Belmont Club

Follow the money

Spengler asks the crucial question. If the candidates in Iran did not represent “reform” versus the “status quo” (even though the election itself was used as a vehicle for protest) then why didn’t the Ayatollah’s put forward the candidate the media insists on describing as “reformist” instead of Ahmadinejad. “The mystery about the Iranian elections, writes my old friend Daniel Pipes, is why the religious authorities who run the country decided to declare a massive victory for the crude and brutal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rather than advance the slick and deceptive Hossein Moussavi.”

Mousavi is no more a “moderate” than Ahmadinejad according to a former Indian diplomat, M K Bhadrakumar. “Most likely, he had a hand in the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Ali Akbar Mohtashami, Hezbollah’s patron saint, served as his interior minister.” That’s Mousavi, who Michael Ledeen called one the architects of the some of the most repressive features of the current Iranian regime.  So why, with the elections fundamentally rigged by the state and in fact a disguised process of appointment between two members of the Iranian establishment,  did the clerics choose Ahmadinejad over the man who so artfully depicted himself as a reformer and who captured the protest vote of the Iranian youth and intelligensia?

The probable answer is one word: money. Within Iranian ruling circles, Mousavi represented the economic enemies of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad according to Bhadrakumar. While Mousavi could package himself as a ‘reformer’ and to some extent genuinely capture the enthusiasm of the dissidents, the choice of between him and Ahmadinejad was really over who would get to control the economy.  It was a battle between two factions of the ruling elite for the chairmanship of the board. Bhadrakumar explains:

If we are to leave out the largely inconsequential “Gucci crowd” of north Tehran, who no doubt imparted a lot of color, verve and mirth to Mousavi’s campaign, the hardcore of his political platform comprised powerful vested interests who were making a last-ditch attempt to grab power from the Khamenei-led regime. On the one hand, these interest groups were severely opposed to the economic policies under Ahmadinejad, which threatened their control of key sectors such as foreign trade, private education and agriculture.

For those who do not know Iran better, suffice to say that the Rafsanjani family clan owns vast financial empires in Iran, including foreign trade, vast landholdings and the largest network of private universities in Iran. Known as Azad there are 300 branches spread over the country, they are not only money-spinners but could also press into Mousavi’s election campaign an active cadre of student activists numbering some 3 million.

But it wasn’t just who could give the most to the whom, it was also about who could advance what is left of the Islamic Revolution most effectively. Spengler argues that by casting himself as the knuckle-dragging Islamist radical in contrast to the “reformist” Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s selection positions Teheran better in terms of its struggle against it’s Sunni Islam rivals. The Islamic Revolution in Iran has always been aimed as much against its sectarian rivals as it has been against the West.

But I see a deeper issue at work, namely the way in which the disintegration of Pakistan threatens the Islamic Republic of Iran. The insurgent Taliban in Pakistan claim legitimacy on the grounds that the Sunni establishment is insufficiently committed to crushing Shia heresy. Given that 15% of the world’s Shia live in Pakistan, Iran’s hope for a Shia revival cannot ignore them. If it were simply a matter of a two-sided chess game between Tehran and Washington, Moussavi would have been better suited for the Iranian chair. But Iran has to show street credibility to rough and backward men elsewhere than Washington, and the tougher image of Ahmadinejad is what it needs.

At the intersection of both of money and sectarian politics is Washington. Control over the Iranian economy acquired crucial importance in the light of Barack Obama’s proposed “engagement”. Engagement offered the Iranian regime a guaranteed existence, the lifting of sanctions and a possible withdrawal of opposition to their nuclear ambitions. As Michael Rubin noted in the NRO, “in his Iranian New Year’s greeting, he recognized the Islamic Republic’s leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian people”. But Obama wasn’t just New Year, he was Christmas to the Iranian tycoons. The prospect of the ending the sanctions meant a killing to those positioned to receive the flood of Western investment and conclude the partnerships that would become possible once Iran left the “axis of evil”. Ahmadinejad was not only the man who could best appeal to the hard men of the Shi’ite militancy but the person who was willing to dish out the most slops to the ruling faction with the most alacrity.

