Which Iran would Israel bomb?
Post-election unrest has proved to West that Iran is a lot less monolithic than thought by many.
Suddenly, there appears to be an Iranian people. Not just nuclear technology, extremist ayatollahs, the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, and an axis of evil. All of a sudden, the ears need to be conditioned to hear other names: "'Mousawi' or 'Mousavi,' how is it pronounced exactly?"; Mehdi Karroubi; Khamenei ("It's not 'Khomeini'?"). Reports from Iranian bloggers fill the pages of the Hebrew press. Iranian commentators - in contrast to Iranian-affairs commentators - are now the leading pundits. The hot Internet connection with Radio Ran (the Persian-language radio station in Israel) is the latest gimmick. And most interesting and important is that the commentary on what is taking place in Iran is not being brought to the public by senior intelligence officers, but via images transmitted by television.
Israel is now gaining a more intimate, accurate familiarity with the Iranian public. The demonstrations have made quite clear that there is not one Iran or even two, but rather a number of Irans. There is the Iran that belongs to those who screamed, "Death to America and to Israel," and there is the Iran that screams, "Down with the dictator."
The entire world intently listened to Iran's supreme leader with the same anticipation and focus with which it received Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, perhaps even more so. The political sermon delivered by spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which included couched threats against his opponents, proved that not everything is done on the command of the supreme leader. He too needs to heed public opinion, he too needs to compromise, he too is operating within a system that includes religious and political adversaries. In short, it was not the son of God who spoke on Friday, but a politician who needs to preserve his system of rule as well as his own legitimacy.
Khamenei, like his rivals, knows that even if the world believes that the elections were as pure as snow, there are still, by a conservative estimate, at least 15 million grown men and women - who make up over one-third of Iranian citizens who have the right to vote - who stand in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are Iranians with families and businesses. Some of them oppose his economic policies, others his nuclear policy; some object to his denial of the Holocaust or his anti-American stance, or perhaps all of these things together.
It is still too early to predict how the demonstrators will act and in what fashion the Revolutionary Guards will respond, but this past week's events will leave a historic mark in post-revolutionary Iran. It is a mark that should also be seared into the minds of the West in general, and the United States and Israel in particular. All in all, 30 years have passed since the Khomeini revolution, and the Iranian public is now rebelling against the system. True, this constituency has twice elected a reformist president who disappointed, and this time it does not appear that it is ready to give up, at least not easily. But hundreds of thousands of demonstrators did not pour into the streets due to American intervention or threats from Israel. They want a better Iran for themselves, not for Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. They will be the ones to determine what qualifies as a better Iran.
This is the crux of the confusion that we have stumbled upon. The grand enemy that was neatly packaged into a nuclear, Shi'ite-religious container has come apart at the seams. On the one hand, it threatens, while on the other hand it demonstrates for democracy. On one street, it raises a fist against America, and in another alley, streams of protesters march for human rights. For goodness' sake, who is left to bomb? Until one week ago, the path was well-lit.
An Israeli decision to strike depends on American policy, which depends on the outcome of the dialogue that President Obama seeks to begin with Iran. And, as military jargon so succinctly teaches us, the prescribed plan of action can be interrupted by unforeseen events. This is a segment of the Iranian population that is beginning to give rise to new questions. If there is a chance to change the system of rule - perhaps not now, but in the next Iranian election in four years - if there is a chance that Obama will gain greater leverage because the Iranian leader understands that he must compromise with his people, this will be a route that must be tried anew.
All the more so when one gets the sneaky suspicion that the military challenge from a nuclear Iran does not pose as menacing a threat as we were warned to believe. If the head of the Mossad pushes the threat back to 2014, and since we place trust in our defense leaders whether they say the threat will be realized in another year or within a few months, and if the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency says it is impossible to prevent a state from acquiring know-how in the field of nuclear technology, there is no alternative but to explore the path that will weaken the motivation to use a nuclear weapon. And that is to speak with Iran through the Iranians.
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