Foreign Affairs

Divining Iran’s chief mullah

The West’s new economic sanctions are provoking an Iranian backlash but only a credible threat to the Islamic Republic’s survival will compel the chief mullah to abandon atomic weapons and his grandiose vision for an Islamic world. 

Brinksmanship is apparently one way to force Iran’s hand regarding its nuclear program.  Last week, apparently in response to mounting economic pressure, Iran lashed out with a flurry of contradictory actions: it asked to restart stalled nuclear talks, canceled an annual military exercise, staged covert attacks against Israeli embassy personnel, threatened an oil embargo against European countries, and announced new nuclear advances.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress hosted hearings that explored Iran’s nuclear intentions and the likelihood Israel might attack Iran’s atomic facilities.  James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, testified the U.S. was confident Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, but it would probably take one year for Iran to produce a bomb “and then possibly another one or two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort.”

At the same hearing Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified “to the best of our knowledge, Israel has not decided to attack Iran.” That’s important because President Barack Obama wants to give his latest round of economic sanctions more time to work before Israel alone or perhaps with the U.S., launches a military operation intended to destroy Tehran’s atomic weapons facilities. 

The Israelis are understandably anxious about Iran’s atomic progress and about Obama’s reliability.  But former CIA Michael Hayden opined that Israel alone is not capable of inflicting significant damage on Iran’s nuclear sites.  It would only “make this worse” which means, according to Hayden, that should Israel attack it would guarantee what the U.S. is trying to prevent: “an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.”

That is why last month Obama asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the new sanctions time to work.   But Netanyahu believes Iran is on the verge of weaponizing and Israel’s opportunity to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities is quickly diminishing because its atomic assets are being moved into deep underground bunkers.  Complicating the issue for Netanyahu is Obama’s refusal, according to Newsweek, to provide Israel assurance that if the Jewish nation waits and sanctions fail, he will use force against Iran.

But the West’s real problem is not that Israel might rush to attack Iran, but that Obama is naively wrong about Iran’s susceptibility to economic leverage.  Intelligence Director Clapper, Obama’s chief intelligence adviser, believes economic sanctions might be enough leverage Iran to abandon its nuclear program.  He reasons Iran’s “Supreme Guide,” the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would base that decision “on a cost-benefit analysis” and he opined “I don’t think you want a nuclear weapon at any price.”

That view is unfortunately shared by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Dempsey told CNN “we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.  And it’s for that reason… that we think the current path we’re on is the most prudent path at this point.”

Obviously Clapper and Dempsey don’t understand Khamenei like Amir Taheri, an Iranian Middle East expert based in Europe and the author of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.  Taheri wrote for London Times Online that Khamenei has asserted himself as Iran’s ultimate decision-maker. He is also preparing to abolish Iran’s presidency, “turning the Islamic Republic into an imamate [or caliphate],” according to Taheri.

That is why understanding the cleric is absolutely critical to any Western efforts intended to stop the Persian’s atomic weapons program.  Not only does Khamenei intend to create an imamate but the mullah aims to repeat the great victories of the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad.  Khomeini’s message is: “either surrender or fight.”  

The cleric’s “great victory” is destroying Western “world order.” Khamenei said in a recent speech in Tabriz, according to Taheri, “the day of victory” is near.  “Islam has reached a decisive moment,” the cleric references the Arab Spring uprisings which led to Islamic regimes like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.  “The new generation will witness events that would fundamentally alter the world and wipe out arrogant materialist powers,” Khamenei declared.

Taheri suggests the self-styled “imam” intends to destroy Western “world order” with three victories.  First, he intends to win the battle over Iran’s nuclear program.  “That requires saying ‘no’ to any compromise with the international community,” Taheri explained.  Perhaps Iran’s call this week to restart stalled talks will confirm Khomeini’s “no” to compromise strategy and buy more time to harden Iran’s atomic weapons facilities against attack. 

A just say “no” approach to negotiations has been Iran’s past approach to negotiations.  Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, reminded the press last week about past talks with the Iranians. “We’ve had negotiations [with the Iranians] that started and fizzled or negotiations that ate up a lot of time and didn’t go where they needed to go…”   

Tehran’s just say “no” arrogance was evident in the regime’s latest nuclear announcements.  Last week, just days before the expected arrival of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, Iranian officials inaugurated a new generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium to 20 percent, unveiled its first home-made nuclear fuel rod for a reactor linked to the regime’s weapons program and increased by one third its total centrifuges (now 9,000).

Khomeini’s planned second victory will be defeating Western sanctions by taking the offensive.  Last week Iran proposed to ban oil exports to European countries and once again threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the European Union moves forward on a threatened oil embargo scheduled to begin July 1st.  And yes, the cleric is willing to let his people suffer in order to defeat the West’s sanctions and besides, he has the support of allies China, Russia and Pakistan.

Taheri says Khomeini’s planned third victory is defeating the West in a limited war.  The rationale is simple.  The cleric believes the U.S. is “too tired, divided and too concerned about the global economy to launch a full-scale war against Iran.”  Besides, Taheri explains, there is the perception that Obama is “a master of the art of running away” which reinforces Tehran’s analysis.

Khomeni believes once diplomacy and sanctions run their course the West will try its only remaining option, a limited military strike.  By that time, the thinking goes, the important components of Iran’s nuclear program will be safely inside mountain facilities like Fordow, the previously secret facility buried under 80 meters of rock and protected by anti-aircraft weapons.  

Sanctions and a limited war may cause suffering but that won’t deter Khamenei, explained Taheri.  The cleric will compromise only if the survival of his regime is at stake which appears unlikely.

That view explains Iran’s covert actions against Israel last week and America last fall in Washington.  The cleric, according to Taheri, wants to provoke Israel and the U.S. to attack because that will ultimately play into his hands.  

If Taheri’s analysis of Khamenei is correct then Obama’s sanctions and even a coordinated U.S.-Israeli military strike won’t stop Iran’s theological madman.  Rather, they will help the mullah finish building his bomb and then provide him stature to claim to have fought the “Great Satan” and survived – a precursor to the establishment of his imamate.

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