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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Reformist or Conservative - Which Way Will Iran Go?

Henry Kissinger's famous and accurate saying that "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy" is as true today about Iran: Most of the regime's activities, at both the diplomatic and the international strategic levels, are aimed more at internal political goals than external diplomatic ones.
The clearest, if not the most ridiculous example of this is the fleet of Iranian warships in the Atlantic Ocean, far across from America's eastern shores. It is unclear how many vessels are involved, and it is also unclear what their final destination will be. It is possible that they are en route to Venezuela, Iran's closest ally in Central America.

But in truth, the details make little difference. What matters is that this voyage is intended to silence criticism against the regime and the Geneva nuclear accord by the hardline conservative camp in Iran, the Revolutionary Guard and the supporters of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It turns out that Israel is not the only country to voice massive criticism of the interim nuclear agreement reached between the Islamic Republic and the world powers last November. Critics in Iran are no less vehement than those in Israel – claiming that deal is an Iranian capitulation to Western demands.

The conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi from Qom, Ahmadinejad's spiritual patron, claims that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javed Zarif sold Iran's honor and nuclear program for a fist full of dollars – namely, sanction relief.

Such vocal criticism from such influential detractors demands a response from Iran's leadership, firstly Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the Islamic Republic has not bowed. Khamenei has already said that the deal is a surrender to Western demands.

And on Saturday in a speech marking the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the ayatollah belittled the sanctions, telling a group of senior Iranian air force officials that relief from them is not the key to saving Iran's economy, but rather relying "on (Iran's) infinite indigenous potentials."

According to Khamenei – and this seems to be his true opinion on the subject – the US wants to the regime in Teheran to fall. His words seem to echo a belief that if the US only could, it would replace the Iranian regime.
Such statements reveal Khamenei's true concern – he is afraid the sanctions and the dire economic state that Iran is in threaten the regime, and thus he immediately adds that a new and more open diplomatic position towards the world must be embraced, and be given time, patience and a chance to make a difference. Of course, without missing a beat, he quickly adds this must be done without compromising on Iran's principles.

Iran's principles

So what are these principles? Firstly, Iran desires to obtain military nuclear capabilities; secondly, it seeks regional hegemony, as befits a regional power; and thirdly, it wants to return Shia Islam to the prominence it thinks it deserves.

Khamenei did not lay these principles out clearly in his speech Saturday, but every little boy and girl in Iran knows them to be true. It is possible to add a fourth principle to that list, according to which the current reforms being implemented by Rouhani are as far-reaching as they will ever be in today's Iran – and there will certainly be no reforms that threaten religious control.

A new distribution of labor has crystalized in the Iranian leadership: Khamenei oversees the gradual process of opening up to the West, while on the one hand making sure to dispel any dangerous fantasies being concocted by everyday Iranians, and on the other hand working to silence conservatives sounding too aggressive in their criticism. 

Rouhani for his part is doing his best to improve the Iranian economy and slowly fix the damage caused by sanctions and bad management by the Ahmadinejad administration. Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araqchi are in charge of leading the West-bound smile offensive, and carefully managing negotiations that will preserve Iran as a nuclear threshold state all the while allowing sanctions relief.

The Iranian street, Israeli intelligence sources believe, is being swept up in the winds of hope and social change, inspired by this newfound willingness to open up to the West and by the belief that the worst is behind them.

But maybe it is just the winds of change, accented by the tidal wave of Western businesses descending on Iran, that are motivating Khamenei to hold down the fort, lest it gets swept away like it did with other regional leaders.

The battle between Western-oriented reformists willing to delay the nuclear program by a couple of years, and conservatives fearing that liberalization will gnaw away at their power base has yet to be decided.

In Washington and in Jerusalem, the expectation is that in coming months, while the West and Tehran are negotiating a permanent nuclear agreement, the winning side will emerge. Will it be the conservatives, who would prevent significant Iranian concessions or the more conciliatory Rouhani-Zarif camp?

We might get a possible hint in a few days, when members of United Nations nuclear watchdog will finally hold direct talks with Iran, in a bid to understand what the Islamic Republic is really doing to reduce its nuclear program.

This will be the true test of Iran's new direction.

By - Ron Ben-Yishai         

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