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Treading Cautiously as Iran's Power Struggle Unfolds

The intelligence “leak” game that has intentionally provided the Obama Administration a temporary way out from under Republican and Israeli pressure to strike Iran is a fortuitous one that perhaps unintentionally recognizes the wider implications of pushing the internal power struggle in Iran to a premature and dangerous end.

In recapping the events of this week that saw “intelligence leaks” to the effect that there is no need to attack Iran as there is no imminent threat of it achieving nuclear weapons capabilities and that Israeli intelligence agrees with this assessment, we will bypass the mainstream musings on the obvious: that “leak” reflected how “intelligence” is used to support policy decisions.

We will also avoid the red-herring of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, assuming that any informed reader is already aware that enriched uranium is produced in civil nuclear programs and can be stored and utilized for nuclear weapons development. The media and its public can so easily accept “intelligence leaks” to the effect that Iran is developing nuclear weapons but cannot accept a “leak” to the opposite because of an ingrained fixation on themes that are Cold War-ish in nature. This is not about nuclear weapons. It is about containing Iran on a number of levels.

On a foreign policy level, the bloody window of opportunity to ensure that Syria will no longer be a part of Iran’s efforts to create a Shi’ite triangle of influence against Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) interests in the region will do much to contain Iran.

One another level, though, foremost to containing Iran is understanding the internal struggle for power, when to harness the momentum and when to step back, recognizing how external actions could play out.

Despite his loud rhetoric, Washington should not be too quick to desire the final demise of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose demise for now seems nonetheless imminent. Presently, the situation in Iran is ideal for Washington: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in a stronger position than ever before, but that power comes at the price of responsibility and he must move with extreme caution in order to cement power ahead of presidential elections in 2013, where he hopes to see the final defeat of Ahmadinejad. 

The 2 March parliamentary elections in Iran cemented what well-placed informants inside Tehran working for Jellyfish Operations told Oilprice.com last summer: that plans were in the works to remove Ahmadinejad from power and that if politics did not do the trick, more nefarious means would be used. The first indication, they said, would be for Ahmadinejad to lose his grip over the oil ministry – a development that happened soon afterwards, gradually chipping away at his power base ahead of parliamentary elections.

On 2 March, Khamenei managed to secure a solid majority for his conservative circle – a circle that largely controls the country’s foreign policy direction and its nuclear program. It is a majority that will shut out problematic reformist voices and continue to reduce the chances of opposition conservatives, including Ahmadinejad’s own support base, to realize a comeback.

The Supreme Leader’s power is not yet solidified, and there are circles of conservatives whose direction of support remains elusive, and for this reason, he must tread carefully, and so must the US and Israel.

The next decisive political event will be presidential elections in June 2013, by which date Khamenei will have had to ensure that all his ducks are in a row for the final demise of his rivals. Particularly, though not solely, Khamenei will seek to further chip away at Ahmadinejad’s power, and external influences could help him achieve that. Specifically, an attack on Iran, while Ahmadinejad is still president would do wonders to that end. A limited attack on Iran during Ahmadinejad’s tenure that targeted only its nuclear facilities, which would be most likely, could be absorbed and used as additional political ammunition for the Supreme Leader.

Importantly, Khamenei has other ducks to line up as well, and his new power means that his decisions and the consequences of those decisions will fall on his own shoulders and determine the allegiance of conservative circles whose support has not yet been decided – an argument laid out most astutely by Omid Memarian writing for opendemocracy.net.

For now, the US and Israel would do best to proceed with an equal amount of caution and avoid adding any velocity to Ahmadinejad’s demise. No one wants to see Khamenei’s conservatives solidify unrivaled power.

By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.




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