From Gary Sick -- 22 June 2009
As I set forth on a long vacation trip, here are a few observations about
the situation in Iran based on my own experience of watching the Iranian
revolution and hostage crisis from the White House thirty years ago.
Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in a
short period of time. The 1979 Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as
one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power
structure in history, started in about January 1978 and the Shah departed
in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of
quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided.
This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important
There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily
politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a
negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership
has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if
they conclude that it is a no-win situation they could settle for a
compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this
point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed
behind a great public show of unity.
Leadership is key. Ayatollah Khamene`i, the rahbar or Leader, has chosen –
again probably unwisely – to get out in front as the spokesman of the
regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah
Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is
clearly speaking for the ultra conservative leaders of the Revolutionary
Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any
possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad
has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is
more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.
On the other side is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the erstwhile colleague
and now principal antagonist of the rahbar. He has chosen, as he usually
does, to stay behind the scenes as a master strategist, leaving the public
field to Mir Hossein Mousavi and the other disappointed candidates and
The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the
expiring corpse of the Islamic Republic that they created with such
grandiose expectations, is lost on no one. The important sub text,
however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They
know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they
have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until
now prevented an all out political confrontation between rival factions in
the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar and the Revolutionary
Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and
the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this
Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with
decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in
the thirty year history of the Islamic Republic, and today there is no
Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions.
They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells
you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same
regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.
For the United States, the watchword should be Do No Harm. The situation
in Iran is being exploited for short term domestic political purposes by
those who have been looking for an opening to attack the Obama
administration. Wouldn’t it feel good to give full throated expression to
American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so,
but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives
on the streets of Tehran, and it could scotch any chance of eventual
negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.
The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the
Iranian people and their leaders. There is no need to conceal our belief
in freedom of speech and assembly and our support for the resolution of
political disputes without bloodshed. But we should not be stampeded by
domestic political concerns into pretending that our intervention in this
crisis could be anything but pernicious.
Can President Obama play chess as well as he plays basketball