Iran is once again back, with a vengeance befitting the summer behavior of its Basij and after a brief post-post-election respite, in Western headlines. And as is customary, Iran experts and analysts and watchers are falling over themselves to explain this frustratingly un-explainable nation and its intentions to the masses. (Of course there are no real Iran experts, not here, not in Iran, not even in the Iranian government, but hey, these days it's an occupation that at least keeps people busy. If you don't believe me, think about this: On June 12th, 2009, there was not one single Iranian, not amongst its population of some seventy million souls (or million or so in the Persian diaspora) or in the government or the opposition; not one non-Iranian Iran expert anywhere in the world, not even working for foreign governments, who correctly predicted what Tehran would look like on the afternoon of June 14th, or the weeks following.)
President Ahmadinejad, or for some of our Iranian friends, ex-President Ahmadinejad, single-handedly orchestrated his nation's return to our front pages and our TV screens by first granting an exclusive, first-since-the-election one-hour interview to Ann Curry of NBC, in Tehran, only a few days before he was due to fly to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. The nature of the interview, which Ms. Curry did not allow to become a propaganda coup for the Iranian administration ("Mr. President, did you steal the election?"), must have raised some alarms in the corridors of the Pasteur Avenue presidential compound for the following day, in a speech at Friday Prayers, Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust in terms more forceful than he had ever done (after a long period of relative silence on the matter); a sure-fire tactic to deflect lingering questions surrounding his re-election and the brutality of his government in suppressing any opposition to him once in the media glare of New York.
It was never going to work 100%, not when American journalists actually have friends who've been beaten up, tortured, or are still in jail, but many took the bait and Ahmadinejad enjoyed (as he seems to) explaining at length, for example to Katie Couric of CBS who actually showed him photographs of Auschwitz victims, perhaps hoping to elicit a tear or two from the president, what he means when he denies a historical fact. Or Larry King, who really, really, really wanted to know if Ahmadinejad really believes what he says about the Jews, while outside the hotel room where Larry and Mahmoud convened Iranians from all over the U.S. and Canada, and even as far as Japan who had ventured to NY to protest against Ahmadinejad, struggled to get their voices heard.
Every minute Ahmadinejad spent not talking about the rape of prisoners in Iran's jails, or addressing (as a person who repeatedly proclaimed that Iran has complete freedom of speech) something as simple as why Iran's media had just been banned from uttering or printing the names of the opposition leaders, let alone their thoughts, was a minute won. Every minute not spent discussing why he appears to be singularly unpopular with many Iranians who allegedly voted for him was a damn fine minute as far as he was concerned. He didn't mention the Holocaust at the UN, but he didn't need to. Bibi Netanyahu, not someone one might mistake for political neophyte also took his bait, using the UN pulpit to actually produce Nazi documents to assure a world audience that there was indeed much evidence of a Jewish Holocaust, a surely demeaning and vulgar display if there ever was one, rather than ignore Ahmadinejad's clearly calculated remarks and focus more on what he is willing to do for Middle East peace, an elusive goal that if ever met would defang the Ahmadinejads of the world quicker than a street dentist in Lahore with a pair of pliers.
On the eve of Ahmadinejad's departure from New York, he was even given a parting gift by Messrs. Obama, Sarkozy, and Brown. The dramatic revelation by the three leaders that Iran has a previously undeclared nuclear site in Qom resulted in an Ahmadinejad press conference solely devoted to the nuclear issue, which he is particularly skilled at discussing. No more questions about his legitimacy, the American hikers in jail in Iran, or rape, torture and forced confessions in Tehran's prisons. No, from now on it was going to be all nukes, all the time, even in Iran.
Although Ahmadinejad was clearly caught by surprise when he was informed of Obama's press conference in Pittsburgh that morning by Time magazine editors, his reaction on camera might to some have appeared to be one of being caught "red-handed", but in fact was genuine surprise at what the Iranian government within hours described as a crude propaganda move, and one that they were surprised President Obama would be associated with. (Flatter Obama; demean the French and the British, is the order of the day in Tehran.) As the day wore on and as Iran experts and analysts had the weekend to consider what the revelation meant, it became clearer to many that the "victory" the US media proclaimed was less of a victory than it initially appeared to be.
