Iran Focus: For those closely watching events in Iran, these are defining moments. If the United States and her allies miss the valuable potentials that these sensitive moments offer, future developments will not be as generous.
For those closely watching events in Iran, these are defining moments. If the United States and her allies miss the valuable potentials that these sensitive moments offer, future developments will not be as generous.
The Iranian regime seems to be so fixated on a nuclear weapon that it chose to let a critical opportunity pass in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this month during nuclear negotiations with major powers. It was a defining moment because western demands had been significantly moderated and sweetened by major unilateral concessions to Tehran. It also severely dampened the prospect of success in talks.
In a favorable environment, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, could have used these talks and concessions to his advantage. He could have lessened the effects of crippling sanctions while – even temporarily – putting a lid on growing fissures within his regime; and, unlike in the past, he could have accomplished all this by retaining uranium enrichment as a strategic option. Meanwhile, he and his followers could be in a much stronger position to dictate the outcome of the presidential race scheduled for June 14. He could have scored a victory in all aspects.
The fact that Khamenei chose to forego all these potential gains is significant. First, it foretells of the regime’s increasing intransigence on the nuclear score in the coming months. Second, it shows that Khamenei, who has the final say over all vital state matters in Iran, does not have the bare minimum political space or capital for even the most gingerly maneuvers.
Two other significant trends are becoming increasingly apparent. First, the prospects of the June presidential elections have enmeshed regime officials in a cycle of escalating feuding. Whatever the outcome, Khamenei’s position as the head of a fragmented elite will in all probability deteriorate even further. As a result, his stance both on the nuclear issue and repression at home will harden in proportion to diminishing political breathing space. That is unless the West aligns itself with the Iranian people to weaken the regime.
By all accounts, Khamenei intends to close ranks, gradually replenish his strength, and buy more time for his nuclear agenda and plans in Syria. His strategic compass points to a nuclear weapon, or at least passing the point of no return, as a strategic guarantee for survival.
Second, the regime has intensified suppression at home. It fears that growing fissures at the helm on the eve of the presidential elections will provide the Iranian people with the political opportunity to rise up as they did in 2009. According to human rights organizations, nearly 120 people have been hanged since January. That is a staggering statistic, but it does not include the widening draconian measures (including arrests and torture) taken around the country to suppress opponents.
The regime’s inflexibility on the nuclear issue, its growing internal vulnerabilities and factional feuds, combined with its losing battle against a population growing more restless by the day, has presented the United States and its allies with two clear choices: continue on the path of negotiations, or support fundamental democratic change in Iran.
Engagement has clearly failed. After the Almaty talks, Khamenei has clearly set the regime on a collision course with the West. So, unless western capitals are willing to embrace the option of military confrontation, the only viable option is to embrace the Iranian people and their organized opposition movement as they strive for democracy and a non-nuclear Iran.
As the presidential elections approach in Iran, Washington should see an opening and act wisely. It is high time for it to retake the initiative instead of continuing to let Tehran shape the course of events in its favor.