IRAN AS A SOVIETOLOGY FLASHBACK
The Brezhnevian mediocrity posing as Iran's Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Khameini
( or Grand Ayatollah, as he claims, without much evidence by Shiite scholarly standards) has ruled in favor of talks with the United States over the fate of Iraq
. This move, was in my view, rather interesting on a number of levels.
The problem with dissecting Iranian politics - aside from the dearth of American scholars and USG analysts with a reasonable command of Farsi and real "in-country" experience - is that we have a faction-ridden elite whose convoluted machinations are mostly opaque. In terms of depth, our sources for Iran are quite poor , a condition that long preceded the revolution in 1979 due to the bipartisan acquiescence of multiple American administrations to the paranoid wishes of that man of straw, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to hobble CIA activity in his country. As such we are left groping in the dark to understand the latest turn of events. Here is my view:
First, it is useful to recall as we ponder Iraq, regardless of the mistakes that the Bush administration has made since the fall of Saddam, we do not have to live next door to Iraq but the Iranians do. Moreover, their oil-rich provinces are home to an Arab minority just as their northwestern borderland houses Kurdish tribes. A nightmare scenario in Iraq has unavoidable spillover costs for an Iranian regime that is most likely better at formenting chaos than trying to suppress it on their own turf.
Secondly, Iran's ruling clerical elite have been badly divided by the rise of ultra-hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has his supporters among a minority of the senior ayatollahs who previously blocked any bold moves on Supreme Guide Khameini's part. The Clinton administration had previously reached out to Iran, offering a truckling apology for the CIA toppling of the erratic Mossadegh in 1953, only to be sharply rebuffed by Khameini who lacked much freedom to buck the clerical consensus on " The Great Satan".
Beyond that, I'm not sure we know any more about Iran's internal politics than we did in the days of the Soviet Union where analysts poured over pictures of the Politburo reviewing parades from Lenin's tomb for clues to the inner workings of elite Soviet decision making. An approach I never gave much credence - after all, didn't these old guys need to use the restroom ? Run behind schedule because of infirmities ? Yet great import was placed on the body language and proximity of septuagenarian Communist bureaucrats trying to weather a public appearance for hours in the bitter Moscow cold. A ritual that killed more than one elderly Politburo member, including Leonid Brezhnev.
Trying to decipher Iran's mullocracy reminds me a lot of Sovietology. We may be looking at all the wrong things.