The presidential elections of June have brought to the surface, like never before, the deep rifts that exist within Iranian society and its power structure.  What is really happening there? And more importantly, what should the United States do about it?  The delicate and serious nature of the current situation in Iran requires a very wise approach by the Obama Administration.  The stakes are very high and the opportunity is unique.  Let me explain.

Lack of Consensus from the Start

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran gave birth to a form of government called velayat e faqih, a theocracy run by a council of Islamic jurists and a supreme leader.  The leader at the time was Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who ruled from the spiritual base of the revolution, the holy city of Qom.  From day one, the Ayatollahs and Islamic leaders of the revolution were divided over the direction of the revolutionary government and the nature of the velayat e faqih theocracy.  The most influential Ayatollahs at the time of the revolution were: Ruhollah Khomeini, Mortaza Motahhari, Mohammad Beheshti, Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khamenei (Ali Khameini), Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili (Mousavi Ardebili), Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Mahmoud Taleghani, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

•    Khomeini became the supreme leader until his death in 1989.  He advocated for a velayat e faqih with near absolute powers given to the supreme leader.
•    Motahhari’s influence, which was significant in the years preparing for the revolution, came to an abrupt end with his assassination on May 1, 1979, before he could influence the debate over the direction of the Islamic government.
•    Beheshti (assassinated in 1981) was close to Rafsanjani and influenced the thinking of Mohammad Khatami.  He had his doubts about the powers entrusted to the supreme leader.
•    Khameini was closest to Khomeini and succeeded the latter as supreme leader in 1989. He is opposed to reforming the current system but lacks his predecessor’s charisma and stature.
•    Mousavi Ardebili, who did some of his studies in Najaf, Iraq under the guidance of Ayatollahs Khoi (Khu’ee), Hakim and Shirazi, is currently the senior theologian of the Islamic republic.  He was the head of the judiciary until 1989 and founded Mofid University.  He has mixed views regarding the powers of the supreme leader.  (It is important to note that the Hawza of Najaf has historically consistently opposed the velayat e faqih system of government.)
•    Mahdavi Kani became an influential member of the Guardians Council and showed his more liberal political views when he declared the foreign trade nationalization bills and land reform bills in the 80’s to be against the teachings of Islam.  He too has mixed feelings about the powers of the supreme leader.
•    Taleghani was probably the most influential leader of the Islamic revolution.  He paved the way for Khomeini and was the chairman of the Revolutionary Council plotting for the revolution.  Upon the return of Khomeini to Iran, he became the most vocal opponent to the absolutist powers of the supreme leader and often ‘clashed’ with Khomeini on this issue leading to a major rift between them in April 1979.  His sudden death in September 1979 robbed the reformers of a powerful figure.
•    Rafsanjani along with Khameini were the closest Ayatollahs to Khomeni and held the most power.  He was instrumental in the founding of the most important institutions of power of the newly established theocracy, became Speaker of the Parliament and was elected twice to the Presidency.  Under his leadership, fundamental economic reforms were undertaken liberalizing Iran’s economy and major moves towards normalizing relations with the West were also initiated.  He opposes the absolutist powers of the supreme leader.

Of the seven original most influential Ayatollahs around Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, five (Beheshti, Mousavi Ardebili, Mahdavi Kani, Talleghani and Rafsanjani) while being strong supporters of the establishment of an Islamic Republic were opposed in varying degrees to the powers of the Supreme Leader (which include the power to remove an elected President from office) as advanced by Khomeini.

Iranian intellectuals and much of the middle class had a different vision and outlook in mind for the post-Shah Iran.  Most were contemplating the establishment of a secular constitutional republic and some had envisioned a more Marxist type of government.  In the end, however, Khomeini was so popular that the country overwhelmingly supported his call for establishing the Islamic Republic of Iran with an Islamic Constitution in an open referendum held in April 1979.

Given the divisions among the clerics vis-à-vis the powers of the supreme leader, it was a matter of time before these differences would come to the surface.  The major ‘crack’ in the system appeared following the election on January 25, 1980, of Abolhassan Banisadr as the first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Banisadr, who was not a cleric, clashed with the clergy over his powers as President.  This had the potential of creating a rift within the country, a rift that could have been used by the reformers; but something else happened.

