Cohen: Iran's China option

Posted in Iran | 09-Feb-09 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, center, talks with his supporters during a gathering in Tehran, Iran.

TEHRAN: What Iran fears most is a Gorbachev figure, somebody from within the regime who in the name of compromise with the West ends up selling out the revolution and destroying its edifice of power.

The jostling for influence ahead of the June 12 presidential election - the world's most important vote since America's - must be viewed through this prism. The core debate is: Can Iran manage a Chinese-style reform where its 30-year-old Islamic hierarchy endures through change, or does opening to the United States equal Soviet-style crash and burn?

The "Death to America" chants at religious rallies, often twinned with a punchy "Death to Israel," seem answer enough. The regime prefers and will stick to the game it knows. But Iran is rarely what it seems. It goes out of its way to mask its sophistication.

The other day, Jahangir Amirhosseini, a veteran lawyer once imprisoned by the mullahs, told me, "To create trust, deception is necessary." He was serious. What he meant was politics is about artful gambits. The United States has favored the sledgehammer.

This has proved a lousy instrument. Iranian ascendancy has coincided with American difficulty. Under President Obama, U.S. policy toward Iran should be rooted in convincing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, that the price of engagement is not extinction.

Herein resides the key to the Persian theocracy over which Khamenei presides.

But his rule is less than absolute. An opaque man, Khamenei is the largest minority shareholder (albeit one with God-given preferred stock) in a system where repression and hard-won freedoms vie, as do authoritarianism and democracy.

Which brings us to the critical June election and former President Mohammad Khatami, the reformist politician once viewed as Iran's Gorbachev-in-waiting.

He wasn't. His 1997-2005 presidency left many Iranians disappointed. At the breach, Khatami retreated. Student protests against the clerical establishment in 1999 and 2003 died before they gained traction.

Still, liberalizing economic reform and dialogue were as much the Khatami hallmark as bombast and mismanagement have been that of his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As tumbling oil compounds the cost of Ahmadinejad's crony-rewarding profligacy, and Iranians wonder where on earth (or beyond) the billions went, rumors of a Khatami candidacy swirl.

One day Khatami has told clerics in Qom he's running. The next Khamenei has "advised" him to stay out. On the third, noblesse oblige, he's back. His former interior minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, told me unequivocally Khatami will be a candidate. That must be America's working assumption.

No such doubts surround the candidacy of the incumbent, Ahmadinejad. He is the favorite. His unlikely success in projecting Iran as the voice of the world's disinherited, his fast-forwarding of the nuclear program and his popular touch have all impressed Khamenei.

But the wasteful impetuosity that has made Ahmadinejad the Unidentified Flying Object of Iranian and global politics has also given the guardian of the revolution - and millions of voters - pause.

One theory holds that Ahmadinejad would favor Iranian Glasnost in response to Obama because he believes it's not Iranian theocracy that would collapse, but America! True, the president could be justified in detecting signs of capitalism following communism onto history's trash heap. But I'm not convinced.

No, the West's strong interest lies in avoiding a second Ahmadinejad term. Given that Ahmadinejad thrives on confrontation, this is not what Obama should dish out. Vice President Joseph Biden's patronizing tone this weekend in Munich - "Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation" - was exactly wrong.

Tajzadeh told me: "Bush did a lot of damage to the reform movement. We would welcome an immediate calming of the atmosphere from Obama, with the military option set aside." When I asked Kazem Jalali, the spokesman for the parliamentary national security committee, what America should do, he shot back, "Stop looking down from a domineering viewpoint."

Before the election, Obama must declare that the United States does not seek Iranian regime change. He should take steps to demonstrate that America is seeking an "honest broker" role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to supplant George W. Bush's Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.

Such measures would help Khatami, or perhaps a conservative pragmatist like Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, by undermining Ahmadinejad's tirades. A moderate president would not solve the nuclear issue - Khamenei tends to be intransigent - but would help.

I wish Obama could visit the splendid British ambassador's residence here to view the table-setting for the dinner on Nov. 30, 1943, (Churchill's 69th birthday) of the British prime minister, Roosevelt and Stalin. As every Iranian knows, not one Iranian was among the dozen or so officials at the table reviewing the fate of a war-torn world.

The Islamic Revolution, at 30, has independence at its core. The satellite launch, like the nuclear program, is about national pride, a subject Americans should understand. To open the system, without overthrowing it, which must be the U.S. aim, requires ingenious indulgence of that pride rather than finger-wagging. The time for change young Iranians can believe in is well before June 12.