It is hard to know where to begin with Iran these days. Many commentators are telling us that there is considerable “infighting” within the regime, which is certainly true. But so far I have not seen anyone point out that these conflicts are not merely political. We are witnessing, I believe, a struggle for survival, both within the regime and between the regime and the opposition. All those explosions — big explosions — at the natural gas pipelines running from Iran to Turkey, to Russia, and to Afghanistan cannot possibly be accidents. The latest took place last night (I haven’t seen press reports yet, perhaps because Ahmadinejad has ordered oil and gas facilities to censor any news about disasters), two of them: one at a petrochemical plant on an offshore island that destroyed a polyethylene plant and pipeline, the other against a pipeline from Bandar Abbas to Bushehr.
Moreover, there have been some open gunfights here and there, with casualties running well over 100. To round out this very ugly picture, the nastiest elements of the regime have been murdering their opponents. If you follow the reports, you will see that many people are being executed every day, and there are events far more terrible than those that have been reported. In the past five months, some seven hundred “dissident” Revolutionary Guards and Basiji have been executed under the guise of “drug smugglers,” and there is even worse than that: in the past few days about 30 dissident RGs in the Mashhad prison were told they had been forgiven, and would be reintegrated into the ranks. They were put on a bus and fed food and (poisoned) drinks. When they passed out they were dumped into a mass grave and buried, more or less alive. Astonishingly someone saw it, and reported it, and some fifty security officials are now being interrogated.
Other very obvious signs of the disintegration of regime coherence abound– such as the repeated calls from the Supreme Leader and the people around him for “unity” (a sure sign they don’t have any). Take, for example, the recent defections of Iranian diplomats based overseas. The two latest ones (one in Brussels, the other in Helsinki) were not merely disgruntled diplomats leaving their country’s foreign service; both proclaimed themselves followers of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s Green Movement, and both forecast that others would soon follow them into open opposition. We shall see.
And more: the divisions are so intense that Parliament has been closed for fifteen days, on top of the Ramadan holiday.
As most everyone has pointed out, the Sarah Shourd affair also shows deep fissures within the regime. First, Ahmadinejad ordered her release. Most likely, he wanted to take her on his airplane to New York, where he could present her to American authorities and then go on to meet with Pres. Obama. The Iranian judiciary put a stop to that, asserted their authority over all prisoners, and insisted she would stand trial along with her traveling companions. Then came the story of bail, a fantastically high bail of half a million dollars. In any case, it’s wonderful to see her free.
There are lots of unanswered questions, as usual in these matters. Did they compel her to sign some sort of confession? And what about the bail payment? On the face of it, any such payment would fly in the face of sanctions against Iranian banks, so one wants to know who paid it, and if there was any American complicity.
There may well be a missing link — call it the story of the other Sarah. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal today, Sarah Levinson laments that she is soon to be married and cannot share her joy with her father, Robert, the former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran three a and a half years ago. I have been told — although I can’t verify it — that Robert Levinson died in an Iranian prison a few months ago, and that the American government has come to that conclusion as well.
According to this version, the Iranian leaders did not want to have a second American die in their prisons, and so — just as they have been saying — the decision to release Sarah Shourd was indeed driven by serious concern about her health.
Then there is the geopolitical element: the regime leaders are very happy with President Obama and they do not wish to see him hamstrung. Ahmadinejad’s original idea was to try to help Obama (and help himself as well) by freeing the American woman, just as the leaders of the Islamic Republic did a favor for President Carter when they freed women and blacks in 1979, long before any white male was released from captivity.
In short, as an Iranian friend of mine put it, what we are witnessing is less a power struggle than a survival struggle. One other good way to see this at work is to look around the neighborhood. As Green leader Mehdi Karroubi said the other day in an interview with Al Arabiya TV, “the regime in Tehran depends on creating international and domestic crises to safeguard its existence and continuation.” And so we see explosions in Bahrain, bombs in Iraq, Kashmir and Afghanistan, and fighting in the streets of Iranian cities. Indeed, the internal conflict has reached such a point that one of Ahmadinejad’s top assistants finally came out and told the clergy to go back into their mosques. Banafsheh’s invaluable Planet-Iran was the only one to give this amazing statement the big font it deserves:
Mohammad-Ali Ramin, Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance and Culture for Media Relations and Ahmadinejad’s adviser on the “Holocaust Commission” announced: “We call upon all clergy to abandon civic and politics issues, partisan matters, NGO’s and western-style organizations and return to the mosques where they can benefit from greater social clout, that will ultimately elevate societal and Islamic interests. We need to be able to put our clergy to proper use, as mosque attendance has thinned out.
Pay attention to that last clause. Whatever the Islamic Republic of Iran once was, it is no longer a source of enthusiasm for the Iranian people. They have had it. They know that the only thing the regime can do with any degree of efficiency is kill their own people. The latest stories revolve around the dreadful present in Mashhad, where hundreds of prisoners have been slaughtered in recent weeks. One of the sources for the story, Ahmad Ghabel, was thrown back into prison after he told the Green Movement what was going on.
The regime continues its efforts to intimidate the Greens, to no effect. Thugs attacked Karroubi’s home, shooting 30 or 40 times into the house and setting it on fire. Karroubi told them that death did not frighten him, and the outcry was so great that within two days the government announced the arrest of the guilty parties. Mousavi’s house is under siege, every visitor is interrogated by regime thugs, and yet Mrs. Mousavi comes and goes, issuing clarion calls on behalf of Iranian women, and Mousavi himself remains an outspoken opponent of the regime.
And then, in yet another surprising retreat from the policy of all out repression, the former Justice Minister has been called to stand trial for the mass murders that followed the demonstrations of last June.
How will this play out? I think there are two basic scenarios. The first is that the Revolutionary Guards somehow get a grip on the country. It’s hard to imagine, but they do have lots of guns, and if they can kill hundreds of their own, they may well be willing to kill thousands of political opponents and normal citizens. I think the country has gone beyond the point where the tens of millions of suffering Iranians will put up with that again. But you never know.
The second scenario is that the regime implodes, unable to make decisions, unable to act decisively, and, as one key leader after the next goes over to the other side, the whole ugly thing collapses into the muck. Unlikely? Perhaps, but then it seemed even more unlikely back in the days of the Soviet Empire before it sank.