Iran gloats, America plots, but even a nuclear deal will not tame Tehran. Source: The Guardian (Simon Tisdall)

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Iran gloats, America plots, but even a nuclear deal will not tame Tehran

Simon Tisdall

Simon Tisdall

As Khamenei crows over Rushdie, Biden seeks a revived pact. But make no mistake: this poisonous regime will always need its Great Satan

Iranians walk past a billboard bearing the portraits of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, left, and his late predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini

Iranians walk past a billboard bearing the portraits of supreme leader Ali Khamenei, left, and his late predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty ImagesSun 21 Aug 2022 08.00 BSTLast modified on Sun 21 Aug 2022 13.22 BST

If any one man is to blame for gleeful Iranian crowing over the attack on Salman Rushdie, it is the country’s 83-year-old supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The black-turbaned ayatollah’s bigoted, blinkered outlook has been poisoning the well of Iranian politics and society since he first took power in 1989.

Kayhan newspaper, known as Khamenei’s mouthpiece, praised Rushdie’s assailant, saying “his hands should be showered with kisses”. A jubilant headline declared: “Devil’s neck under the sword”. While Iran denies responsibility for the attack, Khamenei has repeatedly endorsed the late Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa ordering Rushdie’s murder.

Such callous gloating reveals a country whose leadership has wholly lost its way, the promise of the 1979 revolution despoiled by a ruling elite’s reactionary and avaricious incompetence. The question now, as the US and Europe contemplate a revived nuclear deal with Tehran and an end to sanctions, is can this rotten regime be trusted to keep its word?

Khamenei’s harshly anti-western, anti-American stance, rooted in questionable theology (scholars dispute his religious credentials), deep paranoia and profound personal ignorance of the world, is Tehran’s dominant political brand. No matter, apparently, that it impoverishes and isolates Iranians while endangering their neighbours.

After last year’s rigged presidential election, won on a record low turnout by Khamenei’s hardline stooge Ebrahim Raisi, lingering hopes of reform evaporated. Internal repression is terrifying. Political dissidents, women’s rights activists, ethnic minorities, dual nationals and Bahá’ís are persecuted mercilessly.

Iran’s economy, plagued by endemic corruption and sanctions, is in a shocking state. While oil and gas export earnings have risen, officials, clergy and other groups linked to the regime, such as the Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia, are the main beneficiaries. It’s a mullah’s version of trickle-down economics, without the trickle.

Year-on-year inflation reached 52.5% in June. Reduced food subsidies are hurting badly. At least 30% of Iranians live below the official poverty line. Strikes are commonplace. But few have forgotten 2019’s nationwide “Bloody November” anti-regime protests, when many hundreds were gunned down. Only 28% think Raisi does a good job.

“The policies that … Khamenei has championed for three decades have pushed Iran to the brink of total economic and ecological collapse and, despite staging brutal crackdowns, the country is wallowing in social unrest … By celebrating the assault on Rushdie, the clerical establishment seems to be saving face at home,” commentator Sayeh Isfahani wrote.

China is Iran’s biggest energy customer, with Beijing now importing more oil than before US sanctions were imposed. The two countries are also pursuing “strategic defence cooperation” after Raisi told visiting Chinese officials that Iran sought a united front against the west. Like Russia, China has taken Iran’s side on disputed UN nuclear inspections.

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Donald Trump’s idiotic decision to trash the 2015 nuclear pact led, predictably, to a rapid acceleration in Iran’s programme. It now says it can build a bomb within months but has no plans to do so. Short of time, the Biden administration may soon agree a revised pact – yet deal or no deal, the regime’s behaviour seems unlikely to alter radically.

There’s little sign, for example, of a reining-in of its regional ambitions. Khamenei personally commands the Quds Force, Iran’s extraterritorial military arm, which operates via proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine. Israel’s hopes that, through currying favour with Putin by soft-pedalling over Ukraine, it could shatter the Russia-Iran axis in Syria have been dashed.

Most disruptive right now is the huge instability rocking Iraq, caused by rivalry between Tehran-backed Shia parties and militias and the popular, anti-Iranian, anti-American nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Iran’s self-interested attempts to mediate have got nowhere.

Israeli leaders are sceptical that so malign and shambolic an adversary will stick to any nuclear agreement. Israel opposes a new deal and warns of military action at any time. If its rightwing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu regains power in elections this autumn, fears of direct confrontation will increase.

Analysts in Israel question US president Joe Biden’s motives. Is he too keen to score a big foreign policy success before November’s midterm elections? Is it all about confounding Trump? Haaretz’s Amos Harel wondered why the US is ignoring what he termed recent Iranian aggression.

  • “Just this last week, a Revolutionary Guards conspiracy to assassinate two very senior Trump administration officials, former national security adviser John Bolton and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, was exposed,” Harel noted. Then came the Rushdie horror and the Iranian media’s macabre triumphalism.
  • Americans, too, should be deeply suspicious of Tehran’s intentions, suggested Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour – because Khamenei’s grip on power, and that of the illegitimate elite surrounding him, pivots on unceasing confrontation with the Great Satan. US-Iran normalisation could prove deeply destabilising to a theocratic government whose organising principle has been premised on fighting American imperialism,” Sadjadpour wrote. Iran’s leaders, he argued, couldn’t change even if they wanted to. “Even if the nuclear deal is revived, Tehran’s worldview will endure.”

It’s plain Khamenei needs the American enemy. But is the converse also true? For the Republican right, Iran has long been a useful bogeyman to frighten the voters, corral Gulf Arab allies and rally support for Israel. So can Iran trust the US to honour the terms of any reworked nuclear pact?

Whatever the White House says now, it’s by no means certain Biden’s eventual successor will do so.

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