What is Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Game?

We interrupt this program to ask the supreme war-or-peace question; what game is Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei really playing?

A recurrent theme among the lively Iranian global diaspora is that the Supreme Leader is the perfect US/Israel asset – as he incarnates Iran (although in many cases less than President Mahmud Ahmadinejad) as “the enemy”; in parallel, the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran also needs “the enemy” – as in the Great Satan and the Zionists – to justify its monopoly of power.

The ultimate loser, in this case, is true Iranian democracy – as in the foundation for the country’s ability to resist Empire. Especially now, after the immensely dodgy 2009 presidential election and the repression of the Green movement – when even former supporters swear the Islamic Republic turned into neither a “republic” and certainly not “Islamic”.

At the same time, informed Iranian – and Western – critics of Empire swear that the belligerent Likud-majority government of Israel is, in fact, the perfect Iran asset. This is because Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and former Moldova bouncer turned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s non-stop warmongering has only worked to rally Iranians of all persuasions – always proudly nationalistic – behind the regime.

After all, the absolute majority of Iranians feel they are targeted by a heavily weaponized foreign power – US/Israel, followed in the shade by the Sunni Persian Gulf monarchies of the Gulf Counter-revolution Club, also known as Gulf Cooperation Council. The regime was wily enough to instrumentalize this foreign threat and at the same time further smash the Green movement.

Keep your bombs away from me

Parliamentary elections in Iran are less than a week away, on March 3. These are the first elections after the 2009 drama. In The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: an Iranian Challenge (Penguin Books), Hooman Majd makes a very strong case detailing how the election was stolen. And that’s the key current problem; millions of Iranians don’t believe in their Islamic democracy anymore.

Gholam Reza Moghaddam, a cleric and the head of the Majlis (parliament) commission that is conducting an extremely delicate move in the middle of an economic crisis – to finish government subsidies on basic food items and energy – recently admitted that the Ahmadinejad government was by all practical purposes bribing the population “to encourage them to vote in the Majlis elections”.

Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi – a senior military adviser to Khamenei and, crucially, former chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – asked Iranians to “take the elections seriously and by voting in maximum numbers create another epic event”. The Supreme Leader believes – or hopes – turnout at the “epic event” will be around 60%.

They may be in for a rude shock. Word in Iran is that the election appeal at universities is close to zero. No wonder; Green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi has been under house arrest for a full year. According to Kaleme, a website close to Mousavi and his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, a few days ago they were allowed to speak only briefly, by phone, with their three daughters.

Khamenei’s attention seems to be concentrated more on the external pressure than the internal dynamic. Once again, on Wednesday, he went public to renew his vow that a nuclear weapon is anti-Islamic. His words should – but they won’t – be carefully scrutinized in the West:

We believe that using nuclear weapons is haram and prohibited, and that it is everybody’s duty to make efforts to protect humanity against this great disaster. We believe that besides nuclear weapons, other types of weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons also pose a serious threat to humanity. The Iranian nation which is itself a victim of chemical weapons feels more than any other nation the danger that is caused by the production and stockpiling of such weapons and is prepared to make use of all its facilities to counter such threats.

To see the Supreme Leader’s “nuclear” views, warmongers could do worse than consult his website.  Of course, they won’t.

What’s certain is that the leader seems to be ready to fight for the long haul. Major General (retired) Mohsen Rezai, the secretary general of the Expediency Council, said it in so many words; Western sanctions will go on for at least another five years, and are much tougher than those imposed during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Rezai also said that for 16 years, when Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and then Mohammad Khatami were presidents, Iran tried to reach some sort of deal with the US; but “because the gap [between the two] was too deep, a compromise was not possible … We allowed them to inspect Natanz, we reduced the number of centrifuges, we suspended the Isfahan [uranium conversion facility], and our president [Khatami] began the ‘dialogue among civilizations’. But [president George W] Bush declared that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constitute the ‘axis of evil’ and began a confrontation with us.” ((See the original text, in Farsi .))

A former spokesman for the Iranian nuclear negotiation team, ambassador Hossein Mousavian, brought this confrontational mood up to date – to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team’s October 2011 visit to Iran, led by deputy director general Herman Nackaerts – the same Nackaerts who was back in Iran this week.

According to Mousavian, “during the visit, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, offered a blank check to the IAEA, granting full transparency, openness to inspections, and cooperation with the IAEA. He also informed Nackaerts of Iran’s receptiveness to putting the country’s nuclear program under ‘full IAEA supervision’, including implementing the Additional Protocol [of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] for five years, provided that sanctions against Iran were lifted.”

