M.K. Bhadrakumar

The political class in Washington is clueless about the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy.

China has broken silence on the developing situation in Iran. This comes against the backdrop of a discernible shift in the Barack Obama administration’s posturing toward political developments in Iran. The government-owned China Daily featured its main editorial comment on Thursday titled “For Peace in Iran.” It comes amidst reports in the western media that the former President, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is rallying the Qom clergy to put pressure on the Guardian Council — and, in turn, on Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei — to annul last Friday’s electoral verdict.

Beijing fears a confrontation looming ahead and counsels Mr. Obama to keep the pledge in his Cairo speech not to repeat such appalling errors in the U.S.’s Middle East policy as the overthrow of the elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953. Beijing also warns about letting the genie of popular unrest get out of the bottle in a highly volatile region that is waiting to explode. Meanwhile, China’s special envoy on Middle East Wu Sike set out on an extensive fortnight-long regional tour on Saturday (which, significantly, will be rounded off with consultations in Moscow) to fathom the political temperature in capitals as varied as Cairo and Tel Aviv, Amman and Damascus, and Beirut and Ramallah.

Beijing also made a political statement when a substantive bilateral was scheduled between President Hu Jintao and the Iranian president-elect Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO] in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Conceivably, Mr. Hu would have discussed the Iran situation with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev during his official visit to Moscow that followed the SCO summit meeting. Earlier, Moscow greeted Mr. Ahmedinejad’s re-election. Both China and Russia abhor “colour” revolutions, especially something as intriguing as the Twitter, which Moscow came across a few months ago in Moldova and raises hackles about the U.S.’s interventionist global strategy.

China anticipated the backlash against Mr. Ahmedinejad’s victory. On Monday, The Global Times newspaper quoted the former Chinese ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming, that the Iranian situation will get back to normalcy only if a negotiated agreement is reached among the “major centres of political power… But, if not, the recent turmoil in Thailand will possibly be repeated.” It is quite revealing that the veteran Chinese diplomat drew a parallel with Thailand. However, Mr. Hua underscored that Mr. Ahmedinejad does enjoy popularity and has “lots of support in this nationalist country because he has the courage to state his own opinion and dares to carry out his policies.” The consensus opinion of Chinese academic community is also that Mr. Ahmedinejad’s re-election will “test” Mr. Obama.

Thus, Thursday’s China Daily editorial is broadly in the nature of an appeal to the Obama administration not to spoil its New Middle East policy, which is shaping well, through impetuous actions. Significantly, the editorial upheld Mr. Ahmedinejad’s election victory. “Win and loss are two sides of an election coin. Some candidates are less inclined to accept defeat.” It pointed out that a pre-election public opinion poll conducted by the Washington Post newspaper showed Mr. Ahmedinejad having a 2-1 lead over his nearest rival and some opinion polls in Iran also indicated more or less the same, whereas, actually, “he won the election on a lower margin. Thus, the opposition’s allegations against Mr. Ahmedinejad come as a trifle surprising.” The editorial warns: “Attempts to push the so-called colour revolution toward chaos will prove very dangerous. A destabilised Iran is in nobody’s interest if we want to maintain peace and stability in the Middle East, and the world beyond.” It pointedly recalled that the U.S.’s “Cold War intervention in Iran” made U.S.-Iran relationship a troubled one, “with U.S. presidents trying to stick their nose into Iran’s internal business.”

Beijing understands Iran’s revolutionary politics very well. China was one of the few countries that warmly hosted Mr. Khamenei as president (in 1981 and 1989). In contrast, India, which professes “civilisational” ties with Iran, was much too confused about Iran’s revolutionary legacy to be able to correctly estimate Mr. Khamenei’s political instincts favouring republicanism. Most of the Indian elites aren’t even aware that Mr. Khamenei studied, like much of Iran’s left-oriented youth at that time, in Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University. Be that as it may, the Hu-Ahmedinejad meeting in Yekaterinburg on Tuesday once again shows Beijing has a very clear idea about the ebb and flow of Iran’s politics. Mr. Hu demonstrably accorded to Mr. Ahmedinejad the full honor as Beijing’s valued interlocutor.