First Setback for Reformers

The one most important event that stopped the reform movement from gaining ground and more openly challenging the velayat e faqih system of government took place on September 22, 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran.   Khomeini seized the invasion as an opportunity in the name of national security to get rid of Banisadr and his government and to consolidate his own power.  On June 10, 1981, Khomeini removed Banisadr as Commander-in-Chief and assigned the office to himself.  Eleven days later, Banisadr was impeached by Parliament and the order was signed by Khomeini the following day.  The war had a devastating effect on Iran.  Iranians suffered more than 300,000 casualties and were subjected to Iraqi mustard gas attacks.  The eight-year war came to an end when a ceasefire was reached on August 20, 1988.  Iranian national pride and the need for unity in facing Iraq’s assault muted the reformers’ voices and effectively barred them from openly challenging the system.  On the other hand, Khomeini and his conservative allies seized this opportunity to consolidate their hold on power.

Pendulum Swing

The two most powerful Ayatollahs in Iran were still Ali Khameini and Akbar Rafsanjani.  Khomeini appointed Ali Khameini to succeed him as supreme leader upon his death in 1989.  This presented an opening to Rafsanjani and his followers.  With Khameini lacking the charisma and popular stature that Khomeini enjoyed, Rafsanjani worked diligently to position himself as the other “pole” of power in the Islamic Republic.  He took the lead in pushing political and economic reforms, giving Parliament and the Presidency a greater role in governance, in an attempt to position those offices as counterweights to the office of the supreme leader.  The 90’s was an important period led primarily by Rafsanjani with the pendulum starting to swing in a direction away from the supreme leader.  This was a critical juncture for the reformers.  They had drawn an important lesson from the Iran-Iraq war.  As long as Iran was besieged by the outside world with sanctions, embargoes, and calls for regime change, Iranian domestic reforms could not go far for two major reasons:

a) Foreign investment in Iran’s infrastructure and industrial base, including oil and gas, were desperately needed to help them move the country forward.  In the absence of normalized relations with the United States that would not be possible.
b) The push by the reformers for change in the regime’s power structure while the country is under international siege will most definitely be labeled by Khameini and his conservative allies as undermining the national security of the country.  Conservatives would then exploit Iranian pride and nationalism to undermine their reform efforts.

With that in mind, as soon as Rafsanjani assumed the Presidency in 1989, he seriously explored ways to start a dialogue with the United States aimed at normalizing relations between both countries.  The United States, however, was pre-occupied with an increasingly belligerent and aggressive Iraq threatening its small and powerless neighbor Kuwait and testing US security commitments in the region.  The George Herbert Walker Bush Administration decided this wasn’t the time for discussing normalization of relations with Iran.  Saddam invades Kuwait on August 2, 1990.  The United States with the full support of the United Nations and key Arab states led a multinational force and launched Operation Desert Storm aimed at liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.  The war was successfully executed and on February 26, 1991, Kuwait was liberated.  Iran remained isolated.

Iranian reformers had then hoped that President George H.W. Bush, when and if re-elected, would be ready and willing to engage in normalization talks.  In their calculus, given Iraq’s war waging against its neighbors and the need for long term security and stability in the Gulf region, the United States would be willing to see a potential positive role to be played by Iran in this equation.  Furthermore, Iranian reformers were very aware of the political and cultural pressures the Saudi government would be subjected to by Wahhabis and Salafis due to the heavy presence of American troops on Saudi soil and in the region.  Hopes were pinned by Iranian reformers on Bush’s re-election, but William Jefferson Clinton was elected President in 1992.

Second Setback for Reformers
The election of Bill Clinton as President of the United States was seen as a setback by Iranian reformers.  In their eyes, President H.W. Bush was a realist and pragmatist who put the US national interest above special interest such as that of Israel supporters in Washington.  The Clinton Administration, on the other hand, made Israeli security a primary objective and pursued a two-prong policy to achieve it.

Firstly, the Clinton Administration believed that peace with the Palestinians would better serve Israel’s long term security.  Efforts were exerted to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord through direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO.  The Oslo Agreement of 1993 was signed and the Clinton Administration invested a lot of time and energy in managing the conflict between both parties and trying to bring them closer to one another through intense sets of negotiations.

Secondly, in the eyes of the Clinton Administration, the security of Israel also required a) containment of Iranian influence rather than an accommodation of Iranian concerns; and b) containment of Iraq’s rising influence and belligerence within the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War (war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation during which Iraq fired Scud missiles on Israel).  In order to achieve this security objective, the Clinton Administration announced its dual containment strategy.

With the priorities of the Clinton Administration set as described above, attempts in the 90’s by Rafsanjani to open up to the United States went nowhere because they ran counter to the Clinton Administration’s strategy of dual containment and its regional security policy framework.  This represented the second major setback to the reformers in Iran.

