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IS IRAN PREPARING TO RETREAT FROM CONFRONTATION?
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
January 30, 2007

Is the Khomeinist leadership preparing to retreat from confrontation over Tehran's nuclear ambitions?

The answer, given by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad until recently, is an emphatic no. According to Ahmadinejad, such retreat would limit Islamic sovereignty by giving the United Nations a veto on Iran's energy policy.

Nevertheless, we now know from several sources that Tehran is trying to forestall the passage of a second, and presumably tougher, resolution by the Security Council in March. Several versions of the presumed Iranian initiative are in circulation.

According to one version, presented by former president Mohammad Khatami to American and European personalities on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Tehran is prepared to comply with the Security Council demand to suspend uranium enrichment.

The suspension will come in a diplomatic package with three elements.

The first is the creation of an arbitration group to inspect and assess Iran's nuclear programme and report after six months. Tehran wants the group to include the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and India on behalf of the Non Aligned Movement.

During the six-month period in question, the Islamic republic will suspend enrichment. In exchange, the Security Council will postpone its March session on the issue.

The second element is a suspension of sanctions already approved by the Security Council.

Finally, Tehran wants an undertaking from the United States, presumably through the seven-nation group, that it would not take military action against Iran.

There are signs that Tehran is trying to cool things down. It has not carried out its threat of suspending relations with countries that voted for sanctions. Nor has it organised demonstrations by the usual suspects around the embassies of those nations.

The regime has also shown uncharacteristic timidity on the issue of its senior Revolutionary Guard commanders and intelligence officers arrested and still being interrogated by US forces in Iraq.

Also, Iran did not vote against a resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly last week condemning the denial of the Holocaust. (This was an indirect correction for Ahmadinejad who re-launched the debate on Holocaust denial last year.)

That at least part of the Khomeinist leadership might want ways to defuse the situation is not surprising.

Gentle rap

The sanctions have already started to bite. Although the mildest of sanctions, nothing more than a gentle rap on the knuckles, they have had a disproportionate psychological impact on some players in the Iranian economy.

Iranian businessmen see the measures as a kind of aperitif for a deadlier main course to be served later.

The Iranian currency, the rial, is showing the jitters as never before. Thousands of contracts remain frozen, pending the outcome of the crisis. If current trends continue, hundreds of thousands of Iranian workers may be thrown out of work within months.

The plummeting of oil prices has also done its bit.

Over the past year, Iran has seen oil revenues decline by almost 20 per cent. And, that at a time that Ahmadinejad's largesse, designed to bribe his constituency, has pushed public expenditure to an all-time high. In recent months, the government has been unable to pay the salaries and bonuses of some employees, including teachers, on time.

However, economic hardship alone would not have an effect on a regime that, according to its founder, the late Ruhallah Khomeini, is about "jihad and martyrdom, not worldly goods".

The Khomeinist leadership faces a tightening of the economic screws at a time that it is also trying to cope with political setbacks. Its attempt at seizing power in Lebanon, through Hezbollah, has split the Shiites and hit a wall of resistance from other Lebanese communities as well as Western and Arab powers.

In Iraq, the Islamic Republic's principal clients, Moqtada Al Sadr and his Mehdi Army, have their backs pressed to the wall because of a new aggressive policy unveiled by US President George W. Bush and approved by the Iraqi parliament.

Trouble

Ahmadinejad's hope of seizing control of radical Palestinian movements has also run into trouble.

In Iran itself, Ahmadinejad has failed to persuade the ayatollahs of Qom and Mash'had to issue anti-American jihad fatwas in anticipation of a clash with the "Great Satan". There may be one more reason why the Khomeinist leadership might wish to cool things down.

According to sources, the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei's health is in decline. This does not mean that he may be incapacitated, but there is no doubt that the establishment is preparing for all eventualities.

One sign was a surprise television programme this month in which the Islamic TV's popular star Farzad Hassani invited viewers to name their "favourite living theologian apart from the current Supreme Guide".

Clearly, picking a fight with the rest of the world while coping with a crisis of succession at the top of the regime is not a prospect the Khomeinist establishment would cherish.

What should the US and its allies do when, and if, the Khomeinist regime offers a partial retreat?

The temptation to make a deal, as well as the pressure in its favour, would be immense. The Bush administration would face a crucial question: whether to allow a dangerous but wounded enemy to recover, or to go for the kill?

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author and journalist based in Europe.

 

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