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The Latest from Iran (17 December): An Uncertain Regime

MOHARRAM22145 GMT: Mowj-e-Sabz Suspends Publication. The editors and reporters of the Green Movement website Mowj-e-Sabz/Mowjcamp, a key source of information in the post-election crisis, have announced tonight that they are suspending the posting of articles.

The authors declare that this is the "end of a wave but the beginning of a path", as they "leave the arena temporarily to other Green [activists]". The announcement points to 22 Bahman (11 February), the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as a key date for mobilisation.

Overall impression? The Mowj-e-Sabz activists, having been under constant regime pressure and having had their domain "seized" by hackers (the announcement claims they were Russians hired by the regime) this week, are taking a step back and drawing breath. The impression is of an opposition movement preparing to move more slowly but consistently in a long-haul battle.

2130 GMT: Paying Respects. Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, have visited former Vice President and recently-released detainee Mohammad Ali Abtahi in his home.

2125 GMT: More than 900 Sharif University students have signed an open letter protesting the arrest of protesters on 16 Azar (7 December).

1920 GMT: Propaganda of the Day (2). Israeli officials are putting out the story that President Obama, on his trip to Beijing in November, "warned his Chinese counterpart that the United States would not be able to keep Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear installations for much longer". This "part of the U.S. attempt to convince the Chinese to support strict sanctions on Tehran" matches up with leaks to the US media from a faction (probably including Dennis Ross of the National Security Council) in the Obama Administration --- which we noted --- that Israel would send the missiles into Iran if nothing was done about Tehran's nuclear program.

NEW Iran Analysis: The Regime’s Sword Wavers
NEW Latest Iran Video: Interview of the “Basij Member” on the Election and Abuses (16 December)
NEW Iran & The Arrest of Majid Tavakoli: “To Men Who Are Not Ashamed of Being a Woman” (Shirin Ebadi)
NEW Latest Iran Video: The Larijani Threat to Arrest Green Leaders (16 December)
Iran Document: The Rafsanjani Speech in Mashhad (6 December)
Iran: Why the US Sanctions Game on Tehran is All Wrong
Iran Picture of the Day: Mohammad Khatami’s Cellphone
Iran: A Beginner’s Guide to Moharram
The Latest on Iran (16 December): What’s Next?

The bigger story, however, lies beyond the spin. The Israeli officials added that the effect on Beijing was short-lived: "the Americans now understand that the Chinese agreed to join the condemnation announcement [at the International Atomic Energy Agency] only because Obama made a personal request to [Chinese leader Hu Jintao], not as part of a policy change". They noted that China has "refused a Saudi-American initiative designed to end Chinese dependence on Iranian oil".

If true, that means --- for all the bluster of the pro-sanctions crowd in Washington in conjunction with the Israelis --- any notion of economic punishment including the Chinese is a fantasy.

1900 GMT: Propaganda of the Day (1): On his "Go-Away-and-Play-While-The-Adults-Deal-with-the-Political-Crisis" trip in Copenhagen, President Ahmadinejad "has described capitalism and materialism as root causes for the world's environment crisis".

I don't want to be snippy, Mahmoud, but have you been in Tehran on a hot summer day when there's no wind coming off the mountain?

1715 GMT: The New Green Website. Repeating the important news yesterday: the Green Movement website Mowj-e-Sabz/Mowjcamp can now be accessed at

1700 GMT: For What It's Worth "Do Nothing". I've had problems with Roger Cohen's treatment of Iran in recent months, in particular his dismissal of the role new media/social media inside and outside the country in this political contest, but today I find myself on his side:

All this [history of Iran's nuclear programme] says — nay, screams — to me: Do nothing. It is President Barack Obama’s outreach that has unsettled a regime that found American axis-of-evil rhetoric easy to exploit. After struggling, Obama has also found his sweet spot in combining that détente with quiet support for universal rights....

