The Dilemma of the West

What happened has all the airs of being an irreversible jump in quality in the conflict that sets the hard wing of the Iranian regime against the reformists. The unauthorized manifestation of the opponents was dealt with by violence of the repressive apparatus. A suicide bomber simultaneously exploded himself at the mausoleum of Khomeini (and it is, as everyone understands, a fact of great symbolic impact). Above all, Mousavi, the defeated candidate in the elections for the presidency, openly rebelled against the Supreme Leader Khomeini, took to the streets with the opponents, proclaimed himself ready to die and asked for the resetting of the elections (“the fraud was planned for months,” he said). We don’t know how this test of strength will end, even if at the moment the best cards (the security forces and armed militia) seem to be firmly in the hands of Khomeini and Ahmadinejad. We do know, however, that the Western world must now face a horrible dilemma.

Before the recent news on the trial of strength happening in Tehran arrived, the difficulty that the West was faced with was well illustrated by an apparent contradiction. In the same moment in which the European Union (strongly) and the Obama administration (cautiously) were condemning the electoral fraud and the violence of the regime against the opposition, Italy confirmed that in agreement with the United States it had invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki to participate in the conference on Afghanistan that will be held in Trieste, at the G-8 from June 25-27. Cynical realpolitik?

No, the contradiction was the fruit of a real dilemma. On the one hand, there is in fact the need to assure the collaboration of a regional power of Iran’s weight to come to the front of the war in Afghanistan (and to stabilize Iraq). On the other hand, there is the well-founded fear that the developments occurring in Iran, the decision of the Supreme Leader Khomeini to support Ahmadinejad and the possible definitive defeat of the reformist components, could further tighten the international positions of the region. With very serious risks for peace.

There is at the moment not very much that one can do from the outside to promote an evolution of politics in Teheran that is coherent with the aspirations of freedom of many Iranians and harbinger of changes in the foreign policy of the regime. Rather, as has been shown by the American debate (of which the New York Times gave a detailed summary yesterday), it is also possible that open Western support, especially from America, to the opponents of Ahmadinejad and Khomeini could prove counterproductive, could be exactly what helps the hard wing of a regime to cry out at the international conspiracy and to rid itself of the violence of the opponents.

This would explain, according to this interpretation, the diplomatic caution held up until now by Obama in spite of the clear, almost unanimous, statement of position by Congress in favor of the opponents who took to the streets in Iran. If the situation precipitates, it will be difficult for Obama to keep his assumed prudent position for very long. If, as it seems probable from the state of affairs (but there is always in these cases the possibility of sudden and unforeseeable changes), the settling of accounts in course would take the more moderate components of the regime completely out of play, and Iranian foreign policy would become even more dangerous than it is now.

Up until now, the extremist policies of Ahmadinejad were, according to specialists in Iranian politics, partially held back by the necessity of Khomeini to take into account the balance of forces between the different components of the regime. With this balance gone, and the center moved definitively towards the hard regime, it would be difficult to imagine a less aggressive Iranian foreign policy. Especially since, in order for the internal economic failures to remain hidden, an escalation of conflict with the foreign world would be required with impacts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Iraq and other areas.

In his speech to Egypt two weeks ago, Obama proposed to the Islamic world to turn the page. A part of the world welcomed the invitation. But another part didn’t. That speech, though innovative, had a weak point. What happens if the “men of good will” of different civilizations and religions are not able to keep the fanatics and proponents of hate under control? The political universe (as the jurist Carl Schmitt wrote) is in reality a pluriverse: which, in addition to the possibility of compromise, also leaves room for differences and irreconcilable hatred. While dialogue is being offered, it is necessary to also have alternative strategies. This is the subject of a discussion that appears rather closed on the inside of the American administration. If the situation precipitates in Iran, if the faction of Ahmadinejad, supported by Khomeini, rids itself even physically of the opponents, Obama will soon have to have a backup plan.

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