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What is really happening in Iran?

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Khamenei's reportedly fears a coalition of 'purists' will rise up and get rid of him [REUTERS]by Pepe Escobar

The supreme war-or-peace question regarding the Iran psychodrama has got to be: What game is Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei really playing?

Sharp wits among the lively Iranian global diaspora maintain that the Supreme Leader is the perfect US/Israel asset - as he incarnates Iran as "the enemy" (although in most cases in a much less strident way than Ahmadinejad). 

In parallel, the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran also needs "the enemy" - as in "the Great Satan" and assorted Zionists - to justify its monopoly of power.

The ultimate loser, voices of the diaspora sustain, 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. Even former supporters swear the Islamic Republic is now neither a "republic" - nor "Islamic".

For their part, another current of informed Iranian - and Western - critics of empire swear that the belligerent Likud-majority government of Israel is in fact the perfect Iranian asset. After all, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and former Moldova bouncer turned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's non-stop warmongering tends to rally Iranians of all persuasions - always proudly nationalistic - behind the flag.

The absolute majority of Iranians knows and feels they are targeted by a heavily weaponised foreign power - US/Israel. The leadership in Tehran has been wily enough to instrumentalise this foreign threat, and at the same time further smash the Green movement.

Your bombs are no good here

Parliamentary elections in Iran are only a few days 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 to detail how the election was "stolen". And that's the heart of the matter; 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 end government subsidies on basic food items and energy - recently admitted that the Ahmadinejad government is, 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 125,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - asked Iranians to "take the elections seriously, and, by voting in maximum numbers, create another epic event". The Supreme Leader himself believes - or hopes - turnout at the "epic event" will be around 60 per cent.

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.

So far, Khamenei's attention seems to have been concentrated more on external pressure than the internal dynamic. Once again, last Wednesday, he went public to renew his vow that nuclear weapons are anti-Islamic. His words should - but they won't - be carefully scrutinised 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, US and Israeli warmongers could do worse than to consult his website. Of course, they won't.

What's certain is that Khamenei seems to be digging in for the long haul. Retired Major General Mohsen Rezaei, 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 Rafsanjani and then Khatami served as 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 civilisations'. But Bush declared that Iran, Iraq and North Korea constituted the 'axis of evil' and began a confrontation with us." (Here's 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 IAEA team visit to Iran last October, led by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts - the same Nackaerts who was back in Iran last week.

According to Mousavian, "during the visit, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, offered a blank cheque to the IAEA, granting full transparency, openness to inspections and co-operation with the IAEA. He also informed Nackaerts of Iran's receptiveness to putting the country's nuclear programme under 'full IAEA supervision', including implementing the Additional Protocol for five years, provided that sanctions against Iran were lifted".

Washington's reaction was predictable: instead of diplomacy, more belligerence. The next steps are well-known; 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 programme; the oil embargo; the sponsoring of a UN resolution against Iran on terrorism; and the list goes on.

A new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), based in Brussels, virtually endorses Iran's approach as outlined by Mousavian. The result would be the recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium up to five per cent, and the lifting of existing sanctions - in stages.

The report recommends the US and the EU follow Turkey's diplomatic way of dealing with Iran. Instead of sanctions, sabotage and non-stop threats of war, the report stresses that "economic pressure is at best futile, at worse counter-productive", and that Tehran "ought to be presented with a realistic proposal". This is exactly what the BRICS group of emerging powers, plus Turkey, has been advocating all along.

Show me the path of the Imam

In all matters external and internal, in Iran the buck stops with Khamenei - and not with end-of-mandate Ahmadinejad. If the Supreme Leader seems to have his pulse firmly on the nuclear dossier, home matters are infinitely more complicated. Khamenei may take comfort that, outside the big cities, he remains quite popular - as government loans in rural areas remain generous, at least while the new Western sanctions have yet to bite.

But high-ranking clerics in Qom are now openly calling for legal mechanisms to oversee - and criticise - 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 Iranian body that appoints the Supreme Leader, monitors his performance, and can even topple him.

According to Seyyed Abbas Nabavi, the head of the Organisation for Islamic Civilisation 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]." (Here's the original text, in Farsi.)

In 2011, I heard from exiled Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf that, "we actually started the Arab Spring, in 2009, with the Green movement in the streets". Following the outbursts of outrage after the election result - when for the first time Iranians openly called for the downfall of the Supreme Leader - revolt steadily marches on, with urban, highly educated professionals deriding Khamenei as stubborn, jealous and vindictive, and holding a monster grudge against those 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 Mousavi and 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.

And that leads us to another key question: What about the IRGC's support for the Supreme Leader?

The Iranian diaspora largely considers this support to be pure propaganda. Yet the fact is that the IRGC is not only an army, but 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 antagonising the West, the same West from whose sanctions they handsomely profit. 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 (currently 62 per cent of exports, and rising).

But what's really juicy, in terms of Iran's internal dynamic, is the fact that the cream of the IRGC is 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. They were - and remain - radically anti-colonialist (especially as practiced by the Brits and then the US); 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" which 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 symbolised 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 Shia Caliph - an absolute ruler. This message is increasingly getting public resonance among millions of Iranians who believe in certainly an "Islamic", but most of all a "true" "Republic".

And that leads us to the Supreme Leader's supreme fear, that a coalition of purists - including influential Qom clerics and powerful IRGC commanders or former commanders, with widespread urban support - 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 programme.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is named Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).


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