Opportunity Knocking

The terrorist attacks of September 11th against the United States sent political shockwaves through the US security and foreign policy establishments.  With Al Qaeda and Sunni Wahhabi/Salafi inspired Islamism striking at the United States, the Iranian reform establishment saw an opportunity for a possible rapprochement with Washington that could ultimately lead to normalized relations.  In their thinking, as explained earlier, improved relations with the US were necessary to help them push system reforms more successfully.  Under the leadership of Ayatollah and President Mohammad Khatami, a leader among the reformers and a close ally of Rafsanjani, Iran seized on the attacks of 9/11 and took the following steps all aimed at sending positive signals to Washington:

•    Condemnation of Al Qaeda: Iran was the first Moslem country to condemn the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  Furthermore, the only candlelight vigils to take place in a Moslem country expressing solidarity with the victims of 9/11 were held in Iran on September 18, 2001.
•    Cooperation on Afghanistan: Iran played a very constructive role in assisting the United States during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 aimed at removing the Taliban from power.  It also played a pivotal role in supporting the establishment of a new democratically oriented government in Afghanistan.
•    “Facilitating” the Invasion of Iraq: The United States invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, launching Operation Iraqi Freedom aimed at the removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a pro-American and more democratically oriented government in Baghdad.   The invasion came from the south with US forces traveling northward towards Baghdad.  There was practically no resistance from Shiite Iraqis who constitute the majority of the population in southern Iraq.  “Understandings” had been reached prior to the invasion between US officials and exiled Iraqi Shiite religious leaders such as Khoi (Khu’ee) and Hakim, two of the three most prominent Iraqi Ayatollahs  at the time (the most influential being Grand Ayatollah Sistani).
•    Nuclear Program Freeze: Iran froze its nuclear program in yet another goodwill gesture towards Washington and Khatami sent a message to the George W. Bush Administration expressing Iran’s desire to have talks aimed at normalizing relations between both countries.

Divisions within the Bush Administration regarding US policy towards Iran paralyzed American response and by 2004, “hawks” within the Administration were advocating regime change in Iran.  The opportunity that the reformers had sought in the aftermath of 9/11 was missed.  Furthermore, conservatives in Iran capitalized on the US’s negative response to overtures by Iranian reformers likening it to a “kick in the butt” and presenting it to the Iranian public as unambiguous proof that Washington’s real objective was the destruction of the Iranian nation.  Given this national security perception, past negative experiences with the United States (refer to a Security Debrief on Iran published on May 29, 2009), the deteriorating security situation in Iraq with potential spillover effect into Iran, and the failure of the reformers over 15 years to produce substantial changes to the system, Ayatollah Khameini and conservative mullahs were able to “facilitate” the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran in August 2005.

Countering Regime Change
The Iranian government led by Ahmadinejad became very aggressive and quite belligerent in response to what they perceived as Washington’s aim of regime change in Iran.  From 2005 through 2008, conservatives rallied behind Ahmadinejad and exploited to the fullest advantage the policies of the Bush Administration’s second term (see Security Debrief on Iran published of May 29, 2009);  capitalizing on Iranian pride and sense of nationalism.  During this period of heightened US-Iranian tensions, the region became quite unstable with violence reaching new heights.

•    Religious strife between Sunnis and Shiites erupted in Iraq in 2006 threatening the Bush Administration’s stated goals in that country.
•    A 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah was fought in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 causing numerous civilian casualties and leaving in its aftermath Hezbollah in a much stronger position.  Arab popular opinion rallied behind Hezbollah posing a threat to the credibility and legitimacy of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
•    A war between Israel and Hamas was fought in Gaza in November 2008 that ended with Hamas retaining power in Gaza and winning greater sympathy from Arabs and Moslems worldwide.  The war also put President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority between “a rock and a hard place” and threatened his credibility among Palestinians.
•    Iranian calls for the destruction of Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric became quite intense.
•    Iran resumed its nuclear program much more aggressively in defiance of the United States and the international community.

During those very tense years, the reformers in Iran could not be seen as challenging their own system of government for fear of being undermined by the conservatives as ‘puppets’ of America.  The conservatives were very successful in painting a very bleak picture to the Iranian public wherein Iran’s existence was being actively threatened by the United States and Israel.  Given this environment, reformers in Iran got busy regrouping their forces quietly awaiting their “next opportunity”.

