Could Iran's mullahs be losing their grip? It's a question worth exploring, given Tehran's increasingly aggressive, erratic behavior.
Some veteran Iran analysts have long predicted the regime's collapse, or possibly its transformation into a more pragmatic, if not exactly "moderate" state. But while I've usually considered such predictions wishful thinking, Tehran's increasingly strident rhetoric and belligerent conduct, coupled with signs of economic strain and growing internal political strife, make me wonder whether the 32-year-old Islamic Republic may not be approaching a breaking point.
Among the most blatant signs of bizarre behavior was the ham-handed assassination attempt last October against Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington. Adel al-Jubeir, Riyadh's wily, witty young envoy, had long exhorted the Americans to strike Iran and "cut off the head of the snake," as he was quoted as saying so undiplomatically in a 2008 WikiLeaks cable. Tehran could not have been amused.
But the amateurishness of the Iranian plot — the hiring of an Iranian-American used-car dealer from Texas, who relied on his American-infiltrated Mexican drug cartel connections for the hit — baffled analysts. It also led some prominent analysts to conclude, as did Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian dissident and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, that such an inept plot was intended to fail but warn Washington to stop its relentless pressure on Iran. Or — as Muhammad Sahimi of the University of Southern California argues — it may have reflected the deep divisions within Tehran's ruling establishment.
In either case, the attempt was a sharp break with precedent. Had it succeeded, Iran almost certainly would have faced American military retaliation.
Yet another uncharacteristically short-sighted action was Tuesday's attack on the British embassy by a posse of 200 Iranian "students" — make that the "Basij" militia thugs who work for the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The ransacking of the compound and the holding of British diplomats hostage for several hours not only prompted Britain to close its embassy and expel Iran's diplomats from its embassy in London, it also isolated the Iranian government further in Europe. Norway has closed its embassy over security concerns, and France is temporarily downsizing its presence in Tehran.
The assault was a pathetic reprise of the 1979 seizure of the American embassy, which also reflected a fierce power struggle within the young Iranian revolutionary camp. Then and now, official Iranian media outlets denounced the embassy as a "lair of espionage." And then, as now, the action seems part of a broader internal struggle. Coming on the heels of Britain's sanctioning of the Central Bank of Iran in response to Tehran's continuing illicit nuclear activities, the embassy assault, coupled with the Iranian parliament's vote to downgrade its diplomatic ties to London, seem destined to reinforce, not counter Iran's isolation.
While it now seems clear that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was not initially aware of the plan to seize the U.S. embassy back in 1979, it is as yet unclear who authorized last week's attack on the British compound, or for that matter, the assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Iran's Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, usually known for his anti-Western rhetoric, is said to be increasingly at odds with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Seeking reform-minded support for his faction in next year's parliamentary elections, Ahmadinejad is also said to have opposed both the downgrading of ties with Britain and the embassy attack. But that is not certain.
Indeed, argues Mehdi Khalaji, the current lack of transparency and reliable intelligence about Iranian decision-making is almost unprecedented: "In the past, we almost always knew who the decision makers were. We don't know that today."
There seems little doubt that President Obama has had a learning curve with respect to Iran. His initial diplomatic outreach having been spurned, and his failure to support Iran's own "Arab Spring," the massive street protests that rocked the regime in 2009, having been widely criticized, he has been taking a tougher line of late.
The effort to cripple or at very least delay Iran's nuclear program by isolating the regime through a combination of sanctions and cyber and covert attacks is having an effect. While the origins of the explosions are still unclear, two blasts in recent months at weapons and nuclear-related facilities have rattled the mullahs. One of the blasts, the explosion at a Revolutionary Guard ammunition depot in which 17 were killed, including a leader of Iran's ballistic missile program, was strong enough to be felt in Tehran some 30 miles away.
Even more dangerous to the regime is the fact that Iran's economy is reeling, thanks partly to the American-led sanctions. In early November, Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani put the annual inflation rate at 19.1 percent. But Iranian consumers interviewed by the Financial Times set the rate far higher — more than 50 percent, said one economist, Hossein Raghfar. Shopkeepers report a 30 percent rise in the price of milk since June, the paper says, a 40 percent increase in cheese and butter prices and a 50 percent increase in eggs. Plus, a $100 billion-a-year cutback of state subsidies imposed last December has sent the cost of living soaring.
Will sanctions inflict sufficient pain to prompt the regime to stop its nuclear enrichment work and the nuclear bomb program it denies hosting? "The jury is still out on that," Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged in Turkey over the weekend.
But as pressure on the regime mounts, the regime is likely to become ever more aggressive and unpredictable. "We are now at a very dangerous point," warns Khalaji. "Anything can happen."