Guess what was Washington’s reaction; forget about dialogue, we want sanctions. That set the scene for Washington’s next steps; the Fast-and-Furious plot trying to frame Tehran for the assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to the US; the pressure to divert the IAEA’s November 2011 report on Iran by adding a spin on a “possible” military angle to the nuclear program; the oil embargo; the sponsoring of a United Nations resolution against Iran on terrorism; and the list goes on.

Show me the path of the Imam

In all matters external and internal, in Iran the bucks stops with Khamenei – not Ahmadinejad. If the Supreme Leader seems to have his finger firmly on the nuclear dossier, at homely matters he may be unraveling. He may take comfort that outside the big cities, he remains popular – as government loans in rural areas remain generous, at least while the new Western sanctions don’t bite.

But high-ranking clerics in Qom are now openly calling for legal mechanisms to oversee – and criticize – him; his response – hardly a secret in Tehran – was to order all their offices and homes to be bugged.

Khamenei has vehemently rejected any sort of oversight by the Council of Experts – the body that appoints the Supreme Leader, monitors his performance, and can even topple him.

According to Seyyed Abbas Nabavi, the head of the Organization for Islamic Civilization and Development, Khamenei told the experts, “I do not accept the assembly can say that the Supreme Leader is still qualified, but then question why such and such official was directed in a certain direction, or why I allowed a certain official [to do certain things].” ((See the original text in Farsi))

Following the outbursts of outrage in 2009 – when for the first time people in the streets openly called for the downfall of the leader – revolt steadily marches on, with highly educated Iranians deriding Khamenei as stubborn, jealous and vindictive, holding a monster grudge against millions who never swallowed his endorsement of Ahmadinejad in 2009 (he always calls them “seditionists”).

For instance, even the daughter of a well-known ayatollah has gone public saying that Khamenei “holds a grudge in his heart” against Rafsanjani and former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi “because of the Imam’s [Khomeini’s] love and support for them and also because in comparison to these three, in particular Hashemi [Rafsanjani] and Mousavi, he is clearly a second-rate individual.” Khamenei is now being widely blamed for anything from Iran’s falling production capacity to mounting inflation and widespread corruption.

That raises the question; what about the IRGC’s support for the Supreme Leader?

The Iranian diaspora largely considers this to be pure propaganda. Yet the fact is the IRGC is now a monster conglomerate with myriad military-industrial, economic and financial interests. Top managers – and the array of enterprises they control – are bound to the ethos of antagonizing the West, the same West from whose sanctions they profit, handsomely. So, for them, the status quo is nice and dandy – even with the everyday possibility of a miscalculation, or a false flag operation, leading to war.

At the same time, the IRGC may count on the key strategic/political support of BRICS members Russia and China – and is certain that the country will be able to dribble the embargo and keep selling oil mostly to Asian clients.

But what’s really juicy, in terms of the internal dynamic, is the fact that the cream of the IRGC is now engaged in a sort of economic war against the bazaaris – the traditionally very conservative Persian merchants.

It’s crucial to remember that these bazaaris financed the so-called “Path of the Imam” Islamic revolution in 1979. They were – and remain – radically anti-colonialism (especially as practiced by the British and then the Americans); but this does not mean they are anti-Western (something that most in the West still don’t understand).

Once again, as top Iranian analysts have been ceaselessly pointing out, one must remember that the Islamic revolution’s original motto was “Neither East nor West”; what mattered was a sort of curiously Buddhist “middle of the road” – exactly that “Path of the Imam” that would guarantee Islamic Iran as a sovereign, non-aligned country.

And guess who was part of this original “Path of the Imam” coalition of the willing? Exactly; Khamenei (and Ahmadinejad) foes Mousavi, Khatami, Karoubi and Rafsanjani, not to mention a moderate faction of the IRGC, graphically symbolized by former IRGC commander and former presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai.

So what the “Path of the Imam” coalition is essentially saying is that Khamenei is a traitor of the principles of the revolution; they accuse him of trying to become a sort of Shi’ite caliph – an absolute ruler. This message is increasingly getting public resonance among millions of Iranians who believe in a true “Islamic”, but most of all “republic” state.

And that leads us to the Supreme Leader’s supreme fear; that a coalition of Islamic republic purists – including powerful Qom clerics and powerful IRGC commanders or former commanders – may eventually rise up, get rid of him, and finally implement their dream of a true Islamic republic. Only this is certain; the one thing they won’t get rid of is Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

•  First appeared at Asia Times.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Pepe.