Would he ever speak candidly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei just might admit to some ambivalence on whether he wants the United States to invade Iraq. What the ayatollah needs right now is a good enemy. What America might give him is a good neighbor.
That could spell doom for the Iranian revolution.
Khamenei's domestic political strategy is to unite Iranians behind him against a demonized America. He has struggled -- with poor results -- to exploit the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq to this purpose. Now, an actual invasion may backfire on him: America makes a better foil from afar.
It bodes ill for Khamenei that U.S intervention in Afghanistan has gone well. In the 18 months since the United States and Britain launched their first sorties against Taliban targets, Iran's neighbor to the east has undergone an anti-fundamentalist transformation. While the vice president and tourism minister were assassinated (and an unsuccessful attempt was made against interim leader Hamid Kharzai) the country has started on the path to stability.
Former Afghan King Zahir Shah returned, but declined to seek office. A traditional assembly of tribal leaders convened to begin shaping the nation's future. It overwhelmingly picked Kharzai as interim president, and popular elections are planned for 2004. Not bad for a nation larger and more populous than Iraq, and with equally fractious ethnic divisions.
Khamenei's domestic nemesis, relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami, visited Kharzai in August. Though he was careful to make the obligatory criticisms of U.S. policies, he also allowed himself to be protected by U.S. Special Forces.
Imagine that. The Islamic Republic's chief elected official trusting body and soul to the good will and steady aim of Great Satan's storm troopers.
All this must be worrisome to Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Twenty-four years after the Ayatollah Khomeini declared an Islamic Republic, revolutionary fervor has faded in Iran. Iranians have elected Khatami twice. In 2001, they gave him 77 percent of the vote. Relative moderates control the parliament.