[The protesters'] cause would be best upheld by stopping the march toward “crippling” sanctions on Iran....As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University has written, “the United States is empowering the dissenters with its silence.”...Obama, himself of hybrid identity, must show his understanding of this historic urge by doing nothing. That will allow the Iranian political clock to tick faster still.

(For what it's worth, my comment to a reader yesterday, "My own preference has been to put the nuclear issue to the side and suspend discussions while Iran’s internal situation is in flux. That approach brings its own issues and difficulties — how to hold back Israel, for example — but I think it’s a more effective denial of legitimacy to Ahmadinejad and Co. than the questionable stick of sanctions.")

1330 GMT: The Latest on the Marches. Still confusion and uncertainty over whether the opposition will protest tomorrow. Some Iranian websites are reporting that the Green Movement will NOT demonstrate. The latest from Mir Hossein Mousavi is that he, Mehdi Karroubi, and the Association of Combatant Clergy are still waiting for a decision on their separate requests for permits.

1140 GMT: Out-of-Date News: Mehr News' English-language website just posted this news of reconciliation:
A senior lawmaker announced on Monday that two groups -- a six-person group from the Expediency Council and an eight-member group from somewhere else -- have started efforts to broker unity among principlists and reformists. [Deputy Speaker of Parliament] Mohammad Reza Bahonar also blasted harsh criticism against Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani....Bahonar who is also the secretary general of the Islamic Association of Engineers praised Rafsanjani’s efforts for national unity....Bahonar also said opposition groups in the country must have media to express their views.

So a prospect of reconcilation, then? Not quite: Bahonar said this "on Monday", before the latest regime assaults against Rafsanjani.

What say you now, Mr Bahonar?

1015 GMT: Abuses, Threats, and the Tribute to Majid Tavakoli. We've posted three important entries: 1) a video of the speech by Sadegh Larijani (see separate analysis) threatening arrest of opposition leaders; 2) an article by Shirin Ebadi on the "We All Wear Hejab" response to the arrest of Majid Tavakoli; and 3) the video of the interview by Britain's Channel 4 of the purported Basiji militiaman.

(Note: the Larijani video is not on our lead page because the audio automatically loads when a reader scrolls.)

0920 GMT: Shutting Down Ayatollah Dastgheib. The lecture hall of Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib in Shiraz, "The Cradle of Martyrs", has been shut down. The hall was the biggest one for the mourning ceremony of Imam Hussain during Moharram.

As Dastgheib has been a critic both of the Government and of the Supreme Leader since June, speculation is that the closure is to prevent opposition protest.

0915 GMT: Clerical Boycott. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Khashani, a member of Guardian Council and the head of theological college of Shahid Motahhari, has refused to participate in the sessions of Association of Combatant Clergy as a protest against the association's failure to react against insults of clerics such as Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali-Akhbar Nategh-Nouri by some Presidential candidates (i.e., Mahmoud Ahmadinejad).

0905 GMT: Defending the Opposition. The audio of the speeches by reformist members of Parliament Mohammad Reza Tabesh and Nasrullah Torabi (see yesterday's updates and separate analysis), warning against regime intentions to arrest political figures in the Green movement, has been posted.

0855 GMT: The Verbal Sword-Fight. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the National Security Council, also spoke at the same conference of prosecutors addressed by Sadegh Lariajni with his "We Have the Evidence" declaration (see separate analysis). Jalili's talk was more the standard formula of legitimacy, followed by insinuation of foreign-directed opposition:
Enemies cannot deny the massive turnout and the tight internal political competition leading to the elections. Indeed the election was a turning point in the Islamic Republic’s history and underpinned our political credibility in the world....Regrettably some quarters are trying to change this turning point into an opportunity for themselves. This is a major act of injustice towards the Islamic Republic.

