Do the Iranian people have a say?
Pinning hopes on the Iranian regime's accountability to its public is exceedingly optimistic.
While the timing of an Israeli or American strike on Iran will be heavily influenced by the public opinion in the two countries and the electoral timetable of both democracies, the link between Iran's actions – whether it will capitulate to international demands and scale back its nuclear program or instead make a "breakout" for military capability - and the feelings of the people on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan, is a lot less clear.
The latest issue of Chatham House's The World Today contains an article by Patricia Lewis with an intriguing title: "Iranian opinion is key to avoiding war." In it, Lewis presents an Iranian government poll conducted in 2010 which showed declining support for the nuclear program among the citizens of Iran, compared with 2008 and a more recent Gallup poll from February that showed that "only (my emphasis) 40 percent of Iranians were in favor of developing nuclear weapons, while 57 percent supported a civilian nuclear program." Lewis argues that there may be hope that Barack Obama, once he is re-elected, can "reset" America's relationship with Iran.
While the Obama Administration's failure to make any progress with Russia should have already discredited the term "reset" in international relations, it seems that pinning hopes on the Iranian regime's accountability to its public is exceedingly optimistic. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in a meeting with his generals Wednesday was dismissive of the "Western countries that claim to support human rights and democracy." But Lewis has only to look as far as her Chatham House colleague, astute Iran-observer Professor Ali Ansari who in the same issue provides an amusing analysis of last month's Iranian presidential elections, writing that the 65 percent turnout has "become the new 99 percent favored by dictatorships of the past. 65 percent passes the credibility threshold for a new educated public, and for prying foreign journalists." The elections, Ansari sums up, were mainly a showcase "for the governing elite, the reality is of less importance than the impression created. As anticipated, Iranians were far more preoccupied with their economic difficulties and the upcoming festivities for the Persian new year." He predicts that Khamenei "will be relieved that this latest test has been passed and if, further emboldened, he now moves to abolish the office of president altogether, (a prospect he has suggested), it may be the last 'election’ he will have to endure for some time."
In other words, rather than risking the possibility of a repeat of the 2009 Green Revolution that followed the last disputed presidential elections, the Supreme Leader will simply let his puppet president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad end his second and last term and fade away from the scene. He wasn't calling the shots anyway, and the people certainly are not.
Meanwhile, in the only democracy in the Middle East, there is one politician who knows he has little chance of remaining in power after the elections. If the polls are anything to go by, Ehud Barak's Atzmaut party will not be in the next Knesset, could that be one of the reasons he was so insistent at his briefing with defense reporters Wednesday that "2012 is the year of the fight against the Iranian nuclear program," predicting that in a matter of months, Israel will have to decide whether the negotiations with Iran have succeeded. It doesn't matter to Barak that the CIA have recently reported that the Iranian nuclear program has suffered some setbacks. If we wait until 2013, the people will have had a chance to turf him out.