It's Time to Bypass Iran's 'Supreme Leader'

By Mehdi Khalaji

Since President Obama came to office, unconditional engagement with Iran has been official U.S. policy and total rejection of engagement has been official Iranian policy. The president has sent several letters to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proposing various types of engagement, but all these ideas have been rebuffed. In March 2010, when the president said "Faced with an extended hand, Iran's leaders have shown only a clenched fist," the ayatollah accused him of deceitfully offering a "metal hand inside a velvet glove." It's time to acknowledge that engaging Iran's supreme leader is hopeless.

The reason for Khamanei's refusal to engage is simple: As the strategic architect and ultimate defender of Iran's nuclear program, his political standing depends on the survival of the program and on the perception that he can reject all pressure. His persistence amid rising U.S. sanctions determines the credibility of his claim to be "the leader of Muslim world." Any flinching would strengthen his rivals inside the country, because they were aggressively sidelined by him when they advocated a more moderate nuclear policy. Holding firm is an issue of life and death for him.

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In this regard, Iran is very different from Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Saddam was able to survive more than a decade of sanctions because the regime was run by a single, ruthless megalomaniac who could eliminate any dissent with a bullet to the back of the head. There was no such thing as a "political crisis" in Saddam's Iraq because such a regime has no politics. By contrast, Iran is a den of political intrigue, with sophisticated and nuanced maneuvering among factions, albeit within an increasingly narrow element of the elite. In such a system, the leader's position is much more vulnerable than in a state of iron-fisted, one-man rule.

Specifically, Khamenei's decision to crack down on the protests provoked by the rigged presidential election in 2009 created deep fissures within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the vanguard of the regime. Recently retired Gen. Hossein Alai, founder of the Revolutionary Guard Navy and its commander during the Iran-Iraq War, wrote an article for Tehran's Ettelaat newspaper that implicitly compared the situation in Iran today with the year prior to the revolution. He suggested that if Khamenei did not reach a political compromise with the reformist leaders of the protest movement, he would be making the same mistake that the Shah made a generation ago.

After Gen. Alai was attacked by the government-run media, some Revolutionary Guard commanders sent him an unsigned letter of support. Already there are signs that some within the Guard may not support Khamenei's preferred candidates in parliamentary elections scheduled for March.

What has really stoked the Revolutionary Guard's anger at Khamenei is that they see him as responsible for the tougher Western sanctions that have hurt their economic interests. The Revolutionary Guard has been a major player in the Iranian economy for more than two decades. Today, even most private businesses cannot function without some "special arrangement" with the Revolutionary Guard. Veterans are prominent in industries ranging from oil, mining and banking to cinema and sports. Most of them have changed from idealist revolutionaries to pragmatic money-lovers.

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© 2010 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Reprinted with permission. This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

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