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Tehran's Domestic Discontents

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
October 20, 2011
International Herald Tribune


Iran's response to Washington's accusations that Tehran was involved in a bizarre assassination plot on U.S. soil discloses more about the Islamic Republic than its maladroit penchant toward violence. The reaction of Iran's opposition as well as its establishment figures suggests a more tenuous relationship between the Islamist regime and Iranian nationalism than generally thought.

It has long been widely assumed that many Iranians, faced with foreign condemnation and escalating pressure, would rally around the flag. Yet they have not. The rupture between the regime and its people seems so fundamental that not even impudent accusations from abroad can be turned to the leadership's advantage.

All this casts the regime's quest for nuclear weapons in a different light. The Islamic Republic desires the bomb not so much to revive nationalist élan but to sustain its power by coercing concessions from the international community.

The reaction of Iran's elites to the latest accusations must distress the guardians of the revolution. In a pointed rebuke to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President Mohammad Khatami warned against conduct that could jeopardize Iran's security and territorial integrity. The prominent activist Abbas Abdi also declared that “even if this is a fabrication, we should not ignore the consequences.” In an even more expansive indictment, Ali Younesi, a former minister of intelligence who is a respected national figure, warned that Iran “must avoid policies that produce enemies and harsh rhetoric, for they do not serve our national interests.” The more muted popular reaction similarly suggests that the regime cannot rely on external enemies to burnish its tarnished national standing.

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