Chinese media has closely followed the trajectory of U.S. reaction to the situation in Iran, especially the “Twitter revolution”, which puts Beijing on guard about the U.S. intentions. Indications are that the U.S. establishment has begun meddling in Iranian politics. The Rafsanjani camp always kept lines open to the West. All in all, a degree of synchronisation is visible involving the U.S.’s “Twitter revolution” route, Mr. Rafsanjani’s parleys with the conservative clergy in Qom and Mr. Mousavi’s uncharacteristically defiant stance. Mr. Obama faces multiple challenges. On the one hand, as Helene Cooper of The New York Times reported on Thursday, the continuing street protests in Tehran is emboldening a corpus of (pro-Israel) conservatives in Washington to demand that Mr. Obama should take a “more visible stance in support of the protestors.” But then, a regime change will inevitably delay the expected U.S.-Iran direct engagement and upset Mr. Obama’s hope that the negotiations gain traction by the yearend, while the centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear establishments keep spinning. Also, a fragmented power structure in Tehran will prove ineffectual in helping the U.S. stabilise Afghanistan. However, top administration officials like Vice-President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would like the U.S. to “strike a stronger tone” on Iran’s turmoil. Ms. Cooper reported they are piling pressure on Mr. Obama that he might run the risk of “coming across the wrong side of history at a potentially transformative moment in Iran.”

A Thermidorian Reaction

No doubt, the turmoil has an intellectual side to it. Mr. Obama being a rare politician gifted with intellectuality and a keen sense of history would know that what is at stake is a well-orchestrated attempt by the conservative clerical establishment to rollback the painful, zigzag process toward republicanism in Iran. Mr. Mousavi is the affable front man for the clerics who fear that another four years of Mr. Ahmedinejad would lethally hurt their vested interests. Mr. Ahmedinejad has already pushed forward his programme of social justice and “anti-corrruption” which marginalises the clergy from the sinecures of power and the honey pots of the Iranian economy, especially oil industry.

The struggle between the worldly clerics (in alliance with the bazaar) and the republicans is as old as the 1979 Iranian revolution, where the “fedayeen” of the Tudeh party [Communist cadres] were the foot soldiers of the revolution but the clerics eventually usurped the leadership. The highly contrived political passions let loose by the 444-day hostage crisis with the U.S. helped the wily Shi’ite clerics to stage the Thermidorian Reaction and isolate and eliminate the progressive revolutionary leadership. Ironically, the U.S. once again figures as a key protagonist in Iran’s dialectics – not as a hostage, though.

Imam Khomeini was wary of the Iranian mullahs and he created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (which is Mr. Khamenei’s source of power today) as an independent force to ensure clerics didn’t hijack the revolution. His own preference was that the government should be headed by non-clerics. In the early years of the revolution, the conspiracies hatched by the triumvirate of Beheshti-Rafsanjani-Rajai who engineered the ouster of the secularist leftist president Bani Sadr (who was Mr. Khomeini’s protégé), had the agenda to establish a one-party theocratic state. These are vignettes of Iranian revolutionary history that might have eluded the intellectual grasp of George W. Bush, but Mr. Obama must be au fait with the deviousness of Mr. Rafsanjani’s politics.

If Mr. Rafsanjani’s putsch succeeds, Iran would bear the look of a decadent outpost in the “pro-West” Persian Gulf. Would a dubious regime be durable? More important, is it what Mr. Obama wishes to see as the destiny of the Iranian people? The Arab street is watching. Iran is an exception in the Muslim world where people have been empowered. Iran’s multitudes of poor who form Mr. Ahmedinejad’s support base, detest the corrupt, venal clerical establishment. They don’t even hide their visceral hatred of the Rafsanjani family.

Alas, the political class in Washington is clueless about the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy. Egged on by the Israeli lobby, it is obsessed with “regime change”. The temptation will be to engineer a “color” revolution. But the consequence will be worse than what obtains in Ukraine. Iran is a regional power and the debris will fall all over. The U.S. today has neither the clout nor the stamina to stem the lava flow of any volcanic eruption triggered by “color” revolution that may spill over Iran’s borders.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)