The story is told of a certain official, well-connected with Iran, whose interest in boosting internal dissent there led to his interaction with a certain well-placed Muslim cleric.
Their dialogue at one point, it is said, revolved around the question of how much financial encouragement the official might have to provide in order for the cleric to organize the kind of labor strike in the Iranian oil industry that might, in turn, trigger wider demonstrations and protests, unleashing the sort of mass, uncontrollable opposition that could bring down the whole Iranian regime.
The sum agreed upon, it is said, was $500,000: If the cleric could be guaranteed $500,000, he would organize the potentially incendiary shutdown.
The official boasted the kind of credible track record that, it might have been thought, would have guaranteed that the funds he sought would be made available. Half a million dollars, it might reasonably have been argued, furthermore, is an insignificant sum for such potentially momentous rewards, and particularly so when set against the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars that the United States has expended in the course of ousting the regime in neighboring Iraq and then seeking to attain a measure of stability there.
Alas, there has been no spiraling labor strike in the Iranian oil industry, prompting no wider protests to threaten the regime. The well-connected official's request for funding was summarily refused. The well-placed cleric's readiness to undermine his own colleagues went unexploited.
I heard the story this week from a source I trust and do not doubt its veracity. The cooperative ayatollah might not have come through even if the money had been provided, of course. The labor strike might not have materialized. Had it taken place, it might have been easily overcome. It might not have spread. Further opposition might not have been fueled.
But the sorry fact is that this attempt at encouraging insurrection - against an Islamic extremist regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, declaredly threatening Israel today and with its sights publicly set on the rest of the infidels tomorrow - was not even seriously contemplated. And it is surely not the only opportunity to have sought the ouster of the ayatollahs by the most effective and decisive means - fostering the heartfelt opposition to that regime shared by much, perhaps even most of the Iranian public - that has been similarly spurned.
Many exiled Iranian opposition groups are cautious about how quickly domestic dissatisfaction could be fanned into the real flames of revolution. And time, given the speed with which Iran is marching toward the bomb, is of the essence. But for Menashe Amir, the Iranian-born Israel Radio veteran - who has been broadcasting to Iran for the past 47 years and warning of the insatiable ambitions of this regime for its entire 27 - that only underlines the urgency of following the domestic dissent route. Amir told me this week that he was recently in the United States and sought to impress upon an American official his sense of the crucial and pressing need, and the real opportunity, to encourage ordinary Iranians to rid themselves of the extremist clerics. The official "laughed at me," Amir recounts in tones of bitter desperation. "He said, 'Look what happened in Iraq.'"
Amir said he tried explaining that he was not encouraging an invasion. Quite the reverse. That Iran is not Iraq. That with intelligent use of funds and political support, the Iranians can be helped to do the job for themselves. "And that this is far and away the best way to deal with the nuclear threat. Any subsequent Iranian leadership would need world support to rebuild the economy, to address all [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's domestic failures. Even if it didn't want to, any such leadership would have to suspend the Iranian nuclear program in order to get that international assistance. And it could then be given incentives to abandon the nuclear drive altogether." The American official was singularly unimpressed.
ALBEIT BELATEDLY, the Israeli security establishment is now starting to internalize the scope of the Iranian threat. There is a grim recognition that however the current government stand-off in Lebanon is resolved, Hizbullah, and thus Iran, has lately taken a giant step towards the governance of that northern neighbor. The Shi'ites may constitute only a third or so of the Lebanese demographic, but their association with Iran - the leadership, the orientation, the money - gives them the edge to ensure a growing dominance.
Iranian-trained troops may have been pushed back from our border for now, but Iranian-trained leaders are gradually taking over the whole country. They can afford to take a few steps back, to agree to power-sharing arrangements, to be seen to be patriotically avoiding a civil-war bloodbath. Time will win the internal battle of Lebanon for them.
In Syria, too, Iran is extending its tentacles, building alliances, sending worshipers to Shi'ite shrines, actively fueling a religious conversion campaign that is making small but distinct inroads among the 70 percent Sunni majority. The Washington Post highlighted the phenomenon in an article two months ago headlined, "In Syria, converting for sake of politics." The Damascus government had been promoting "the cult of Nasrallah as a way of boosting Assad's popularity" after the summer's war, the paper reported, pasting up giant street montages of the president and the Hizbullah leader, with Ahmadinejad sometimes pictured too. But now there was "a big wave of Iranians encouraging conversions," it quoted a Syrian filmmaker as saying. "The government is so worried."
Iraq, it is recognized here too, will never again be the same nation it was pre-war. Be there an uneasy confederation, long-term chaos, or something else besides, the revolution that Ayatollah Khomeini pledged to expand will have deepened its influence there. When the US first invaded, the Iranians panicked, fearing that American forces, after Afghanistan and now Iraq, would move on toward Teheran. When they realized that no such challenge was in the offing, they went on the offensive - determinedly denying the Americans that elusive stability, sending coffin after American soldier's coffin home, relentlessly sapping American will.
