Friday, December 07, 2007


Is there a connection between the arrest of former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian last May for allegedly passing on information about Iran's nuclear program to the British, and the recent National Intelligence Estimate? The New York Times reported on Dec. 5:
American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran's nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.
On the same day the L.A. Times reported:
According to current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the matter, the information that surfaced this summer included intercepted conversations of Iranian officials discussing the country's nuclear weapons program, as well as a journal from an Iranian source that documented decisions to shut it down.
Another possible source is Ali Rez Asgari, former deputy defense minister under former Iranian President Khatami. Asgari, a rival of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knew his days were numbered when Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005. Asgari disappeared in February while on a trip to Turkey. Whether he defected or was kidnapped by Western intelligence agents remains a mystery.

The Washington Post reported in March of this year that he was cooperating with Western intelligence. At the time U.S. and Iranian sources alike discounted Asgari's knowledge of Iran's nuclear program; Western sources highlighted his value as the senior Iranian overseeing support for Hezbollah. Iran, for its part, sought to downplay Asgari's importance. A Sunday Times article in March reported that he had been a mole for Western intelligence since 2003--about the same time that the intelligence community now asserts Iran suspended its weapons program. The sources for the article were Iranian, so this may have been simply an attempt to smear him, or an effort by Ahmadinejad's faction to reach back and undermine nuclear negotiations with Europe that effectively began, again, in '03, or to implicate his political associates still in Iran. About the same time Yedioth Aharonot reported that Mossad had orchestrated his defection. So it's just a bit easier to follow than a David Lynch film and chock full of le Carré-esque intrigue.

Moussavian was acquitted of the more serious charges brought against him, but convicted of something called "propagating against the system", for which he received a suspended sentence. Conviction for espionage could have brought a death sentence. Ahmadinejad hasn't relented, however, threatening to expose elements in the government whom he says pressured the presiding judge. Within hours of Moussavian's acquital, Ahmadinejad ally Sa’id Mortazavi, under his authority as Public Prosecutor for Tehran and something called the Islamic Revolution Tribunal (or Courts), announced that he would continue to press charges. This is all in keeping with Iran's convoluted constitution.

Moussavian is allied to yet another former Iranian president, Hafshemi Rafsanjani, the most powerful member of the conservative pragmatist faction vying for primacy with Ahmadinejad's Islamic revolutionary fundamentalists, who chairs both Iran's Expediency Council and its Assembly of Experts (responsible for electing and with the authority to replace the Supreme Leader, currently Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful person in the Iranian government with final say over foreign and domestic policy and control of the Revolutionary Guard Corps).

Iran's pragmatist element is opposed to Ahmadinejad's bombastic campaign of defiance regarding Iran's nuclear program, seeing it as needlessly provoking the United States and the international community and risking war. Thus, ironically, the confluence of interests places the neoconservatives and their fellow travellers in league with Ahmadinejad. For those who believe that the Iranian regime must be wiped off the map, their greatest fear at this stage is not its nuclear program but the prospect of rapprochement.

Ahmadinejad shares this fear. His overt hostility toward Israel and the United States is primarily for domestic consumption. In his struggle with Rafsanjani's conservative faction his rabble rousing is both offensive strategy and the source of his opposition's frustration. His glorying in the latest NIE may signal more his political instincts toward spinning any given outcome in his favor than any particular pleasure with its assertions; when speaking directly to his base of support at home he openly revels in the weapons potential of Iran's nuclear program and its right to it. For the purposes of drumming up nationalist support at home, the NIE is at best a distraction.

It's hard not to come to the conclusion that separate tracks of engagement are ongoing (or rather, a covert track of engagement lies beneath the campaigns of aggression, hell-bent on collision, between the neocons and Ahmadinejad's revolutionaries), with pragmatists on each side waging covert signalling operations attempting to shepherd both nations into the next U.S. administration.

Ahmadinejad's faction is in an effective alliance of sorts with the Cheney/neocon shadow government; both want the same confrontation they each envision playing out differently. Ahmadinejad is irrationally willing to risk a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear installations, or worse, because it plays directly into his hands, driving popular sentiment into his camp and making it more difficult for his pragmatist opposition to marginalize and eventually be rid of him. Also, if he manages to make it appear that he has stared down the Great Satan, he could become the most powerful Iranian president yet. Our revolutionaries, going for broke, risk that disastrous outcome in their zeal to reach the conflict; indeed, they use this risk they've created to propel us toward war. By essentially fabricating the falsely exigent issue of Iranian nukes, they seek to give us no exit and our adversaries no face-saving way to accommodate us. And they dare speak of "conspiracies" hobbling the Administration.

What makes such madness possible? Two weak presidents on either side: Iran's, constitutionally hampered by the authority that resides in the Supreme Leader and the labyrinthine nature of Iran's government; here, a president who has ceded authority for foreign policy to the Vice President, whose grip on it is challenged by rival factions in the absence of any clear authority other than the President's acquiescence. A president who remains congenitally incapable of understanding the issues and complexities before him. Refusing to acknowledge his lack of authority and ability, he relies on stubbornness and faith, holding his line to the end, substituting fortitude for realism. Pride, thy name is still Bush.

We have our own radical faction, unfortunately identified as conservatives (oh for the day when the term can be rescued from those who inspire such righteous wrath), which seems determined to attack Iran. For all of their demonizing of Ahmadinejad, we forget how valuable he is to them. Remember their hostility toward Iran did not begin and will not end with Ahmadinejad's rule; the Israel lobby was more interested in seeing a U.S. assault on Iran than Iraq, recall, before Ahmadinejad came to power (to put it in its crudest form: Iraq was about oil; Iran is about Israel). The Cheney faction viewed the so-called "grand bargain" offered by Iran as more a threat than opportunity, regardless of whatever potential may have been there, again before Ahmadinejad came along to regularly and dutifully provide them with soundbites they would be hard-pressed to make up on their own. An ideal foil, as if sent from central casting.

Two nations with weak presidents, their words valueless, their motives hard to discern and each nation's progress the unpredictable, sideways motion resulting from a tug of war between opposing factions. For our side this is the result of our election to the presidency of a woefully unqualified man; indeed a callow, incurious neophyte regarding foreign policy, with a pathological pride blinding him to his inadequacy. Actions still have consequences even if we've managed to avoid looking at them full on, and the consequences of our contemptuous disregard for our own republic will be unfolding for a long time still.

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