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.
To halt liberalization, the ayatollahs have wielded the autocratic power granted them by Iran's revolutionary constitution. The State Department notes in its report on human rights in Iran that Khamenei himself "has direct control over the armed forces, the internal security forces, and the judiciary." A Council of Guardians -- six clerics picked directly by Khamenei and six laymen picked by his puppet judiciary -- can reject any act of parliament. It also disqualifies candidates that fail its religious and ideological tests. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, says State, it failed 576 candidates. In local elections held March 2, 86 percent of voters failed to turn out in Tehran, having concluded that voting under this regime is meaningless.
When the regime's arbitrary political powers do not stem liberalization, it uses force.
In 2001, says State, "60 parliamentarians were arrested and charged with 'inciting public opinion.' " By November of that year, "more than 50 daily and weekly newspapers had been issued closure orders."
Khamenei now has launched a last-ditch battle for the souls of Iran's youth. The battle is between him and Iranian moderates. But his weapon is a wild conspiracy theory, charged with anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric, aimed at the United States and Israel. His strategy: Rekindle hatred of these foreign governments to save his hated regime at home.
The BBC monitored and translated the ayatollah's nationally televised Feb. 25 speech to a group of students. "Today, you youth are the target of a very dangerous plot," he said. The goal of the plotters? "The aim is to stop young people objecting to the Zionists." Their weapons? "In order to cripple the youth, the best method is to corrupt them and to incapacitate them with sex, carnal desires, alcohol and drugs."
In sum: We are going to get them with reruns of Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
A few weeks ago, Reuters reported, Khamenei's judges sentenced two pollsters, Abbas Abdi and Hossein Ghazian, to prison terms. Their crime? Releasing a poll that showed "three-quarters of Iranians favored talks with the United States." If Iranians felt that way after America deposed the fundamentalist Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, how will they feel after America deposes longtime enemy Saddam in neighboring Iraq?
The Great Satan is going away. Not from the Middle East. But from the demons that inhabit the hearts and minds of Iranians.
Who might replace him? Maybe the Supreme Leader himself.