A Marriage of Convenience on the Rocks

Iran has backtracked from its burgeoning military understandings with the United States for the war against Iraq, inflicting a serious blow to American war preparations.

Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Tehran say the hardline supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was virtually compelled to effect this abrupt about-turn by the radical young commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, the main prop of his power base. The groundswell of protest from this faction outweighed his pragmatic considerations and his hopes for a limited, discreet understanding with the Americans in return for aid to the Iraq War effort. Revolutionary Guards chiefs, led by Yahya Rahim Safavi and Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, practically ordered Khamenei to jettison past and future pledges to Washington as though they had never been. Any form of cooperation with the administration of George W. Bush was out of the question, he was told.

While most of the western media highlight the pressures brought to bear on the supreme ruler by the reformist majority in parliament led by President Mohamed Khatami and student action in support of a liberal academic sentenced to death for apostasy, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iran experts stress that Khamenei feels much more threatened by the upsurge of radical Islam at home. Militant groups are found in spreading concentrations in the Revolutionary Guards – Pazdaran, the clergy and the paramilitary bassij Islamic militia that defends the country and the faith at the local level and acts as the regime’s ears and eyes for heretics.

All these factions are constantly vigilant for the slightest departure by the authorities from the fundamentalist strictures of the father of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Until recently, Khomeinist Iran stood unchallenged as the pur et dur quintessence of Islamic fundamentalism. Today, it must vie at street level with rival extremists like al Qaeda, Hizballah and Arafat’s al Aqsa Intifada. Khamenei knows too that Iran’s young extremists are the nucleus of the next generation of Iranian leaders, who will have no qualms about thrusting him aside if he shows any weakness of faith.

Joining the American camp committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein was not only imprudent, they argued, limiting Iran’s room for maneuver in relation to Iraq and the war crisis, it will also discredit Iran’s claim to the title of Senior Protector of Islam.

They pinned him to the wall with such arguments as: How could the Tehran government play ball with the Great Satan against a Muslim brother, while at the same time issuing “Death to America!” calls in weekly sermons, and scheduling a mass anti-Israel, anti-American demonstration for this coming Friday, November 29?

This year, the anniversary of the UN 1949 partition resolution that created Israel falls on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the day appointed by Khomeini as Jerusalem Day, when the faithful proclaim their hate for America and vow to destroy the Jewish State.

The pressures from belligerents of his own increasingly radicalized following therefore left Iran’s supreme spiritual leader with little choice but to back away from Tehran’s ad hoc deals with Washington. What is left of those deals is not much:

— Iran now feels bound by force of Islamic solidarity and humanity to supply the Iraqi people with food and medicines if it comes under US invasion. This is a reversal of a previous undertaking.

— Going back on its former promise, Iran will henceforth withhold all military aid, tactical or strategic, from American ground and naval forces, consenting only to refrain from impeding their advance.

— Iran will issue no public statements that can be interpreted as encouraging Iraqi Shiites to cooperate with the American invaders. Neither will it call for resistance. Tehran’s silence on both scores will be relative to the degree of endorsement US military action wins at the UN Security Council. Vetoes on the part of China, Russia or France will elicit from Tehran sharp censure of that action and possible obstacles to its progress in Iraq.

Out of self-interest, Khamenei decided to hold firm for the time being on two of his commitments to the Americans:

1. Iran will maintain its blockade of Iraq’s Gulf outlet to prevent oil smuggling through this waterway, thus retaining some credit points with Washington and London, as well as guarding its own oil markets.

2. Iran will go through with its promised assault on the extremist Kurdish Ansar el-Eslam (the Friends of Islam) whose enclave in northern Iraq maintains close ties with Shiite Tehran’s rivals, the Sunni al Qaeda and the Taliban. The promise to fight Ansar is binding, says the spiritual leader, because it was not given to the Americans but to Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Front of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Khamenei’s surrender to the young guard on collaboration with the Americans underscores his political weakness. Some months ago, reformist and conservative politicians clashed verbally over the pros and cons of resuming relations with the United States, although the spiritual leader proscribed any such debate. Adding to the defiance, one of the groups published a survey showing that 74 percent of Iranians favored restoring ties with Washington.

However, his own radicals insist that the Americans are treacherous. Washington, they say, may well turn on Iran after dealing with Saddam Hussein, however much it contributes to the Iraq offensive. This warning fell on fertile soil. The ayatollahs already suspects the United States of divide and rule tactics between them and their long-time protege, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim, head of the Iraqi Shiite opposition organization known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Tehran created this group in the early 1980s as a tool for removing Saddam from power, placing at its head Hakim, the son a senior Shi’ite ayatollah murdered along with his family by the Iraqi ruler. However, the Iraqi ayatollah Hakim has moved closer to Washington than the Iranians like for their own interests, offering his services in the US campaign against Iraq and receiving an invitation to send a representative to the gathering of Iraqi opposition leaders in London on December 10.

This exiled Shiite leader, who lived in Teheran for two decades, now seems to believe that working with America will do him more good than sticking to Iran. For one thing, Washington offers him more cash. Iraq’s Shiites, more than 55 percent of the population, are largely secular and want nothing to do with Iran’s fundamentalist vision for Baghdad. Hakim knows that if he wants a major role in the democratic regime the Americans intend installing in post-Saddam Iraq, he must drop Iran.

His Iraqi Shiite Supreme Council plans to open an office in Washington soon in place of its headquarters in the Iranian holy city of Qom. This gesture will signal the Ayatollah Hakim’s exit from Iran’s sphere of influence and wave another red flag in Tehran’s face.

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