Iran’s Voices May be Schizophrenic — But It’s a Good Idea to Listen Carefully

by YOSSI MELMAN

[Melman, based in Tel Aviv, is co-author of EVERY SPY A PRINCE and the new history of Israeli espionage and security, SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON. He wrote this blog post for the website of the non-stop TV news service from Israel, viewable in English, French, and Arabic by clicking  i24news.tv]

The voices, statements, and declarations pouring out of Iran indicate that its top leadership is schizophrenic. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — a former president and one of the pillars of the “reformist” movement and an often daring opponent of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — hinted two weeks ago that the Syrian regime (a strategic ally and partner of Iran) used chemical weapons.  A few days later that was denied in Tehran.

Hasan Rouhani

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year celebration last week), newly elected President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a message of greetings to the Jewish people in general and Iranian Jews in particular.

Days later, Rouhani’s office felt it had to provide a convoluted and apologetic explanation that the tweet indeed was made on the President’s account but was a result of an independent initiative by one of his staffers.

Then came the surprising remark by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who declared on his Twitter account that Iranians don’t deny the Holocaust; it was only one person – referring to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – who did so, and he is “no longer here.”

In different circumstances all these words should have been received like sweet music to the ears of Israelis and Westerners. They are, however, treated with a huge pinch of salt because the music played by Iran is cacophonic.

The “positive” remarks are contradicted by statements made by Khamenei and his loyalist officials, which echo the old positions, especially on two fronts. One is the nuclear program. Rouhani is ready to negotiate with the West, but the Supreme Leader refuses to compromise.

On the Syrian front, the Iranian position is even more stubborn and unified.

Another reason for being skeptical about the new Iranians sounds is the suspicion that the encouraging remarks are aimed to deceive the West by trying to portray Iran as a changed nation: different nowadays, more accommodating and ready to compromise.

Clearly even the most suspicious can agree that Iran is facing a domestic power struggle between the old guard — led by Khamenei and the rigid and traditional Revolutionary Guards — and more pragmatic elements represented by President Rouhani. This is not a new phenomenon.

Iran witnessed a similar bitter debate in the 8 years between 1997 and 2005: the presidency of the moderate Mohammed Khatami. Eventually the Supreme Leader showed that he had the upper hand and won the battle — certainly in the strategic sphere of the nuclear program. The conservative Ahmadinejad was elected as president and the program was accelerated.

Yet, this time the moderate camp finds itself in a different situation and feels encouraged that it may prevail.  Western economic and military sanctions on Iran are crippling its economy.

Iran with its both camps – Khamenei included – is desperate to see the international community lifting the sanctions. The Supreme Leader fears not only the possibility of an American or Israeli strike but even more so, that if the economy continues to be strangled, the Iranian people might rise up massively against the regime.

This is the most likely winning card for the West and its best hope. Western countries need to enhance the pressure and hope that the moderates will persuade Khamenei that if he cares for the survival of the regime – and he certainly does – he has to loosen the rope and allow them to compromise on the nuclear program.

September 10, 2013

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