islamic remix of the post-Leonid Brezhnev era in Russia, with the IRGC in the shade pulling all strings.
Meanwhile, what you see is what you get. Whatever the gradation of the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat, this is a Tehran regime still unaligned, totally independent from Washington, and sitting on immeasurable energy wealth. Obama may have come to realize that there is an interlocutor. His name is Mahmud the Great. So they might as well hit the groove before the dogs of war start barking.