Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Iranian Tragedy and its Threat to Everyone in the Middle East

By Barry Rubin

It would have been hard to believe if at the beginning of this year someone had predicted the Iranian regime would be even more dangerous within six months. But that’s precisely what’s happened.

Understanding why also shows why it’s short-sighted to be pleased at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory because it makes the regime look worse in international public relations’ terms.

The basic argument goes like this:

People say, vaguely, that Iran is forever changed. Right, but it isn’t changed by the regime falling or being on the verge of downfall. On the contrary, the regime has become more radical. The Iranian government today can be called the Ali Khamenei-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regime, after the partnership of the supreme guide and the president. The supreme guide remains the main power but there is now no real difference between the two men in terms of world view, strategy, and policy.

Anyone--and that includes the U.S. president--who still makes a distinction between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad today is very foolish indeed.

It’s true that relatively more moderate figures in the opposition—like Mousavi—and in the establishment—like Rafsanjani—are not moderate democrats. It is equally true that they would like to obtain nuclear weapons eventually and would use them as leverage.

But Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are far more dangerous. They want to get atomic weapons as fast as possible, are more reckless and risk-taking, and eager to pursue a competition with the United States.

The influence of relatively less extreme factions in the establishment is now at a minimum.

Consequently, Iran's continued all-out effort to get nuclear weapons, Iranian encouragement for international terrorism, and a more aggressive Iranian policy in Lebanon and Iraq are now more likely. In response, a U.S.-Iran confrontation, an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, serious costs for Western interests, and major suffering for Middle Easterners (including Iran’s own people) become far more likely.

The situation is a tragedy, then, not only for the liberties of Iranians but, potentially, for the futures of everyone in the region.

That President Barack Obama (a government which thinks the region’s gravest problem is the construction of fewer than 5,000 apartments for Israeli Jews on the West Bank) and European leaders don’t understand all of this yet is of tremendous but secondary importance compared to these facts. The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime is not interested in its image and will not make serious efforts to commit to any real compromise.

The alternatives of appeasement or struggle will become far clearer over the coming months. Western leaders will have to make a choice.

It could be argued that by forcing this issue the “worse things are the better they are” argument applies to Iran’s politics. But if one calculates the cost in suffering, the possibility that Western leaders will choose wrongly or too slowly, and the losses that might occur in the interim, this is a sad story.

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