Editor's Notes: Repression as a sign of weakness

The Iranian regime isn't confident of its hold on power, and so has not restaged the elections, say some in Jerusalem.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
If the Iranian regime were confident of its hold on power, it would have restaged the elections, declared Mousavi the winner, reassured the watching world of its pragmatism, and in the process seen off the last vestiges of international opposition to its nuclear drive. But it isn't, say some in Jerusalem. And so it didn't... For years, Iran has striven to cultivate the sense that its nuclear program is a done deal, a fait accompli. At intermittent, carefully publicized opportunities, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced this or that dramatic breakthrough, telling the TV cameras that, as a consequence, the threshold has been crossed and the drive to nuclear power is now unstoppable - that his country has taken up membership in the select global nuclear club. This week, Israel came closer than ever before to publicly accepting the Iranian argument. Briefing the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Brig.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, the head of research in the IDF's Military Intelligence division, related bleakly to the two criteria that would determine Iran's capacity to go nuclear. First, he reported, Iran's program was progressing smoothly and by the end of the year would have cleared all technological hurdles - rendering the acquisition of a bomb a matter of choice rather than scientific and practical challenge. And second, he asserted, the international community was plainly reconciling itself, however reluctantly, to the notion of a nuclear Iran - precisely, Baidatz suggested, as it had done in the cases of Pakistan and North Korea. The international climate, in his dismal assessment, did not suggest sufficient will to take the kind of robust steps that would deter or stop the Iranians. Most notably, the United States remained committed in principle to diplomatic engagement even though there was no prospect of serious diplomacy so much as beginning, and meanwhile precious weeks and months were slipping by. And yet, amid the gloom, in an Israel that has consistently insisted it simply dare not accept a nuclear Iran, there are voices, precisely now, that sound a trifle more optimistic. Rhetorically, it should be stressed, successive Israeli governments have declared flatly that the Jewish state will not tolerate the Iranian regime attaining the capacity to wipe us out. Not this Iranian leadership, so overtly committed to the destruction of Israel. Not this regime, which cannot be relied upon to act rationally and rein itself in according to the deterrent model of mutual assured destruction. Practically, it should further be stressed, successive Israeli defense ministers and military chiefs have declared that Israel has developed "a military option" for thwarting Teheran if all else fails - though the nature of that option, given that Iran has constructed its nuclear program precisely to ensure that Israel cannot repeat its 1981 success in destroying Saddam Hussein's reactor at Osirak, remains hard to imagine. The optimism now faintly discernible stems, in part, from a recognition in Jerusalem that Iran's relatively serene path ahead might actually have been smoother still if the ongoing controversy stemming from its disputed June presidential elections had played out differently. An Iranian regime grappling with internal dissent, preoccupied with domestic concerns and thus in no fit state to enter diplomatic contacts with the United States, even as its centrifuges continue to spin, represents a far from ideal reality. But there was actually a worse potential outcome to the presidential election furor. IN THAT worst-case scenario, the regime in Teheran, internalizing the extent of its people's sense of betrayal over the corrupt elections, would have bent to popular will. It would have acknowledged a degree of electoral fraud and blamed players lower down the hierarchy. It would have restaged the elections - though less "staging" would have been necessary. And this time it would have named the "reformist" opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi as the victor and new president, replacing Ahmadinejad. The consequences for the regime could have been astoundingly positive. Domestically, it could have been seen to have acknowledged and responded to the will of the people, and thus defused the opposition forces and healed the clerical fissures its initial mishandling of the elections had caused. It could have co-opted Mousavi, appearing to empower a reformer while in reality constraining and limiting his freedom to facilitate change, just as it did with the previous "reformist" president Mohammad Khatami. And it would have sent an immensely reassuring message to the international community: Here was a regime acting in the interests of its people, a responsible regime, a rational regime. In communicating that reassurance, furthermore, the regime would have marginalized any remaining international will to intervene effectively to thwart the nuclear program. That Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did not choose this potentially win-win course of action is perceived by some here in Jerusalem as evidence of a regime that is brittle and badly weakened. For clearly, along with the possible range of benefits, there was a significant element of risk to this eschewed strategy - the risk that in giving ground to the opposition, in heeding the anguished voice of the people, the mullahs might prompt not satisfaction and a restoration of relative stability, but rather a rising tsunami of further dissent. Not self-preservation, then, but self-destruction. Far from anointing, in Mousavi, an ex-prime minister who could be relied upon to work within the parameters of tolerable change, the regime might have been so emboldening the forces of protest as to set in motion the process that would bring it crumbling down. A regime more confident of its grip on power, in other words, might have given ground. A weaker regime saw no choice but to act tough. As a consequence of that assessment, there is no small fear in some Israeli circles that the Iranian regime might now want to further demonstrate its undented "strength" - perhaps via the mobilization of forces within the client ranks of Hamas and Hizbullah. This provides yet another reason for Israel to worry about the relentless rearming and muscle-flexing taking place across the northern border, which has seen Hizbullah reportedly acquiring from Iran considerable quantities of shoulder-fired missiles that could threaten Israel's air superiority in the skies of Lebanon. But along with such elevated concern, there is also the more positive argument being made in Jerusalem that the regime's post-election choice of domestic ruthlessness over domestic conciliation made plain as never before to some key international players, notably in Western Europe, the danger inherent in the completion of the Iranian nuclear program. Whereas Israeli military figures such as former Military Intelligence chief Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash have spoken publicly of their failure in years past to persuade certain European governments that Teheran must not be allowed to go nuclear, there are some here who now sense a shifted mood in those hitherto unresponsive capitals, and believe parts of the international community are coming to their senses. No similar shift is perceived in the stances of Russia and China. But if America is concerned not to have to act unilaterally in stiffening its positions on Iran, some here argue, it may now find it has more supportive allies in Europe than would have been the case before the elections, the fraud and the brutal suppression of protest. The previous mindset in Europe, runs this argument, was to accept Ahmadinejad's talk of the ostensibly inevitable: Yes, Iran is going to get the bomb. Now let's move on. But Western Europe doesn't take kindly to the disenfranchising of the masses. And while before, there were those in Europe who argued that stricter sanctions would hurt the ordinary good people of Iran more than the regime that represses them, today there is an awareness that the good people of Iran are essentially demanding the imposition of tougher sanctions - anything to help bring down the mullahs. A GREATER international readiness for harsher diplomatic and economic pressures? An improved prospect of the Iranian regime being deterred or, whisper it, perhaps being mortally wounded by its mishandled election process? Does Israel truly believe there is now a better prospect of Khamenei's Iran failing to reach the bomb? In the multi-faceted confrontation between Iran and the West, and specifically between Iran and Israel, little that is said publicly or leaked privately can be taken at face value. One of the more certain assessments, though, is that whatever the grim prognosis made public this week by General Baidatz, and whatever newly sworn-in second-term President Ahmadinejad would have us all believe, Israel emphatically does not accept that a nuclear Iran is a "fait accompli."