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The Iranian Opposition, The Nuclear Issue, And The West

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy held a discussion on January 14 on a report by Patrick Clawson detailing the relationship between domestic turmoil and foreign relations in Iran. Clawson is the institute’s Iran security initiative expert and a widely published commentator on Iranian affairs.

Before the forum began, Mehdi Khalaji, a scholar, spoke briefly about his father, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Khalaji, who was arrested by Iran's Intelligence Ministry in Qom on January 12.

Thirty-one years ago, Ayatollah Khalaji was arrested under the shah -- soon after, the regime collapsed. Khalaji said he hoped for the same result this time around. He quoted Ayatollah Sanei, who said “the behavior of the government is tarnishing the image of Islam worldwide.”

(Check out Mehdi Khalaji's article on “Islam vs. Iran’s 'Islamic Republic'" at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy website.)

The arrest, among other arrests of prominent clerics, is symptomatic of Iran’s campaign against Islam, Khalaji said. The Islamic Republic has defined members of the Green Movement as either Islamists or pro-Western. Both religious conservatives and more liberal-minded Green advocates are looking for the real Islamic Republic, he concluded.

Clawson said the objectives of the Green Movement and the international community have different focuses: one on democracy inside the country, and the latter on nuclear weapons control. He began his discussion of his report by noting the key to success in both areas is a fusion of both initiatives. The Greens are challenging two central themes in Iran: its Islamic credentials and its revolutionary credentials via personal freedoms and voting.

“Greens don’t care much about foreign policy,” he said, “but they’ll use any issue to criticize Ahmadinejad’s government.” The international community’s biggest concern with Iran, above terrorism, human rights, or democracy, is nuclear weapons, he argued.

Mounting dissent within the country, Clawson argues, will soon impact Iran’s nuclear stance because the last thing Iran wants to face is a war on two fronts. With the current government preoccupied by the opposition, foreign-policy decisions have been put on the backburner, or ignored altogether.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's method of handling internal dissent is “containing” the problem by not making decisions, in the hope of them going away, suggested Ray Takeyh from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Takeyh argued that Iran’s support of illegal activity and terrorist organizations (like Hamas and Hezbollah) must be taken into account when negotiating on the nuclear issue. Instead of seeing the two sides as black and white (Green vs. international community), the United States should link a discussion of human rights and terrorism to a discussion on nuclear sanctions.

Clawson noted that the United States, rather than outright supporting a revolution in Iran, should find ways to support the people on a humanitarian level. For instance, it could make things easier for NGOs and activists to send aid to Iran and reach out to dissidents.

Takeyh said Khamenei would be disinclined to appeal to the fragmented elite that oppose the government because he’s taking the “wrong lessons from the 1979 revolution.” Essentially, his fear would be that any sign of concessions to dissidents would lead to the end.

The forum concluded with the words of Takeyh: “I don’t know the lifespan of the Islamic Republic, but it’s been shortened since the events in June.”

Ultimately, Khamenei is the glue that holds the whole thing together, he said, and the future of Iran may well be deliberated on the streets.

-- Ladan Nekoomaram

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at