A Nation of Dittoheads
Why Iran's Ayatollah Khamanei is the Rush Limbaugh of the Middle East.
Despite a popular mandate and efforts to reach out and win over Republican leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama has been continually stymied in his attempts to gain even minor conservative support for his agenda. At a much-discussed conservative conference last week in Washington, it became clear why: The real leader of the American right is not John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, or Michael Steele, it's talk show host Rush Limbaugh. The overwhelming influence of Limbaugh's message, drawing on a deep well of resentment toward the political and cultural aims of the Democrat party, makes the base of the current GOP exceptionally loath to negotiate.
Despite a popular mandate and efforts to reach out and win over Republican leaders, U.S. President Barack Obama has been continually stymied in his attempts to gain even minor conservative support for his agenda. At a much-discussed conservative conference last week in Washington, it became clear why: The real leader of the American right is not John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, or Michael Steele, it’s talk show host Rush Limbaugh. The overwhelming influence of Limbaugh’s message, drawing on a deep well of resentment toward the political and cultural aims of the Democrat party, makes the base of the current GOP exceptionally loath to negotiate.
It’s by no means an exact analogy, but there’s a similar dynamic at work with that other group of troublesome conservatives that Obama wants to reach out to, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While outsized U.S. attention has focused on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the real power in the Iranian state lies with an unelected reactionary who enjoys the kind of supreme authority that El Rushbo could only dream of: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. An understanding of Khamenei’s worldview should be a prerequisite for any attempt to open talks with Iran.
A careful reading of three decades worth of Khamenei’s writings and speeches present arguably the most accurate reflection of Iranian domestic and foreign policy aims and actions. They reveal a resolute leader with a remarkably consistent and coherent — though highly cynical and conspiratorial — worldview. Four themes dominate his political discourse-justice, independence, self-sufficiency, and Islamic piety — and he interweaves them seamlessly: Islam embodies justice, independence requires self- sufficiency, and foreign powers are hostile to an independent, Islamic Iran. From Khamenei’s perspective, Iran’s enmity toward the United States and Israel as well as the rationale for its nuclear ambitions can be explained within this framework.
His distrust of the United States is profound, believing strongly that U.S. opposition to Iran is not motivated by Tehran’s external behavior — its nuclear ambitions, opposition toward Israel, or support for Hezbollah — but by Iran’s strategic location and energy resources, which are too valuable to the United States to be controlled by an independent-minded Islamic government. Washington’s ultimate goal, Khamenei believes, is to restore the patron-client relationship with Tehran that existed under the shah.
In this context, whether U.S. officials announce that they wish to isolate Iran or have a dialogue with it, Khamenei presumes nefarious intentions. He holds strongly that Tehran must not compromise in the face of U.S. pressure or intimidation, for it would project weakness and encourage even greater pressure:
If the officials of a country get daunted by the bullying of the arrogant powers and, as a result, begin to retreat from their own principles and make concessions to those powers, these concessions will never come to an end! First, they will pressure you into recognizing such and such an illegitimate regime, then they will force you not to call your constitution Islamic! They will never stop obtaining concessions from you through pressure and intimidation, and you will be forced to retreat from your values and principles step by step! Indeed, the end to U.S. pressure and intimidation will only come when Iranian officials announce they are ready to compromise Islam and their popular government of the Islamic Republic, and the United States may bring to power in this country whoever it wants!
Given that Khamenei perceives Washington to be hostile to the Islamic Republic’s very existence, challenging U.S. interests has become an important foreign-policy priority for the Iranian government. Based on his reading of Washington’s Cold War policies, Khamenei’s primary concern with respect to the United States is not a military attack, but rather a political and cultural onslaught. Such an attack would spread Western vice and cultural influence to undermine the roots of Iran’s traditional society, create popular disillusionment with the Islamic system, and foment ethnic and sectarian unrest.
This dark worldview extends to Iran’s nuclear policies, on which Khamenei is by far Iran’s most influential figure. For Khamenei, the nuclear issue has come to symbolize the core themes of the revolution: the struggle for independence from unjust foreign powers, the necessity of self-sufficiency, and Islam’s high esteem for the sciences. He has consistently and unequivocally stated that while Iran is opposed to nuclear weapons, it has no intention of forsaking its inalienable right to a full fuel cycle.
Despite U.N. Security Council resolutions, heightened sanctions, and military threats from the United States, Tehran’s approach to the nuclear issue has remained defiant. According to Khamenei, this is a concerted strategy: Rights cannot be achieved by entreating. If you supplicate, withdraw and show flexibility, arrogant powers will make their threat more serious.
So how can the United State negotiate with a leader who sees any form of compromise as a capitulation to a hostile power? Khamenei must be convinced that Washington is prepared to recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and must be disabused of his conviction that U.S. policy aims to bring about regime change, not negotiate behavior change. He will never agree to any arrangement in which Iran is expected to publicly retreat or admit defeat; nor can he be forced to compromise through pressure alone.
After three decades of being immersed in a death to America culture, it may not be possible for Khamenei to reorient himself at age 69. But if there’s one thing that is tried and true, it’s that an engagement approach toward Iran that aims to ignore, bypass or undermine Khamenei is guaranteed to fail.
If the initial basis for dialogue can be established, there’s reason to be hopeful. Behind the scenes, a sizeable portion of the Iran’s political and military elite recognizes that the death to America culture of 1979 is obsolete today. Together with the country’s disillusioned population, they know the country will never be able to fulfill its enormous potential as long as its relationship with the United States remains adversarial. Obama just needs to get through Khamenei to reach them.
As for winning over Rush Limbaugh listeners, he’s on his own.
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