July 12's border bombardment and kidnapping of soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, coming so hard on the heels of the June 25 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, it is also acknowledged here, further signaled Iran's insistent co-option of the Palestinian cause, and thus the ongoing wooing of the Palestinian street. Hamas and Islamic Jihad already have the closest ties to Teheran, as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's call on Ahmadinejad in Teheran this week underlined. But Hamas is not yet as subservient as Teheran would wish. Khaled Mashaal, setting the terms for Shalit's release and a mass Palestinian prisoner release on behalf of Hamas immediately after the Gaza kidnapping, thought he was going to run the show? Not so fast. Hassan Nasrallah set about attaining his own leverage - in the form of the Goldwasser and Regev captures - and quickly asserted his, and by extension Iran's, prime role in facing off against Israel on behalf of the Arab world, the Palestinians included.
Iran's influence is threatening Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, too, where a militant Muslim Brotherhood, strongly anti-American, constitutes a growing problem for the American-allied president. And Jordan's King Abdullah II states openly that moderate regimes like his own are in danger.
Our prime minister's intemperate nuclear non-ambiguity during an interview with German TV this week suggested that the Iran alarm bells are ringing so loudly in his mind as to drown out the familiar formulae one is supposed to employ on such occasions about Israel pledging not to be the first player to introduce the use of nuclear weapons to the region. But the Israeli military option, even the most intemperate Israeli leader is doubtless aware, is the answer of last resort.
Like it or not, it is believed here, President Bush, or his successor, may yet be forced down the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan road to attempted engagement with Syria and Iran as a way to extricate the US from Iraq. Like it or not, it is also firmly believed here, any such effort is doomed to failure.
Yet much of the Israeli defense establishment, though hardly flush with better options, is nonetheless as reluctant as its American counterpart to so much as seriously contemplate the viability - in parallel with international economic and diplomatic sanctions - of giving the Iranians the chance to change their regime.
On Monday, the same day as the opening of Ahmadinejad's showcase Holocaust denial conference, a small knot of students heckled the Iranian president during a speech at the Amir Kabir Technical University. They burned his photograph, lit a firecracker, called out "Death to the dictator." The hecklers were reportedly drowned out by pro-Ahmadinejad respondents. There were no reports of arrests.
Those like Menashe Amir, and the few who think like him in the American, Israeli and other Western security establishments, may have seen in those few rare moments of Teherani dissent a vindication of their argument. It is doubtful that so minor a protest, so quickly and harmlessly quashed, however, will have won over many more advocates.
AMIR DIVIDES the ayatollahs' ambitions into three phases. First, he says simply, "they want to destroy Israel." They see it as a religious imperative. "We're on 'occupied Muslim territory.' We must be removed."
Second, they want to assert leadership over the Muslim world. "And they are using Israel as the focal point to draw the Muslim world behind them. They are using the Holocaust issue to undermine Israel's legitimacy. If the Holocaust didn't happen, then Israel [purportedly established as a kind of international compensation] has no right to exist."
Thirdly, and further off, they want to confront Christianity and Western culture - to defeat the infidels. Amir notes tellingly that Iran already has the Shihab 3 missile, with its 2,000-kilometer range. "Soon it will have the Shihab 4, with a 5,000-km. range that threatens all of Europe."
When the former director of Israel's National Security Council, Giora Eiland, told The Jerusalem Post in August that Ahmadinejad would be prepared to sacrifice half his country to wipe out ours - so consumed is the president by the notion that apocalyptic bloodspilling will hasten the advent of his anticipated 12th imam and a messianic dawn - Eiland offered the crumb of comfort that, for now, Ahmadinejad's would not be the finger on any nuclear button.
If the president's mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, prevails in today's elections for the Iranian Assembly of Experts, however, even that crumb of comfort may soon be brushed away. For it is this assembly that selects Iran's supreme leader and, according to some reports at least, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's dutiful successor, Ali Khamenei, is at death's door.
Amir does not believe that Khamenei is that sick. Neither, however, does he draw much of a distinction between perceived relative pragmatists like Khamenei and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, on the one hand, and perceived relative extremists like Mesbah-Yazdi and Ahmadinejad, on the other. "Those 'distinctions' are meaningless," he says flatly. "Was Rafsanjani [who spoke about "the application of an atomic bomb" against Israel] a moderate president?" he snorts.
IT HAS been suggested to me recently that, just as Nasrallah has been publicly cited as a potential target for assassination, the rifle sights may be pointing in Ahmadinejad's direction as well. It has also been pointed out that such an operation would be far from straightforward. Ran one acerbic observation: "Trying to kill Nasrallah hasn't exactly worked out yet, has it?"
Other voices, though, reject the notion that, much as killing Hitler might have averted the Nazi Holocaust, killing Ahmadinejad might prevent his hoped-for new genocide. The parallel is flawed, these analysts argue, for reasons that include the fact that there are other figures more extreme than Ahmadinejad waiting in the wings. It is the regime as a whole, not its most public propagandist, they say, that must be ousted.
Amir holds to this latter outlook. "Fathi Shikaki was killed," he recalls, referring to the Islamic Jihad leader gunned down in Malta in 1995. "So then along came [the current Islamic Jihad leader] Ramadan Shalah. [Hizbullah leader] Abbas Moussawi was killed [in southern Lebanon in 1992]. So then along came Nasrallah. That's not the solution.
"It's not this or that individual who has to be removed," he repeats exasperatedly. "It's the regime. And the Iranian people are the only ones who can do it."