Maybe the roles between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad can be reversed.  STRATFOR argues that it was Mousavi who offered the Ayatollahs most in terms of corruption. But that is no matter. This was never about Candidate A versus Candidate B per se. This was about distributing spoils within the Iranian system. And the spoils are now expected to  increase  in the shape of engagement.

What the Khamenei faction failed to appreciate was the degree to which Mousavi’s public relations gambit would succeed in the West. They underestimated the ugliness of the face they presented to the world. Eager to portray events in Iran as sparked by Obama’s speech in Cairo, with expectations of a Velvet Revolution was raised to a fever pitch, the press was on hand to capture every wrinkle and every crease. That’s when the Ayatollahs strode forward, ready for their close-ups. Instead of capturing a rapturous response to Obama’s Cairo speech the press caught on video the true face of his partners for peace. That created the unintended consequence of endangering the very gravy train the Ayatollahs expected to enjoy. They pulled the rug — at least temporarily — from underneath the feet of the “engagement” faction in Washington. Michael Totten wrote about how even the advocates of engagement were momentarily disgusted. “A refreshing bipartisan consensus is emerging in the liberal and conservative halves of the blogosphere and the media in general. Visceral detestation of the Islamic Republic regime in Iran is all but universal.” Michael Goldfarb observed that even Roger Cohen was having second thoughts about supping with the devil.

There’s an amazing thing happening in the blogs over the last few days that one assumes is a fair reflection of a broader shift in attitudes towards Iran. Six months ago, few Americans would have disputed that Ahmadinejad was a thug and a tyrant, but there were many on the left who supported Obama’s push for direct engagement with the Iranian president anyway. America deals with all kinds of thugs and authoritarian leaders, and Obama and his supporters made the case that we should deal with this one, too. But the left, I think a little to their own surprise, became deeply invested in the Mousavi campaign. Perhaps you could see it most clearly on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, but much of the media liked the simple narrative of Mousavi the Obama-like reformer against Ahmadinejad the Bush-like ideologue. And after the Lebanese elections, the media was primed for a story on the “Obama Effect” in the Middle East.

When things went the other way, something changed. The left, which may have reviled Ahmadinejad but was willing to do business with him anyway, seems to have become deeply hostile to any kind of diplomacy that could be seen as legitimizing this election result. The administration hasn’t quite caught up to this reality, offering weak statements about “irregularities” in the voting but no real sign that it will stand up and support the Iranian kids who are pleading for help as they’re beaten in the streets. I suspect it will soon. If Roger Cohen can”t stomach seeing Obama reach out to this regime after what has happened and what is happening, then who can?

The Obama policy of “engagement” was at least one of the pieces of meat over which the Iranian wolves fought such an unseemly battle to devour; ironically it may now undermine it, hoist as it were on its own petard. But despite the global revulsion to their brutal crackdown, the Ayatollah’s aren’t finished yet.  The hook in Obama’s throat has gone in deep. Washington is as invested in engagement as the Ayatollahs are because it is the cornerstone of the Administration’s plan to remake the Middle East. That plan is based on the idea that it is better to buy off Teheran than to fight it. And on that buyoff going forward depends a number of things ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian roadmap to Iraq and Afghanistan. The state of play, amoral as it is, was succintly expressed in Roger Cohen’s advice to Obama in the NYT: “I’ve argued for engagement with Iran and I still believe in it, although, in the name of the millions defrauded, President Obama’s outreach must now await a decent interval.” It’s not a question of if, but when.

Taken as a whole events in Iran suggest that its rulers are unwilling to back away from their basic interests, whatever Washington may imagine. But despite the fact the growing suspicion even in Leftist circles that they untrustworthy partners, the Ayatollahs can afford to wait. They know that the One has decided not to fight them. He will come, whatever they do, with the bag, to buy whatever hope he can.

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