As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Drumbeat To Iran Update

The series of events on Iran in the last week are deeply troubling. Today the Bush Administration levied new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force, accusing them of "proliferating weapons of mass destruction." As the Times article says, "this is the first time that the United States has taken such steps against the armed forces of any sovereign government." Combine this with Vice President Fourthbranch's speech warning of "serious consequences" should Iran pursue a nuclear program, and you can see the phrases being recycled from fall 2002. And then, the supplemental war spending bill includes a major line item for massive bunker buster bombs, the type of which would be used to get at underground nuclear facilities in Iran.

What's worrisome here is not only the horrible mistake it would be to bomb Iran, but that it is a classic distraction scenario , keeping people's minds off of the occupation of Iraq. Whether this threat is followed through or not, the Iraq adventure gets far less scrutiny. And indeed, Republicans view the Iran saber-rattling as good for their election chances.

The whole idea of the attack makes more sense as an attempt to revive the political dynamics that worked so well for the Republicans in 2002 and 2004, when they turned public anxiety about Islamist terrorism to their advantage, while dividing the Democrats and throwing them on the defensive and off their own issues. An attack on Iran could do the same.

We can already see how the politics might play out. On Sept. 26, the Senate adopted a resolution presented by Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organization. The vote was 76-22, with Democrats splitting almost exactly down the middle (Hillary Clinton and Harry Reid were among the supporters). The resolution passed only because its sponsors took out two paragraphs approving a military response, but Democrats split over the suspicion that the resolution might be used to justify one.

(As a side note, we are already seeing Democrats snipe amongst themselves on this and even starting new organizations as a result, while the Republicans are united in demonizing Iran and playing the fear card for electoral advantage. There's no doubt they think this helps them, although I'm not certain that we're in the same political environment as in 2002 or 2004.)

I think it's far more instructive to take a look at what's happening inside Iran to see if this aggressive strategy is working. Late last week Ali Larijani, the top nuclear negotiator, resigned. Commentators in the United States believed this to be evidence that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was taking over the nuclear negotiations and installing his man in the post. But others see it differently:

As ever, the Tehran political scientist Kaveh L. Afrasiabi offered an intriguing explanation in Asia Times — one that reads the political significance of the change quite differently. He suggests that the move obviously reveals a state of open political warfare between the president and Larijani, but that Larijani continues to enjoy the confidence of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In fact, when nuclear talks with EU chief Javier Solana resume on Tuesday with Jalili in Larijani’s old role, Larijani will still be present, according to Iranian officials, “as the representative of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution.”

If so, then far from throwing his weight behind Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader may instead be empowering the opponents of the president who are making clear that they can’t work under him. Ahmadinejad was reportedly enraged that President Vladimir Putin presented Russia’s new offer not only to the president, but also went over his head and presented it directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. (Ahmadinejad has since denied that an offer was made, which seems a little ridiculous since not only Larijani, but the Supreme Leader himself had acknowledged that Russia had indeed made a proposal which Iran would study and respond to.)

Afrasiabi sees the developments as signaling a widening split over handling the nuclear issue: “Various commentators, especially in Europe and the United States, have been quick in interpreting Larijani’s resignation as a ‘bad omen’ reflecting a triumph for hardliners led by Ahmadinejad,” he writes. “But that is simplistic and ignores a more complex reality in the Iran’s state affairs. The quest for greater centralization of nuclear decision-making has met a contradictory response in, on the one hand, the move for more direct input by Khamenei, and, on the other hand, a parallel effort by Ahmadinejad to gain greater control of decision-making.”

Indeed, Larijani did attend the most recent negotiation with the UN, and while Ahmadinejad attempted to negotiate through the media and say that "Iran will not retreat one iota," 180 MPs in Iran signed a letter praising Larijani and denouncing Ahmadinejad's handpicked successor. There is a lot of uneasiness in Tehran over an impending attack, and this is clearly not provoking regime change, but insulating and hardening the Supreme Leader and his inner circle, as they crack down on dissent and centralize the decision-making process, probably elbowing out Ahmadinejad instead of allowing him to set policy. The mullahs control Iran, and this saber-rattling is only making them tighten their grip.

Never mind the fact that the "threat" posed by Iran is beyond minimal, even to Israel:

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday.

Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears. Last week, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said similar things about Iran.

The Bushies must be on another planet if they think the public is going to swallow this nonsense that Iran is a growing and gathering threat that must be bombed without delay or the Revolutionary Guard is going to take over the country and force our women into hijabs. But what's the most depressing is the knowledge that these madmen might be able to get away with it.

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