Opinion: The fissures of Tehran

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BOSTON — Are the June days of Iranian protest destined to end with a whimper, not with a bang? The most serious crisis to Iran’s religious authorities since they took power in 1979 is being boxed in and contained. There has been no second revolution, and no Tiananmen either. The coercion of state power has prevailed — so far.

It won’t be the same as before, however. There is now a question of legitimacy that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will have to live with. No one believes the elections were fair, although none can be sure that Ahmadinejad would have lost had they been square. Iran may be what Winston Churchill called the Soviet Union 60 years ago, “ a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but the flawed election exposed a fissure within the leadership for all to see. It will be very much open to question now whether the ayatollahs can rule Iran with the consent of the governed after what has transpired.

Unhappily, President Barack Obama’s sunshine policy towards Iran is now in shambles. The president is right to keep the door open for future negotiations, but for the short run at least this has been setback.

Conservatives in this country believe that Obama should come out firmly for the demonstrators and against the regime. Some conservatives have compared his reaction to Ronald Reagan’s original reluctance to abandon support for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, or to Reagan’s original slowness to embrace Lech Walesa in Poland. If Reagan could see the light in time to make a difference so now should Obama, they argue.

Wiser heads know that Obama might make a great, barn-burning speech, but after feeling good for 24 hours this country still needs to deal with Iran. “Either way,” Obama said, “we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons.”

Fouad Ajami, writing in the Wall Street Journal, regretted Obama’s naivete to think he could “talk rogues and ideologues out of deeply held beliefs. His predecessors had drawn lines in the sand. (Obama) would look past them,” according to Ajami.

“The theocracy was said to be waiting on an American opening, and this new president would put an end to three decades of estrangement between the United States and Iran. But in truth,” Ajami writes, “Iran had never wanted an opening to the U.S. For the length of three decades, the custodians of the theocracy have had precisely the level of enmity toward the U.S. they have wanted — just enough to be an ideological glue for the regime, but not enough to be a threat to their power … ” It was always a “ false hope that the revolution would mellow and make its peace with the world.”

Ajami, a noted scholar, believes that Obama’s opening to the Muslim world in general, and to Iran in particular, was misplaced and ineffectual. “The earth did not move” after Obama’s Cairo speech. “Life went on as before. Iran’s ordeal and its ways shattered the Carter presidency, ” Ajami noted. “President Obama’s Persian tutorial has just began.”

Maybe so. But Obama’s opening to Iran was not based on any hope that he could “talk rogues and ideologues out of deeply held beliefs.” It was based on a hard-headed understanding that constant hostility against Iran had not worked, and was helping the Iranian regime to consolidate its power. In a way, it always seemed to me that Vice President Cheney and Ahmadinejad needed each other to reinforce their hard lines.

Obama saw that it would be better to clear away the thickets of needless misunderstandings and historical resentments as much as possible in order to find some common understanding between the two powers.

Ajami is correct in saying the ayatollahs have used anti-Americanism for their own political ends — the glue to keep their unpleasant regime in power. But Obama realized that to remove that glue — at least from the American side — would make it harder for Iran’s hardliners to play their Great Satan card.

Far from having no effect, Obama’s openings may be the very reason the present leadership in Iran is so openly split, according to Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During the Bush administration the Iranian leadership was united in the face of American threats, unrelenting hostility, and covert actions. But now the differences between hardliners and those Iranians in the leadership who want Iran to modernize, reform and move with the times is more out in the open, Sadjapour told National Public Radio. The proof is to be seen in the truly ridiculous lengths the Iranian regime is going to in order to blame its troubles on foreign interference.

Internal struggles will now be played off stage, in the sacred recesses of Qom, not in the streets of the capital. We have no idea what will emerge — either more openness or considerably less.

Read more about Iran:

Iranian rockers find their voice

Essay: The flight from Tehran

The Ground Truth in Tehran

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