Is Iran in Trouble?
After years of refusing to see Iran's aggressive intentions, most sensible observers of things Middle Eastern now recognize that the most important terrorist organizations, from Islamic Jihad to Hezbollah and Hamas, are essentially Iranian proxies. Figaro this weekend carries a story bluntly headlined "Iran Behind Hamas' Grad Missiles," and flatly states that Hamas military commanders have been trained in Iran and Syria to use the deadliest missiles in their inventory. The battle of Gaza is therefore the second between Israel and Iran in two and half years, the first being the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah (which, lest we forget, was kicked off when Hamas kidnaped three Israeli soldiers).
It follows that Iran could well lose this battle, and defeat is very dangerous to a regime like Tehran's, which claims divine sanction for its actions and proclaims the imminent arrival of its messiah and of the triumph of global jihad. If Allah is responsible for victory, what can be said about humiliating defeat? The mullahs are well aware of the stakes, as we can see in their recent behavior.
For some time now, the regime in Tehran has shown signs of urgency, sometimes verging on panic. Of late, the mullahs have organized raucus demonstrations in front of numerous embassies, including those of Egypt (with chants of "Death to Mubarak"), Jordan, Turkey, Great Britain, Germany and today (imagine!) France. These demonstrations were not mere gestures; the regime's seriousness was underlined on Sunday, the 4th, when it offered a million-dollar reward to anyone who killed Mubarak (the Iranians called it a "revolutionary execution"). Significantly, the announcement came at a rally of the Basij, the most radical security force in the country, at which the Revolutionary Guards official Forooz Rejaii spoke. The Egyptians take it seriously; they have been on alert of late, looking for the possibility of a Mumbai-type operation in Cairo or elsewhere.
At the same time, the regime intensified its murderous assault against its own people, most notably hanging nine people on Christmas Eve, and assaulting the headquarters of Nobel Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi.
This intense tempo of activity bespeaks alarm in Tehran, which is fully justified by a number of setbacks. First of all, the dramatic drop in oil prices is devastating to the mullahs, who had planned to be able to fund terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. Suddenly their bottom line is tinged with red, and this carries over onto their domestic balance sheets, which were already demonstrably shaky (they were forced to cancel proposed new taxes when the merchant class staged nation-wide protests). No wonder they seize on any international event to call for petroleum export reductions. Just today they called for a drastic reduction of oil shipments to all countries that supported the Israeli military incursion into Gaza.
No doubt, the Iranians believe the fall in oil prices is the result of satanic will, rather than the shock to demand produced by the runup to $140/barrel. Not for them the subtleties of the free market; given the way they view the world, they must be convinced that the same strategy that beggared the Soviet Union--Saudi cooperation with America to hold down prices--is now deployed against them. This belief was no doubt reinforced when the recent official cut in petroleum production did not lead to markedly higher prices.
Second, their terror strategy has not been working as well as they wished and expected. Most American and European analysts have not appreciated the effect of the defeat of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, but you can be sure that the high and mighty in Arab capitals have taken full notice. The Iranians not only lost a considerable number of skilled and experienced terror leaders--Imad Mughnieh, the long-time operational chieftain of Hezbollah is the most important, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi was close behind, having created al Qaeda in Iraq alongside a network throughout Europe--but also several of their own Revolutionary Guards officers. Some of these were captured, others have defected, and most all have provided details of the Iranian network. This sort of thing is bad for operations, bad for recruiting, and weakens the Iranians' efforts to bully their neighbors into appeasement or more active cooperation.
Third, despite all their efforts to crush any sign of internal rebellion, many Iranians continue to publicly oppose the mullahs. A few weeks ago, students at universities all over the country demonstrated in significant numbers, and as one Iranian now living in Europe put it to me, "they were surprised that the regime was unable to stop the protests, even though everyone knew they were planned." This is the background for the new wave of repression, accompanied by an intensification of jamming on the Internet, and an ongoing reshuffle of the instruments of repression; Khamanei and Ahmadinejad have no confidence in the efficacy or blind loyalty of the army or of large segments of the Revolutionary Guards. Most public actions are carried out by the Basij, who are judged more reliable, and repression is less in the hands of the traditional ministries than in new groups freshly minted in the Supreme Leader's office.
