Tens of thousands of Iranians heeded a call from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to hit the streets of Tehran yesterday in protest at U.S. moves against Moqtada Sadr, the Shiite rebel whose forces are holed up in the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. Some of the protesters vented their anger by throwing bricks and petrol bombs at the British Embassy.
In Washington, meanwhile, suspicions—so far uncorroborated—are circulating that Iran is sponsoring Sadr. Last month, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “We know the Iranians have been meddling, and it’s unhelpful to have neighboring countries meddling in the affairs of Iraq.”
The American occupation of Iraq has put Iran in a bind. On the one hand, the Iranians were elated to see Saddam—no friend to Shiites—toppled and the Sunni dominance of the country overthrown. Iraq is 55 percent Shia, and Shiites are bound to make out well under any sort of representative government. Iran hopes that Iraqi Shiites will use their majority to bring about the country’s political transformation along the theocratic lines pioneered by Iran’s Islamic Revolution. This is highly unlikely with the United States— still the Great Satan in Iranian eyes—insisting on a degree of mosque-state separation and protection for minority rights in the new Iraq.
With U.S. troops installed in two of Iran’s neighbors—Iraq and Afghanistan—and the Bush administration committed, at least in theory, to transforming them into pluralistic, secular, and America-friendly regimes; and with new U.S. military bases set up in Central Asian states, you can see why the Iranian leadership would be worried.
Iran’s conservatives have been the unquestioned beneficiaries of the political instability in the region. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the force created by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 to root out opponents of the Islamic revolution, have worked to secure conservative victory in the parliamentary elections and are becoming parliamentarians themselves. Many of the country’s reformist candidates were banned from running in last February’s elections, which gave the conservatives control of the parliament. Eurasianet reports:
“Signs of the growing political clout of the Revolutionary Guards are abundant. For instance, on May 18, a former guards commander, Ezatullah Zarghami, was named to the key post of national television and radio chief.
In addition, in apparent exchange for its help during the parliamentary elections, the Revolutionary Guards were permitted to field its own slate of candidates. Thus, when the new parliament convenes later in May, about one dozen legislators will be under the effective control of the Revolutionary Guards. Political observers note that this is the first time in the Islamic republic’s 25-year history that the guards have had such a parliamentary presence.”
With reports emerging of U.S. assaults Shiite holy sites in Iraq and images of the Israeli’s military’s devastating attacks on Palestinian refugee camps, Iran’s conservatives are in a pretty good position to capitalize on anti-American sentiment.
This month, Iran is due to submit a report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on its nuclear program and the U.S. has threatened to take its case to the U.N. Security Council if it finds the report incomplete. The nuclear program—which Iran insists is strictly for civilian purposes, but which the U.S. fears can produce enough uranium for a nuclear bomb within a few years if left unmonitored—may flare up once again into a massive confrontation between the two countries.
Neo-conservatives, some of them, are adamant that the transformation of Iraq into a democracy will not be secure without regime change in its neighborhood. As Michael Ledeen argues in the National Review:
“We cannot ‘solve’ Iraq’s problems by acting solely within the confines of the nation, because at least three other terror masters of some significance—Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia—are fighting for their survival in Iraq. Against us. Moqtada is an Iranian creature, and Iran has long since created a huge network inside Iraq, ready to respond to orders from Tehran. The model is Lebanon in the Eighties and Nineties, a combination of (suicidal and other) terrorism, insurrection, hostage taking, religious indoctrination, and blackmail.”
There is no question that Sadr, insofar as he represents militant Shiite opposition to the U.S. occupation, has at least the tacit backing of Iran’s conservatives. But it’s going too far to brand Sadr an Iranian puppet. Iranian opinion of the rebel cleric is not monolithic but rather reflects divisions within the country’s domestic forces. But even among the conservatives, there is wariness about Sadr’s reliability. As Kaveh L Afrasiabi, author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy—no fan of either of Israel or the United States—writes in Asia Times:
“In fact, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, incensed by the desecration of holy cities in the hands of U.S. forces, has lashed out at ‘shameless and stupid’ U.S. policy in Iraq, predicting, just as he had prior to Iraq’s invasion last year, that “sooner or later, the Americans will be obliged to leave Iraq in shame and humiliation”. The ayatollah’s tone is clearly different from, to put it mildly, that of Iran’s moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, who recently criticized Muqtada, albeit indirectly, for inciting rebellion and thus jeopardizing the “security and well-being of Shi’ites in Iraq”. Last year, Muqtada, the scion of a powerful clerical family, was shunned by Khatami and yet warmly embraced by Ayatollah Khamenei, notwithstanding the unconfirmed reports that Muqtada’s mentor, Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, who remains in exile in Iran, appointed Muqtada as his representative in Iraq.
On the whole, however, Muqtada evokes mixed feelings in Iran and is viewed with caution, particularly by those who emphasize his occasional anti-Iran diatribe as evidence of his lack of trustworthiness.”
The United States must proceed cautiously. Talk of regime change in Iran and claims of Iran’s support of Sadr only plays into the hands of the conservatives, who have already done a good job of silencing the reformers. That is why it is more important than ever that the United States engage with the E.U. and Russia—which have good relations with Iran—to insure the transparency of Iran’s nuclear sites. As Nicholas D. Kristof writes in the New York Times:
“What I fear is this: Over the next year or two, the West will press Iran harder, Iran will halt its nuclear cooperation and evict inspectors, Israel will bomb a couple of Iran’s nuclear sites (a possibility widely discussed in security circles, although it would slow Iran’s nuclear progress without ending it), and Iran’s ayatollahs will benefit from a nationalistic surge to stay in power and rule more rabidly than ever.”
Electoral fraud and censorship have dimmed hopes that the reformist President Khatami would prevail over the country’s clerics—at least for now. But the demographics are against them. As Afshin Molavi writes in the Washington Post:
“Though no major figure has emerged as a leader, the idea of secular democracy is filling the vacuum, particularly among Iranians under the age of 30, who comprise nearly two-thirds of the population. One need look only at the country’s Islamic student unions, once a bastion of pro-Khomeini zealotry, to witness this change. Today, they serve as leading voices for secular democracy. One student group, the Daftar-e-Tahkim-e-Vahdat (formed upon Khomeini’s orders in the early days of the revolution to counter campus leftists), has repudiated Khomeini’s vision of Islamic government and has dismissed Khatami’s ‘Islamic democracy’ as irrelevant. As one Daftar leader, Akbar Atri, put it, ‘We want democracy without a prefix or suffix. That means no Islamic democracy.’
It’s ironic that Iran’s chances of “regime change” from within are being undermined by neo-conservative rhetoric in Washington.