1) Mahmud Ahmedinijad has very little power or authority. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinijad, given to making hyperbolic, grandiose, and often belligerently disturbing statements has almost no power or authority. While it is true that he is closely tied to elements of the Islamic Revolution because of his participation in that event, he is, for all intents and purposes, the mayor of Tehran. The real power in Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali al Khameini and his fellow clerics. Essentially Iran has two governmental systems: the real one led and controlled by the clerics that is non-representative and non-democratic and an essentially pretend system of semi-liberal democracy that allows for the election of a president and a parliamentary body. It is semi-liberal because the elected executive and legislative branches have no real ability to effect change, who can and can not run is controlled by the religious authorities, and these authorities also control law enforcement, the courts, and the military. As a result of this reality, it is necessary to essentially ignore Ahmedinijad’s antics and pay close attention to what is going in the shadows behind him; actions and activities led by the religious authorities and controlled by Ayatullah Khameini.
2) The 2009 Elections Demonstrated the Cracks in the Rule of the Clerics. The badly handled elections and post-election demonstrations have shown that the divisions among the clerics that originally existed at the time of the Islamic Revolution have not gone away. While the late Ayatullah Khomeini’s version of Velyati al Fiqh, rule according to Islamic Jurisprudence, or more accurately Velyati al Ulama, rule according to the Islamic Clerics, ultimately carried the day in 1979, there were competing versions that were less extreme. While none of the competing variants could be called liberal, in the classic use of the term, several of them were much more moderate in comparison to Ayatullah Khomeini’s undertaking. This summer’s election was in some ways really about whether to continue solidly on the reactionary path that is the result of Ayatullah Khomeini’s version of Velyati al Fiqh, or adjust to what would still be a very conservative and controlling form of government, but one which would be more moderate and accommodating by comparison. It is quite likely that the delay in the decision over sending nuclear material to Russia is partially the result of debate between different factions of the clerical elite who hold different views on the nature of how the Islamic Revolution should move forward.
3) This Second Nuclear Facility was Built at Qom for a Reason. Qom was not chosen at random for the site of this second Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. Qom houses the most important Twelver Shia academy and center of learning in Iran and it is second in importance only to Najaf in Iraq. It is important to remember that when Ayatullah Khomeini was exiled by the Shah he went from Qom to the centers of Shia learning at Najaf and described this with colorful language that what was buried at Qom had burrowed down and now reemerged in Najaf. Qom was chosen as a site for a strategic reason: attacking it will likely cause damage to the religious academy and shrines at Qom, which would in turn mobilize every Twelver Shia in Iran, Iraq, the Gulf States, and Levant against the US and its interests and objectives – not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. It is also likely to rally other Shia – the Seveners and the Fivers, as well as many Sunnis to the Iranian cause. The longstanding, and largely unrealistic, fear that Iran will export its Islamic Revolution becomes more plausible if Qom is targeted.
The reality of dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions is difficult, even more so than just acknowledging these three often unmentioned realities. While the cracks in the experiment that is the Islamic Revolution have been clearly showing for several months now, the US and its allies need to tread very carefully in dealing with Iran. The location of the nuclear facilities, as well as the subterranean and hardened nature of their construction, makes a successful attack on them very difficult. Moreover, while positively encouraging the more moderate Iranian political, social, and religious movements is a good thing, anything seen as meddling in Iranian politics, let alone a military attack on Iran, will mobilize Iranians around their national identity and lead to an increase of anti-American, anti-Western, and reactionarily isolationist sentiment. Given that there are not any really good military options for dealing with Iran that will not make our endeavors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere much more difficult, the approach of cautious diplomacy is the best course of action to take. The key isn’t to do something radical and drag Iran and Iranians kicking and screaming to where we want them to be all at once, rather it is to encourage them to move themselves to that point and to show them it is in their best interest to end their semi-isolation. If military options become the priority the Iran problem set will become insoluble; once you attack Iran you can not unattack them. This is the real lesson of Iraq: once you drop the bombs and start fighting there is no way to successfully unwind events if you do not achieve the results you were seeking.
Adam l. Silverman