March 15, 2007
Iran's Three Hairline CracksBy James Lewis
When a towering granite cliff begins to come apart, you may not be see anything but tiny hairline cracks at the beginning. The same is true in politics.
When the Soviet Union began to fall, the first news came in the shape of little oddities, strange tidbits of information that were somehow different from the rhythm of Cold War hostility before 1988 or ‘89. Then those tiny fissures began to spread, until whole pieces started to crumble and fall, and finally the giant superstructure of the Soviet Bloc came apart in slow motion chaos.
Three tiny hairline cracks are showing up in Iran. It's hard to know what they mean. But they haven't happened before. Something is up.
1. The first top-level defection from the hardest of the hard-line stormtroopers --- a General Ashgari of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Ashgari was assistant defense minister, and may have been a Western mole in place for some time, possibly for many years.
This is unprecedented -- comparable, perhaps, to the defection of Saddam Hussein's son-in-law early in the breakdown of the Baath regime. It is possible that General Ashgari has just blown the biggest secrets of Iran's nuke program, which may now stand exposed to a concentrated US bombing campaign. It may take years to move, bury and disguise the exposed target facilities in new locations.
Alternatively, Ashgari's defection could signal fierce divisions among the hardcore fanatics who now run the Iranian state. Almost all the power positions are in the hands of the IRGC. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been their voice, proclaiming jihadi Armageddon to the world: "Martyrdom is all-powerful." "America and Israel will soon come to an end." "Iran has the right to nuclear weapons." "The West must bow down to the great Iranian nation..."
The Saudis, Gulf States and other Sunni countries have been going ballistic as a result. The US is deeply concerned. Israel may at some point have overwhelming incentive for massive preemption, which will not please anybody, including Israelis themselves. Nuclear rationality suggests that no nuclear power can be placed with its back against the wall, and Israel is a nuclear power. So everybody wants to avoid a train wreck, with the possible exception of Ahmadinejad.
2. A sudden public dispute between Russia and Iran over the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
In some ways the public falling-out with Russia over payment for the Bushehr reactor is the most interesting of all. One of the oddities is that we know about it at all. Disputes like this are not carried out in public in normal times. The publicity suggests that the disagreements are very serious, and may be out of control. It cannot be to Iran's benefit to look like a pauper before an international audience, especially given the enormous value placed on international prestige by the Ahmadinejad regime. One possibility therefore is that Iran really is running out of money to pay for its massive military and nuclear program.
Another possibility is that the Russians are raising the ante to disrupt and slow down the Bushehr reactor. But Putin has not hesitated to sell the mullahs all kinds of advanced weaponry, so that explanation doesn't cover what we know. Bushehr is a very high priority for the mullahs, so that failing to pay for it might signal a real lack of money, or a top-level dispute on how to spend it. Economic sanctions might be starting to hurt, or more likely, the pragmatists think that the next stage of international sanctions will start cutting deeply --- into the pockets of billionaire Rafsanjani, for example.
3. Hezb'allah wants to talk directly to Israel.
Hezb'allah is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who are under the direct command of Ayatollah Khamenei, the "Supreme Guide" of the mullahcracy. Khamenei plays the radical and pragmatic factions against each other like puppets. Hezb'allah would be unlikely to talk to Israel if Ahmadinejad were in complete control. Therefore Khamenei may be giving freer reign to the anti-Ahmadinejad faction for the moment. Those mullahs could be called the "pragmatic zealots." Sure, they believe in all that wild martyrdom stuff, but they want to get there by sleight of hand, and not create a premature confrontation that Iran is bound to lose. They're not really eager for another major war. So they might want to play for time.
In the background, the Saudis want to be done with the Israel-Palestinian agony, because today their own necks are on the line from Iran's mullahs next door. The Saudis have a lot of clout. There are signs that they are knocking heads together behind the scenes, trying to get a face-saving patch-up of the Israel-Palestinian war. It might only be the beginning of a false dawn, like the Oslo Accords. But it is still possible that a two-state solution, no matter how ambiguous, will start an irreversible momentum toward sanity in the mad Middle East.
Certainly the argument from Israel's peaceniks will be that once Palestinians taste normality, they will not want to go back to madness. But it's only a gamble. Human beings are not that predictable, and the Islamic hate industry is one of the Middle East's biggest money crops. A lot of people are invested in it.
Yet -- three little hairline cracks, each with many explanations. We don't know if a political earthquake is beginning to shake the cliff, or if the Iran regime is playing political games, or if there is some really fundamental change in the works. We do know that all the political mullahs are fanatics, who only differ by degree.
The least interesting possibility is that the mullahs will play for time, and slow down the "unstoppable train" of Iranian nukes. So they will reach out (indirectly) to Israel, through Hezb'allah, and have a pretend-peace for a couple of years. They may slow down the Bushehr reactor, and if a Democrat is elected president next year, just speed up again. Meanwhile they will have time to purge the top levels of the IRGC to wipe out any other spies like General Ashgari.
A more interesting possibility is that there is genuine alarm at the top of the mullah kleptocracy. The Supreme Leader has long been believed to be in poor health, and may be on his way out. The steel surface of the IRGC may be weaker than it looks, and the mullahs may be suddenly realizing how vulnerable they are -- to economic sanctions, to selective bombing of oil refineries, and to their vanishing support among the Sunni Arab countries. Real panic at the top can lead to a loss of control, a cumulative weakening of the regime. A sudden push, like a drop in the price of oil, or another massive inflationary rise in basic commodities, and the mullahs might be scrambling for survival. It couldn't happen to a nicer crowd.
Three anomalies at the same time. Interesting.
In a couple of weeks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is supposed to fly to New York City, to be present when the Security Council debates additional sanctions. Maybe the Supreme Guide has told him his neck is on the line if he fails to stop sanctions that will really hurt. There are reports that Ayatollah Khamenei has refused to see Ahmadinejad. So he is under pressure inside the regime.
My bet is that the US and Britain have told the Russians, the Chinese and French that they will introduce their own economic sanctions, even if the Security Council goes easy on Iran. So tougher sanctions are coming. But Ahmadinejad is not going to back down easily. It's not in his character.
Stay tuned for drama at the UN. Hope and pray for the best.
James Lewis is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. He blogs at www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com