06.22.09

The Crisis in Iran Is Just Beginning

Gary Sick, the key White House official during the 1979 hostage crisis, says this revolution may be more of a marathon than a sprint, with no clear winner or loser. The watchwords for Obama: Do no harm.

As I set forth on a long vacation trip, here are a few observations about the situation in Iran based on my own experience of watching the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis from the White House 30 years ago.

Don’t expect that this will be resolved cleanly with a win or loss in short period of time. The Iranian revolution, which is usually regarded as one of the most accelerated overthrows of a well-entrenched power structure in history, started in about January 1978, and the shah departed in January 1979. During that period, there were long pauses and periods of quiescence that could lead one to believe that the revolt had subsided. This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed.

The Iranians prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face.

There may not be a clear winner or loser. Iranians are clever and wily politicians. They prefer chess to football, and a “win” may involve a negotiated solution in which everyone saves face. The current leadership has chosen, probably unwisely, to make this a test of strength, but if they conclude that it is a no-win situation, they could settle for a compromise. The shape of a compromise is impossible to guess at this point, but it would probably involve significant concessions concealed behind a great public show of unity.

Leadership is the key. Ayatollah Khamenei, the rahbar or leader, has chosen—again probably unwisely—to get out in front as the spokesman of the regime. Unlike his predecessor, the father of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, he has openly taken sides with one faction over another. He is clearly speaking for the ultraconservative leaders of the Revolutionary Guards and their equally reactionary clerical supporters, who fear any possible threat to their dominant power. Curiously, President Ahmadinejad has largely vanished from sight, which adds to the impression that he is more of a pawn than a prime mover in this affair.

On the other side is Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the erstwhile colleague and now principal antagonist of the rahbar. He has chosen, as he usually does, to stay behind the scenes as a master strategist, leaving the public field to Mir Hossein Mousavi and the other disappointed candidates and their followers.

The irony of two former colleagues now competing for power over the expiring corpse of the Islamic republic that they created with such grandiose expectations is lost on no one. The important subtext, however, is that these two understand very well what they are doing. They know how a revolt can be turned into a revolution. They also know they have everything to lose. The shared consciousness of high stakes has until now prevented an all-out political confrontation between rival factions in the elite. That may help explain why the rahbar and the Revolutionary Guards were so reckless in their insolent contempt of the reformers and the public. They may have believed that no one would dare take it to this level.

Now that it has arrived at this point, both protagonists are faced with decisions of unprecedented gravity. There has been nothing like this in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic, and today there is no Khomeini father figure to moderate and mediate among the warring factions. They must improvise in conditions of severe uncertainty. If anyone tells you that they know how this will turn out, treat their words with the same regard you would have for any fortune teller peering into a crystal ball.

For the United States, the watchwords should be: Do no harm. The situation in Iran is being exploited for short-term domestic political purposes by those who have been looking for an opening to attack the Obama administration. Wouldn’t it feel good to give full-throated expression to American opposition to the existing power structure in Iran? Perhaps so—but it could also be a fatal blow to the demonstrators risking their lives on the streets of Tehran and it could scotch any chance of eventual negotiations with whatever government emerges from this trial by fire.

The crisis in Iran is an Iranian crisis and it can only be resolved by the Iranian people and their leaders. There is no need to conceal our belief in freedom of speech and assembly and our support for the resolution of political disputes without bloodshed. But we should not be stampeded by domestic political concerns into pretending that our intervention in this crisis could be anything but pernicious.

Can President Obama play chess as well as he plays basketball?

Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations. Mr. Sick has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, where he is senior research scholar, adjunct professor of international affairs and former director of the Middle East Institute (2000-2003).