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KAHLILI: Teetering on the brink

A clash of wills in Iran offers an opportunity for the U.S.

- - Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Iran is teetering on the brink of political chaos in the wake of last week's news that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was arrested, questioned and warned to shut up by the heads of the Islamic regime's security forces before being released seven hours later.

With a candidacy-filing deadline at hand for those who would succeed Mr. Ahmadinejad in next month's presidential election, according to the regime's media outlet Baztab, the president warned that if his handpicked candidate — close confidant and adviser Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — were not allowed on the ballot, he would release a tape that proved his 2009 re-election was a fraud, engineered by the regime's supreme leader. After publishing that news, the Baztab website was immediately taken down by security forces and its editor arrested.

The report of the arrest came from a source in the regime's intelligence apparatus but was denied by the regime itself. However, Mr. Ahmadinejad a week earlier said he had been warned that if he released information embarrassing to the regime, he would be taught a lesson. He said he won't back down and that he has files that, if revealed, would implicate certain officials.

As I reported recently from a Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit source, Mr. Ahmadinejad taped a phone conversation between himself and Vahid Haghanian, the head of the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The two discussed fraud in which Mr. Haghanian said election officials added millions of votes to Mr. Ahmadinejad's tally to declare him the winner. While the two argued about the fraud, Mr. Haghanian told Mr. Ahmadinejad what Ayatollah Khamenei, the real power in Iran, expected of him.

The man who lost the official vote to Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has been under house arrest since February 2011. Millions of Iranians took to the streets after that election, calling Mr. Ahmadinejad's reported 62 percent tally of voters a fraud and demanding a free election. Thousands were arrested, with many tortured and executed.

The Obama administration, which was engaged in back-channel negotiations with Iran at the time over its illicit nuclear program, stayed out of the debate on fraudulent elections, claiming any support would jeopardize the protesters, thereby missing a great opportunity as millions of Iranians chanted "death to the dictator."

Information leaked from the regime's intelligence service months later indicated that had the protests continued for several more weeks, the regime would have fallen. Though the Islamic leaders promised to collaborate with President Obama once the masses were suppressed, Iran announced that not only was the offer by world powers no longer acceptable, but it had reached a milestone by enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, which is well on the way toward use for nuclear weapons.

While Mr. Ahmadinejad was under arrest April 29, he was warned not to talk about matters detrimental to the Islamic regime, apparently a reference to his threat to release the damning tape.

As this was unfolding, the source said, hundreds of other Revolutionary Guard members questioned the president's associates on the existence of documents that could harm the regime. They were probably searching for the tape.

Now there is a standoff between Mr. Ahmadinejad, the apparent fraudulently elected head of state, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the de facto head of state. Will Mr. Ahmadinejad release the tape and thereby bring international scorn to a regime already suffering international sanctions because of its nuclear program? Such a scenario would heap embarrassment on the dictatorial regime as the presidential elections near.

The Obama administration, though failing to reach an agreement on the regime's nuclear program, has again mistakenly placed its hopes in back-channel talks with Ali Akbar Velayati, who is the ayatollah's handpicked candidate to succeed Mr. Ahmadinejad.

As I reported last October, Mr. Velayati secretly met in Doha, Qatar, with a three-person delegation of the Obama administration. According to the source, one American is trusted by the Iranians, having met with Mr. Velayati more than 10 times over the past several years. Other U.S. and Iranian officials also participated in several of those meetings, which took place from 2009 to 2012 in Turkey, Georgia and Thailand to discuss Iran's nuclear program as well as regional issues.

WikiLeaks recently revealed U.S. diplomatic cables that indicate that, as early as 2007, a close associate of the supreme leader communicated with the U.S. Embassy in Dubai to suggest that the U.S. government support the 2009 candidacy of Mr. Velayati, who ultimately did not run for the presidency. The Bush administration showed no interest.

Mr. Velayati, who is wanted by Argentina in the 1994 Jewish community center bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, has been the subject of intense negotiations between Iran and Argentina to clear him of that charge as he prepared to run for the presidency. The source said the Obama administration has helped with this approach even though Israeli officials are furious over the possibility of such a decision by the Argentines.

The Obama administration should know by now that its failed negotiating approach has only bought time for Iran to develop its nuclear weapons program. If North Korea is any lesson, the world will not be able to sustain peace and stability if similar threats of a nuclear exchange rise in the Persian Gulf, where more than 20 percent of the world's energy passes.

The best option is to dramatically increase pressure on the regime to widen the existing crack and support the aspirations of the Iranian people, who want nothing more than freedom and democracy.

Reza Kahlili is a pseudonym for a former CIA operative in Iran's Revolutionary Guards and author of the award winning book "A Time to Betray" (Simon & Schuster, 2010).