New Opportunity Knocking

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States provided the reformers in Iran with another golden opportunity.  His rhetoric during the campaign, and more importantly, his actions since assuming the Presidency all pointed to his willingness to establish a dialogue with Iran.  His message to the Iranian government and people on March 19, 2009, on the occasion of the Persian New Year (Nowruz or Norouz) went a long way to point to Iranians that the United States was willing and ready to open a new chapter in US-Iranian relations based on mutual respect and dialogue.  Furthermore, President Obama delivered an address to the Moslem World in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009, which was a resounding success from a public diplomacy perspective.  When the Obama Administration decided to engage Iran after and not before the June Presidential elections, a major race erupted between the reformers and conservatives in Iran.  Who would be in power to negotiate with the United States?

To the reformers, winning the Presidential elections would enable them to quickly engage the United States and normalize relations more expeditiously.  This would then give them the needed boost to pursue the reforms of the system of government and the role of the supreme leader in the Islamic Republic.  To the conservatives, Ahmadinejad’s retention of the Presidency would enable them to negotiate with the United States from a position of strength and help them contain and/or manage internal reforms more effectively.  All surveys and public opinion polls conducted about two weeks prior to the election were showing Ahmadinejad winning by a comfortable margin.  Reformers, on the other hand, made a major last minute push using modern technology and electronic social networks to rally support and enthuse the younger generation to participate in greater numbers in the election.  While no one can, at this point, assert with full knowledge who really won the election, one can safely state that the authorities working under Ahmadinejad did manipulate the election results (at least in Teheran) where the margin of victory (whether for Ahmadinejad or Mousavi) should have been very small.

What happened next?  Conservatives underestimated the resolve of the reformers and their determination to score a Presidential victory.  The reformers, having suffered repeated setbacks in the past, were determined this time around to go all the way pitting all their hopes on the persona of Barack Obama; who appears to them as more genuine and serious about a frank and open dialogue with Iran. They chose to defy the results as announced by the government and Mir Mousavi called for street protests and demonstrations.  Ahmadinejad and his conservative allies pressed Khameini to side with them in order to put an end to the protests.  Khameini, after much hesitation, came down on the side of Ahmadinejad with the hope that his stature would be sufficient to bring an end to the “chaos” and did so with the full realization that he might jeopardize the “Office of the Supreme Leader” by having it painted as “partisan” when it is supposed to be above all politics.  With Khameini taking sides with Ahmadinejad, the reformers decided to openly and publically challenge the legitimacy of the system and the power of the supreme leader.

“Those responsible for organizing the elections have obligations to the people. Unfortunately, events that have taken place after the election have caused turmoil in the Islamic Republic. We should not use force to pacify the protests. The issue must be resolved in a different manner,” stated Ayatollah Ardebili on June 27, 2009.

On July 17, 2009, Ayatollah and former President Rafsanjani spoke at Teheran University on the occasion of Friday mosque prayers and heavily criticized the government’s actions.  “Today is a bitter day,” he said at Tehran University. “People have lost their faith in the regime and their trust is damaged. It’s necessary that we regain people’s consent and their trust in the regime.”

This prompted a reply on Saturday, July 18, 2009, by conservative Ayatollah Yazdi:  “Legitimacy and acceptance are different in Islamic government,” Ayatollah Yazdi told the semi-official Fars news agency. “Votes alone do not create legitimacy.”

On Sunday, July 19, 2009, Ayatollah and former President Khatami called for a referendum on the legitimacy of the Iranian government stating that millions of Iranians had lost faith in the electoral system.

The lines have been drawn.  The real dispute is among the Ayatollahs over the power of the Supreme Leader and the velayat e faqih system of Islamic government with Rafsanjani and Khatami leading the charge.  Furthermore, the “weakening” of Khameini’s stature as Supreme Leader may boost among the clerics in Iran the influence of Grand Ayatollah Sistani (Najaf, Iraq) who had consistently opposed the velayat e faqih system of government.

Constitutional Reforms
The objective of the reformers at this stage is to keep pushing as far as they can with the final aim of ridding the system of the velyat e faqih and replace it with an Islamic system governed by three branches – Parliament, Presidency and Judiciary – wherein the Supreme Leader is stripped of his political powers and acts only as the spiritual leader of the faith.  This change would conform to the teachings and jurisprudence of Shiite traditions as advocated by the Hawza of NajafIraq and would radically transform the nature and operations of the Iranian government.  In reality, this has been the “secret” aim of the reformers among the Ayatollahs, especially Rafsanjani and Khatami.  They both experienced the Presidency and tried to steer the country down a progressive path to find the Supreme Leader blocking them at every turn.  They became fed up with the system and sought ways to change it but acted with a lot of prudence.   This explains why in the early days of the protests, they did not challenge the system directly (they let Mir Mousavi, a non-cleric, do so) and waited for the right moment.  The opportune moment came when Ayatotallah Khameini took sides favoring Ahmadinejad.  He was no longer “above politics” or “untouchable” as supreme leader.  Rafsanjani and Khatami decided then to openly challenge the system and the authority of the Supreme Leader.

