Gary Sick Sets the Stage for a Saturday Showdown

Gary Sick just posted again on Khamenei’s speech Friday on his new blog and set the stage nicely for what could be a very dramatic weekend for Iran, the Greater Middle East, and the United States. Here it is:

Iran’s Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, gave everyone a piece of his mind in his Friday speech. Here are my reactions:

First, and perhaps more important than the words themselves, was the fact that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani did not attend. This is extraordinary. Khamene’i and Rafsanjani were fellow revolutionaries in 1978-79. They have been associates – sometimes close colleagues – for more than 50 years. Many believe that Rafsanjani was instrumental in getting Khamene’i his position as Leader. Rafsanjani today heads the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for monitoring the performance of the Leader, among other things. This was possibly the single most fateful speech by Khamene’i in his 20 years as Leader of the Islamic Republic. How could Rafsanjani not attend? Did he simply boycott the event? Was he under house arrest? It probably didn’t help that several of Rafsanjani’s children were arrested in the previous 24 hours. We have never had such a graphic demonstration of political differences within Iran’s ruling elite.

Another non-attendee, presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom I regard as an almost accidental leader, now faces some of the most fateful decisions in at least the past twenty years of the Iranian revolution. He decided to run for president as a relatively unknown and uninspiring candidate who could offer solutions to some of Iran’s more pressing problems, especially on the economic side. His greatest attribute was the fact that he was “anybody but Ahmadinejad.” But his appearances with his charismatic wife, often holding hands, and the invention of the “green wave” struck a chord in the Iranian body politic. Then the extraordinary revulsion at the regime’s electoral numbers left a leadership void. He stepped in, rather tentatively at first, and filled that role. Two days ago he told the crowd that he was “willing to make sacrifices.” He realizes that there is zero tolerance by Iran’s rulers for anyone suspected of leading an opposition movement. His top supporters and associates have already been jailed, and he could face the same fate – or worse.

Khamene`i ‘s words were stark and simple. To paraphrase: the election is over, I fully support the person (Ahmadinejad) who won, it was fair, Iranians all trust their Islamic leaders, there will be no annulment, get over it and get off the streets or there will be harsh consequences, and besides it is all the work of outside agitators, especially the United States and Britain.

Tonight the streets of Tehran rang out with cries of allahu akbar and “death to the dictator,” suggesting that opposition has not vanished.
A major demonstration has been announced by Mousavi for Saturday. If it proceeds and is substantial in numbers, it will be the first open flouting of opposition to the Leader, with the support of a number of key regime leaders, in more than twenty years.

Iran has always had the capacity to surprise. There are frantic decisions being made right now in the top leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, in the Leader’s office, in Mousavi’s team, and in kitchens and living rooms across the country as Iranians decide what they are going to do next. They don’t know how this will work out, and neither do we.

We do know that what they decide will be very important to the future of Iran, to Middle East politics, and to American policy. President Obama today went as far as he could prudently go by declaring:

I’ve said this throughout the week, I want to repeat it, that we stand with those who would look to peaceful resolution of conflict and we believe that the voices of people have to be heard, that that’s a universal value that the American people stand for and this administration stands for. And I’m very concerned, based on some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made, that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching. And how they approach and deal with people who are — through peaceful means — trying to be heard will I think send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is and is not… . this is not an issue of the United States or the West versus Iran; this is an issue of the Iranian people.

But what he didn’t say was that it directly affects his policy of engagement. As long as the crisis persists, there is no chance that he can initiate meaningful negotiations with Iran.

He is also under immense and growing pressure – largely from people who deeply opposed the concept of engagement from the start – to take sides.
And the pressure will grow, especially if there is a bloodletting by the regime in Iran. Obama’s statement today strikes me as typically precise and about as far as he can go without sliding into partisanship that will inevitably lead to escalating confrontation.

Despite the siren calls to give full vent to American outrage, short of widespread carnage he should recognize that such statements will not assist the beleaguered opposition in Iran. On the contrary, it will increase their vulnerability, raise false hopes of U.S. physical intervention, and will provide an excuse for the regime to carry out the kind of brutal repression that they are threatening, all in the name of fighting imperialism.

Shouts of outrage are fine by folks like me on the web, but the U.S. government should never forget that its primary task is to do no harm. It may be hard to hold your tongue, but then nobody ever said foreign policy was easy.

Interestingly, I attended a talk today at the National Foreign Trade Council by Keith Weissman, the former AIPAC official who was indicted under the Espionage Act along with Steve Rosen. Weissman, who had been AIPAC’s leading expert on Iran, has made distinctly dovish remarks — in stark contrast to his alleged former co-conspirator — since his indictment’s dismissal last month, opened his remarks about U.S. policy toward Iran at the present moment with the same advice as Sick ended his. “First, do no harm,” he said, describing Obama’s response to the current crisis so far as “good, …very good.”

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. The Iranian protests will either fizzle out (my bet) or the regime will crush them, as in China 20 years ago. In either case Obama will be blamed by the neocons and the American right generally for not giving enough support. Secretly, however, the neocons and others will be thrilled if the Iranian hard-liners crack down. Such a result would be a win-win from the neocon point of view.

  2. Actually, the measured and practical way Obama is handling the Iranian self inflicted imbroglio is a win-win for Obama’s foreign policy initiatives and US interests. This time its the Iranians who have a house divided and not the stasis the US suffered under the Bush regime, that was spectacularly caused by neocons and their ideological & Zionist soul mates. The only way Obama can lose is to follow the advise these losers are braying from the political wastes in the wilderness. A well earned consequence of their immeasurable incompetency and folly in chasing a multitude of fools errands that harmed American interests and destroyed US unipolarity.

  3. Isn’t the U.S. undergoing (nonviolent) stasis over how to approach current events in Iran? How things turn out for Obama depends on what happens in Iran. If the reformers win through (highly unlikely, in my view) Obama comes up smelling like a rose. Any other outcome will mean continued recriminations amongst various U.S. factions, with the president being accused by some of not acting strongly enough — he will be the man who “lost” Iran.

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