Clawson: Khamenei "Worried" About Future of His Regime

One of the smartest people I know on questions relating to Iran is Patrick Clawson, the deputy director for research of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I asked him four questions about the just-past Lebanese election, and the upcoming Iranian election, and the possibility of renewed war between Iran's proxies and Israel. Here is our exchange:

Jeffrey Goldberg: When it comes to Iran's nuclear program, does it matter who the country's president is, or is the nuclear program in other hands?

Patrick Clawson: Iran's Leader -- or as he insists on being called, "Supreme Leader" -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the one who has both the constitutional authority and the power in practice to call the shots on foreign and security policy.  Iran's presidents are more cheerleader-in-chief than commander-in-chief (Khamenei controls the armed forces, among his many other powers).  The nuclear issue is firmly in his hands.  That said, the choice of president is important.  Not because the president has much authority on the issues we care most about, but because the choice says much about the Leader's intentions.  When the Leader is confident that the Islamic Republic can ignore the West, he sanctions the elections of a hardliner like Mahmood Ahmadinejad.  When the Leader is persuaded that Iran has to sound more conciliatory - to blow smoke in our eyes instead of spitting in them - he allows a reformer" to win.

JG: Will Hezbollah's semi-defeat in the Lebanese election make it more conciliatory, or will it send it back to its jihadist roots?

PC: Unhappy that it and its allies lost the recent Lebanese elections, Hezbollah may well take up arms to insist that it retains its powerful role in Lebanon's government - a good example of how the principal victims of Iran's proxies are Arabs rather than Israelis.  Even before the election, Hezbollah was claiming that no matter what the election results, Hezbollah was still entitled to enough cabinet seats - a "blocking third" - to prevent the cabinet from taking positions of which it disapproved. Hezbollah had sent its militia to occupy all of Beirut, including the Christian-majority East Beirut, to demand this "blocking third." While the reform March 14 movement agreed to this under duress, that agreement - the Doha Accords, negotiated by the Qatari government - was to expire with this last election, but Hezbollah insists the Doha Accords formula will remain valid.  So the friends of Lebanon are likely to soon to confront the question: if Hezbollah picks up arms to reverse the election results, what can the West and moderate Arab states do to shore up Lebanon's democratic forces?
JG: When do you expect the next eruption in violence between Iran's proxies and Israel?

PC: Just as Hezbollah is more of a threat to Lebanese democracy than it is to Israel, Hamas in Gaza has killed more Fatah supporters than Israelis. Similarly, the various insurgent and militia groups that Iran helps in Iraq kill many more Iraqis than Americans.
 Iran's proxies have not done well fighting Israel.  Hamas' standing in Gaza has not been helped by its poor showing in last winter's fighting against Israel nor from the continuing suffering since then.  And for all its bravado during the 2006 war against Israel, Hezbollah is no more popular in Lebanon today than it was before that war.  It is seen by many Lebanese as a tool of Iran, one reason it and its allies did poorly in the recent elections. So, with any luck, Iran's proxies will exercise considerable caution before they take on Israel again.
JG: There are clearly large numbers of people in Iran, the urban elites and the young most particularly, who seem unhappy with their government's priorities. Do you think we could be on the cusp of something new and different, and, from the Western perspective, better?

PC: The majority of Iranians are profoundly unhappy with the government of the Islamic Republic, but that does not necessarily mean that change is imminent. What keeps the regime in power is its support from a dedicated minority of true believers, which is at least ten percent if not twenty percent of the population.  The regime can count on its fanatical backers to use force - deadly force, if need be - to stop protests and keep the public in check. Those unhappy with the current system have overwhelmingly dropped out of politics, convinced that real change is not possible.
But Iran's Supreme Leader is worried about the vulnerability of the regime.  The main focus of his public speeches is about the danger of "soft overthrow" from "Western cultural invasion."  Khamenei warns that the West is plotting a "velvet revolution" like that which overthrew the Czechoslovak communist government in a mere one week's time.  He is so terrified that the  Islamic Republic could be quickly swept away that he has the security forces lock up journalists (like NPR reporter Roxanne Saberi), civil society activists promoting people-to-people exchanges (like the Wilson Center's Haleh Esfandiari), and physicians active in scientific exchange.  Presumably Khamenei knows something about his own country, and he worries that the regime is vulnerable.  Let us hope he is correct.