What Should the United States Do?
Firstly, President Obama must be commended for exhibiting prudence and wisdom in his measured response to the developments in Iran since the June elections.   Many in Washington have been advocating a tougher stance by the United States to show solidarity with the demonstrators.  Some have even advocated to have the United States seize this moment to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities or allow Israel to do it.  President Obama has wisely resisted these pressures because the stakes are very high for the United States and a “wrong” move at this juncture could, in time,  do irreversible damage to American national security interests.  Let me explain.


The reformers in Iran do not want the United States, and definitely not Israel, to appear as directly interfering in this crisis.  As long as the US remains out of it, the reformers have greater chances for success.  As I explained earlier, conservatives in Iran have always exploited US calls for regime change, containment and tougher sanctions to undermine any serious effort for reform through open debate in the name of national security (i.e., this is not the time to show divisions when confronted by US anti-Iranian aggressive measures).  The reformers want the United States to stay out of this crisis and are betting on President Obama to help them carry the day by not interfering.  The conservatives cannot use President Obama as an excuse given his speeches and moves regarding US-Iranian relations.

Should the Obama Administration engage Iran at this stage? How? When and under what circumstances?  These are very critical questions that demand serious answers especially in light of the September 28th deadline given to Iran on the nuclear issue (prior to the next G-20 meeting).  The inclination by many in Washington is to have the United States push for tougher sanctions through the UN Security Council if Iran fails to meet the nuclear conditions by that deadline.  That is exactly what the conservatives in Iran are hoping for, given the current crisis they’re facing domestically, and that is exactly what the United States should avoid doing.  The United States has too much to lose this time around if the Obama Administration falls into the same old cycle of “speaking tough” and advocating sanctions.  What is the alternative?  Before answering the questions above, it is important to analyze further the dynamics of the current situation on the ground in Iran.

The reformers having by now put everything on the line are trying to form a more solid coalition made up of them (clerics), prominent civilians, respected revolutionary leaders, representatives of the middle class, intellectuals, and students (18-25 years old).  This coalition is not yet in place and lacks a clear vision.  No one can predict whether, when and how this effort may succeed because the situation is very fluid and must be monitored on an hourly – not even daily – basis.  What is certain, however, is that the system has suffered irreparable damage to its credibility and legitimacy.  The reformers hope to force a referendum on the legitimacy of the current government which they foresee winning.  The conservatives, on the other hand, have already recognized that damage was done and are desperately trying to contain it.  I say contain it, because the conservatives are very weary of using deadly force against the reformers; they know that the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards are divided over the current state of affairs in the country and may risk division or possibly rebellion within the Guards if they were to order them to use deadly force.    In summary, there is an internal dynamic in Iran that is very fluid and may produce mutations in different directions.

Secret Diplomacy

Given the uncertainty of the direction that events may take on the ground in Iran, the one most important fact for the United States is that it faces now an Iran that has a weaker government in place being challenged by a growing opposition.  The United States should seize this opportunity to engage in “secret” diplomacy.  Silence is gold in such circumstances.  Messages should be conveyed to both sides that the United States remains committed to engaging Iran on the basis of respect and mutual interests (refer to Security debrief on Iran dated May 29, 2009) and would like to do so as soon as possible.  This move by the United States would be welcomed by the reformers because it would limit the current government’s maneuverability against them.  It would also be welcomed by Ahmadinejad and Khameini (not all the conservatives) who would use it to contain the reformers’ final push at this time.

The United States has everything to gain and almost nothing to lose in engaging NOW in secret diplomacy with both sides.  Some may argue that, given these divisions within Iran, the United States would be better off having the situation in Iran deteriorate on the security level even to the point of civil war.  This would make it easier for the US military to take out the nuclear facilities with Iranians busy fighting among themselves.  At a first glance, this option may appear appealing as serving to fulfill the objective relating to Iran’s nuclear program.  It will, however, make Iran an unstable country with unpredictable and possibly devastating consequences to American national security interests in the Gulf region.  In other words, a stable Iran with better relations with Washington serves best the national security interest of the United States; an unstable Iran would most definitely be exploited by radical Islamists to spread chaos in the region and would present a clear and present danger to the United States.

Cultural intelligence matters!