The U.S. had known about the site since before President Obama's election, the Iranians knew the Americans knew and had already informed the IAEA of its existence. If the Americans knew, the Iranians knew they knew and the IAEA had been already informed, how was this going to put pressure on them or put them at a disadvantage at the nuclear talks on October 1st? If the demand that Iran allow the IAEA to inspect the facility had already been agreed to by the Iranians, how was that "demand" by the Western powers going to put "pressure" on the Iranian government? Yes, there was a disagreement about whether Iran had technically violated its agreement with the IAEA (a contentious "legal point" as Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia later put it), but inquiring minds seemed to want to know what exactly this U.S. "victory" meant. By the end of the weekend, the Russians were already backing off their original commitment to at least consider stricter sanctions once President Obama privately told President Medvedev about Qom. Maybe the Iranian argument, made unemotionally and away from the glare of the U.S. media in Moscow persuaded them that Qom was much ado about nothing, or maybe Putin is pissed that America had known about the facility for a long time but hadn't bothered to tell him, former President Bush's soul brother, after all.
In any event, Iran's nuclear program and the government's defense of it is probably the last thing all Iranians, even the opposition, generally agree on. President Obama was criticized earlier this summer for saying that as far as the US was concerned, there would be little difference between a President Ahmadinejad or a President Mousavi, but he was right. The four issues that concern the U.S. are the nuclear issue, Iran's cooperation or lack thereof in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Mousavi was not going to change Iran's position on uranium enrichment, and when it comes to foreign policy questions of Iran's influence and power, no Iranian president would decide, or even be able to, curtail them. Without their star hitter A-jad, Iran might have shunned talk of the Holocaust or even Israel's imminent demise as a state, and the missing Imam would perhaps be re-relegated to one level above myth himself, but Iran would still be out to win in international competition.
Sure, to President Obama and most in the West it now appears that if the Iranians have gone to great pains to build a fortified enrichment facility deep in a mountain hideout (and maybe elsewhere), then that facility was probably designed for nefarious purposes, but to most Iranians the explanation that they need to build it in secrecy and hidden from view because of constant threats by Israel (and the U.S.) that they might bomb Iran's nuclear sites seems perfectly reasonable. By October 1st, the "so what? contingent on the question of the Qom facility will have probably grown to include the Russians, the Chinese, and certainly many in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Notwithstanding Thomas Friedman's inane argument in the September 23rd issue of the New York Times that we should tell the Israelis not to bomb, but publicly pretend that we're not doing so, just to scare the Iranians (does Mr. Friedman think the Iranians don't read the NY Times?), Iran welcomes threats for the simple fact that they tend to unite a politically fractured but nationalistic country, because they give the government cover for their secrecy in and expenditures on military affairs, and equally important, because they increase Iran's popularity in the developing and particularly Muslim world. "Be afraid, very afraid," does not work with Iranians, Tom. At least not with those in charge, many of them Revolutionary Guardsmen whose world-view is formed by their experiences in the trenches of the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Those guardsmen and their patrons are far more afraid of boys and girls wearing green on the streets of Tehran than they'll ever be of an Israeli warplane.
In the coming days and well after the October 1st meeting in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 there will be acres of newsprint and hours of TV time devoted to predicting and considering what will happen next in Iran's nuclear standoff with West. There will be shrill voices and there will be reasonable ones, but if anyone thinks the Iranians are going into negotiations from a position of weakness, they are mistaken. Yes, the Iranian government is weakened because of the election crisis and its bloody aftermath, but when it comes to the nuclear issue, it is as strong as it ever was, even with the Qom revelation. The government may know that it is despised in many quarters for its domestic policy, and President Obama may throw them off their game from time to time, but it feels no insecurity or nervousness when it comes to matters of defending Iran's rights.
There is a collective sigh of relief in Tehran that the pesky foreigners will be less preoccupied with Iran's dismal human rights record than they have been in preceding months, and the threat of new or "crippling" sanctions, to borrow Hilary Clinton's words, will never force Iran to do what the West demands of it. What needs to be considered is that although Iran will not ever voluntarily give up enrichment on its own soil, it might be persuaded to accept more intrusive inspections (as called for by the Additional Protocol to the Non-proliferation Treaty, a protocol Iran hasn't signed but has indicated it might within the framework of a deal), perhaps even a limit on the number of centrifuges, as long as it believes the West is sincere in its desire to engage Iran in more than just the nuclear issue and on more equal terms than in the past. The advantage for ordinary Iranians is that if engagement does happen beyond nuclear demands and counter-demands and leads to a form of détente with the U.S., not only will Iran be less inclined to ever actually build a bomb even if they know how to, but human rights might make its way back to the forefront. For the sake of my friends in Evin prison I certainly hope so, but what do I know? I'm no expert.