Obama faces a Persian rebuff
- Obama faces a Persian rebuff
The Hindu: India's National Newspaper
Thursday, Jul 02, 2009
The Iranian regime shows definite signs of closing ranks and pulling its act together in the face of what it assesses to be an existential threat to the Vilayat-e faqih system.
The street protests in Tehran fizzled out. Twitter can revert to its
earlier plan of shutting down its Iran services and attend to overdue
maintenance work. Twitter goes into recess pleased that it embarrassed a regional power and itself became a hot topic of worldwide curiosity. The United States government owes Twitter a grand salute for rendering yeoman service.
However, Persian stories have long endings. The Iranian regime shows
definite signs of closing ranks and pulling its act together in the face of what it assesses to be an existential threat to the Vilayat-e faqih system. And London and Washington cannot simply walk away. The signs are that even if they want to, which is eminently sensible and logical, Tehran won't let them do that.
When supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used a colourful Persian idiom to characterise the European and American officials and underscored that the ground on which they stood inevitably gets "soiled," he made it plainly clear that Tehran would not easily forget the fusillades of mockery that the West the U.S. and Britain in particular fired over the past fortnight in a well-crafted ploy to tarnish its rising regional and global standing. In a veiled warning, Ayatollah Khamenei said: "Some European and American officials with their idiotic remarks about Iran are speaking as if their own problems [read Iraq, Afghanistan] have all been resolved and Iran remains the only issue for them."
Iran has a tortuous history. The "red line" for Tehran has always been a foreign attempt at forcing a regime change. In its assessment, that line has been breached. Retribution, therefore, must inexorably follow. All indications are that the highly skilled Iranian intelligence is already digging deeper and deeper into what really happened. Gholam Hossein Nohseni Ejei, the powerful Intelligence Minister, has alleged from available data that there has been a concerted attempt to stir up unrest by world powers that were "upset about a stable and secure Iran."
It is easy to pooh-pooh such allegations. But uncomfortable questions will arise in the coming days and weeks. There are already serious doubts about the mysterious death of Neda Aqa-Soltan. Again, who led the charge of the light brigade? Was it London or Washington? Finally, were the two capitals in it together or was it that the tail wagged the dog? It is little known slice of history that in the countdown to the Anglo-American coup in Tehran against Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency lost nerve just as the unrest on Tehran's streets was about to erupt but British intelligence outpost in Cyprus, which coordinated, held firm and
created a fait accompli.
At any rate, Tehran is going after Britain "the most treacherous of
foreign powers," to use Ayatollah Khamenei's words. Marching orders have been given to two British diplomats posted in Tehran and local employees working in the British embassy have been nabbed for questioning. This is despite gesticulations by London that it is not stepping anything up on Tehran's streets. The Foreign Office statement in London pleaded that it is Iran's nuclear programme that is driving Gordon Brown, and not outrage over the violation of civil rights or the death of innocents.
London is keen on vacating the scene, and hopes it could be business as usual with Iran. But U.S. President Barack Obama cannot hope to get away so lightly. The challenge facing him is that not only has the Iranian regime not cracked, but it has again shown resilience in countering western pressure. If the prognosis was that the intriguing silence of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani meant he was plotting and was on the verge of challenging Ayatollah Khamenei's writ, it was not to be. On Sunday, Mr. Rafsanjani openly came out with a statement endorsing the supreme leader.
"The developments following the presidential vote were a complex
conspiracy plotted by suspicious elements with the aim of creating a rift between the people and the Islamic establishment and causing them to lose their trust in the [Vilayat-e faqih] system. Such plots have always been neutralised whenever the people have entered the scene with vigilance," he said.
He praised Ayatollah Khamenei for extending the Guardian Council's move to extend the deadline by five days to review issues pertaining to the elections and removing ambiguities surrounding them. "This valuable move by the leader to restore the people's confidence in the election process was very effective," he pointed out. In a separate meeting with a delegation of Majlis members on Thursday, Mr. Rafsanjani said his attachment to Ayatollah Khamenei was "endless" and that he enjoyed a close relationship with the supreme leader and he fully complied with the Vilayat-e faqih.