In short, we are dealing with a regime that is very concerned about its future, and is not very comfortable with its friends, allies, and proxies. The mullahs know that most Iranians would like to see their leaders treated the same way as the nine executed on Christmas Eve, and, like all tyrants, the Iranian despots are trying to demonstrate that they dominate both Iran and the region. No surprise, then, that Sa'id Jalili, the very important secretary of the "Supreme National Security Council," hit the airwaves of Al Manar TV to call on "the Arab and Islamic countries and other countries that have an independent will" to fight for a Hamas victory in Gaza and deliver a forceful blow to "the Zionist entity."
But, significantly, when he was asked to get down to brass tacks, Jalili wimped out. The Al Manar interviewer asked him what Iran could do in the Gaza fighting. Jalili's words:
We believe that the great popular solidarity with the Palestinian people as expressed all over the world should reflect on the will of the Arab and Islamic countries and other countries that have an independent will so that these will move in a concerted, cooperative, and cohesive manner to draft a collective initiative that can achieve two main things as an inevitable first step. These are putting an immediate end to aggression and second breaking the siege and quickly securing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
In other words, the head of the Supreme Council wants to hold some meetings. This is supposed to be the glorious jihad?
The Iranians aren't promising much of anything to the embattled Hamas forces, unless you consider that their "threat" to send boatloads of humanitarian supplies is a serious menace. Indeed, no less a personage than the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad-Ali Ja'fari, blithely said that "Hamas has enough weapons...the people in Gaza does not need the help of other armies, and it is capable of dealing with the steps taken by the Zionist regime.." In simple English, General Ja'fari told Hamas, "you get 'em big boy, we're right behind you."
To be sure, there are the occasional calls to Iranians to sacrifice themselves for the cause, but even these lack all conviction. One Mahdi Kalhar, an adviser to President Ahmadinejad, told a group of students that "Iran must take action... we must send (Hamas) aid [in the form of] boatloads of [fighters] on a one-way ticket... An Israeli attack on the boats is nothing to be afraid of – for how else are we to become martyrs?"
I don't think many Iranian students will gobble up those one-way tickets, frankly. Nor do I think that the Iranians have any intention of sending "fighters" to Gaza. That's not their way. They send others, preferably Arabs, to martyr themselves. Not Iranians. I can't think of a single Iranian suicide bomber in Iraq or Afghanistan or Lebanon or Saudi Arabia in the last seven years. Despite Ahmadinejad's frequent hymns to martyrdom, that fate is reserved for others, certainly not for himself and his countrymen.
Many worried that if Israel invaded Gaza, there would be a wave of terrorism against Iran's enemies, and almost surely an assault in the north, courtesy of Hezbollah. So far, this has not happened, and the Hezbollah-dog-that-did-not-bark goes hand in mailed glove with the Iranians' sudden preference for conferences rather than suicidal assaults. And as for Iran's Syrian allies, there, too, the silence is deafening. Those guys may have declared themselves the "winners" of the 2006 battle with Israel, but they don't seem to be itching for a rematch. They rather look like scaredy cats, rather like the Hamas leaders who seem to be hiding in hospitals in Gaza City rather than fighting for martyrdom.
I have long argued that the Iranian regime is fundamentally hollow, that much of its apparent strength is bluster and deception rather than real power and resolve. At a minimum, it is a regime that must constantly fear for its own survival, not because of any willful resolve from its external enemies but because of the simmering hatred from its own people. This is a moment when those people are, as so often in the recent past, looking for at least a few supportive actions. If the West is now convinced that Iran is the proximate cause and chief sponsor of Hamas' assault against Israel, it should demonstrate once and for all that we are prepared to fight back.
There's an attractive parlay: attack the terrorist training camps in Syria and Iran, and destroy the assembly lines that produce the deadly EFPs that have killed and maimed so many Americans, Iraqis and Afghans. It's legitimate self-defense, it shows that we recognize the Iranian threat for what it is, and it will deliver an important message to the Iranian people.
UPDATE: To Iran's other troubles, add their rage at the security agreement (SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement) signed with the United States. You can hear Khamenei spitting in this account of his recent meeting with Maliki.
UPDATE 2: Welcome Instapunditeers! Happy to see you on this sunny Monday.
UPDATE 3: Welcome Powerliners! Glad you got out of the frozen tundra, heh.