On Saturday, the Expediency Council, headed by Mr. Rafsanjani, called on all defeated candidates to "observe the law and resolve conflicts and disputes [concerning the election] through legal channels." Meanwhile, the Opposition candidate, Mohsen Rezaei, and the leading political personality, former Majlis Speaker Nateq-Nouri, have also reconciled. Thus Mir-Hossein Mousavi stands badly isolated. Disregarding Mr. Mousavi's demur, the Guardian Council ordered on Monday a partial recount of 10 per cent of random ballot boxes across the country in front of the state television cameras.
If the prognosis was that the Majlis Speaker, Ali Larijani, was showing promise as a dissident leader, it has also been debunked. On Monday, while addressing the Executive Committee meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Conference at Algiers, Mr. Larijani lashed out at the U.S. policy of "interfering" in the internal affairs of the Middle East countries. He advised Mr. Obama to abandon the policy. "This change will be beneficial both to the region and to the U.S. itself".
The Obama administration has some hard choices to make. It was sustained criticism and pressure mounted by networks of anti-Iranian groups and powerful lobbies in the U.S. that forced Mr. Obama to harden his stance. Softening the hard stance will be difficult. Much statesmanship is needed. The best outcome is that Washington can take a pause and resume its efforts to engage Iran after a decent interval. The commencement of a meaningful dialogue anytime soon seems improbable. In sum, the Obama administration has badly fumbled after such a magnificent start in addressing the situation around Iran.
Paradoxically, the Obama administration will now deal with a Khamenei who is at the peak of his political power. As for President Mahmoud
Ahmedinejad, he will now be negotiating from a position of strength.
Arguably, it helps when your adversary is strong so that he can take tough decisions, but in this case the analogy may not hold.
Also, the regional milieu can only work to Iran's advantage. Turkey
distanced itself from the European opinion. Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan,
Afghanistan and Pakistan greeted Mr. Ahmedinejad's victory. Moscow
followed suit. Beijing has never before expressed such staunch solidarity with the Iranian regime. Neither Syria nor Hezbollah and Hamas showed any inclination to disengage from Iran. True, Syria's ties with Saudi Arabia improved in the last six months and Damascus welcomes the Obama administration's recent overtures. But far from adopting the Saudi or U.S. agenda toward Tehran, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem openly criticised the legitimacy of the street protests in Tehran.
He warned last Sunday when the Tehran streets were witnessing unrest:
"Anyone betting on the fall of the Iranian regime will be a loser.
The Islamic revolution is a reality, deeply-rooted in Iran, and the international community [read U.S.] must live with that." Mr. Moallem called for the "establishment of a dialogue between Iran and the United States based on mutual respect and non-interference in Iran's affairs."
Again, in an interview with the CNN on Saturday, Syria's ambassador in
Washington Imad Moustapha advised the Obama administration to "exercise caution" in adopting strident criticism of the election verdict as it will "harm the efforts" to find a solution to the nuclear issue. He said Iran was a "very important country in the Middle East" and a close friend of Syria. Outside interference in Iran's internal affairs was damaging regional stability. Equally, success of Saad Hariri as the newly-elected Prime Minister of Lebanon and the country's overall stability will hinge on his reconciliation with rivals allied to Syria and Iran.
All things taken into account, therefore, there has been a goof-up of
major proportions in Washington. The Obama magic suddenly wore off when he sounded like George W. Bush in disregarding convention and courtesy, contrary to the abundant promise in the Cairo speech.
It is inconceivable that the Obama administration harboured the notion that the commotion inTehran's middle-class districts would weaken the Iranian regime or make it diffident and dilute its resolve while the critical negotiations on the nuclear and other issues regarding the situation around Iran commenced.
Mr. Ahmedinejad left hardly anything to interpretation when he stated in Tehran on Saturday: "Without doubt, Iran's new government will have a more decisive and firmer approach towards the West. This time the Iranian nation's reply will be harsh and more decisive" and will aim at making the West regret its "meddlesome stance."
(The writer is a former Indian diplomat.)
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