0755 GMT: The Basiji Confession? There is a lot of Internet chatter this morning about an interview by Britain's Channel 4 Television with a man claiming to be a former member of the Basij militia. The interview includes confirmation of the torture and rape of detainees and the assertion, "In truth the orders [to manipulate the Presidential vote] didn't come after the election. The orders for all that you witnessed came before the election."

0740 GMT: The Clerics-Rafsanjani Alliance? One announcement which may be of significance amidst our recent consideration of political plans and manoeuvres: Ayatollah Mousavi-Ardebili, a critic of the Ahmadinejad Government in the post-election crisis, is meeting former President Hashemi Rafsanjani this evening.

0735 GMT: We've started the morning with a special analysis, "The Regime's Sword Wavers", which summarises recent developments and looks forward to the start of Moharram tomorrow. Our conclusion? "A swinging sword does not necessarily find its target. And it does not necessarily bring legitimacy".

One note to add to that analysis: all of this turmoil occurs as President Ahmadinejad is far, far away in location at the Copenhagen summit. Is he also far, far away politically, a bystander as regime officials, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the Green opposition trade blows amidst increasingly hostile rhetoric?

The Latest on Iran (16 December): What's Next?

MOHARRAM31945 GMT: Khatami on Moharram. Illustrating the analysis in Mr Azadi's "Beginners Guide to Moharram", former President Mohammad Khatami put out a message linking the commemoration of the third Imam, Hussein, with today's challenge in Iran:
The Islamic society has one major goal and that is to reform the society contentiously; It could be either by reforming the government by establishing a suitable government or by reforming the way government rules and the methods it interacts with the society. Imam Hossein said that he did not fight to gain power but he did fight for reform in the Islamic society….Before the revolution the goal of the reform was to establish a new government but now that the Islamic Republic is established, reform must continue to strengthen it.

NEW Iran Document: The Rafsanjani Speech in Mashhad (6 December)
NEW Iran: Why the US Sanctions Game on Tehran is All Wrong
NEW Iran Picture of the Day: Mohammad Khatami’s Cellphone
Iran: A Beginner’s Guide to Moharram
Latest Iran Video: The University Protests (15 December)
Iran: US State Department Pushes for “Proper” Sanctions in 2010
UPDATED “Where is My Vote?” (Part 2): TIME Snubs Green Movement as “Person of the Year”
The Latest on Iran (16 December): What’s Next?

1900 GMT: So Is Raf Ready for the Fight? He's sure talking like it. Following his advice to Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, "Get Help" (1730 GMT), he's taken on other critics: "Some people make their reputation by slandering others and the appropriate response to such people is silence."

Rafsanjani advised regime officials to strengthen “society’s trust” in the system by executing the provisions of the constitution and respecting peoples' rights. No amount of Government restrictions could prevent the legitimate demands of the Iranian population: “With the dismantling of media monopolies, today’s generation are well-informed and they’ll only be more so in the future.”

1730 GMT: Karroubi and Rafsanjani Smack Down Yazdi, Part 2 (see 0740 GMT). Payvand has an English translation of Mehdi Karroubi's verbal demolition of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the Ahmadinejad ally who threatened him with punishment over claims of detainee abuse:

Regarding your remark and your concern about me being a "joke", I should remind you that those who are briefing you, are telling you jokes; that's why you have this illusion that the political turmoil and the critical situation of the society is like a joke!...I remind you that what I do and will do is based on my belief and duty in defending the rights of each and every citizen, and this for me is the main goal and responsibility.

If you use clear and free sources, you will see that wherever Mehdi Karroubi joined the people, they received him with kindness. Unlike some, his popularity did not diminish with time, but with the kindness of the people --- despite all the limitations and closing down my newspaper and offices --- I am blessed with their support every day.

If you don't agree with the views of someone, why don't you act according to the law? Why do you deal with it by hiring a number of thugs and causing trouble in the neighbourhood in the middle of the night? Is this what you are proudly talking about that if Karoubi did not have bodyguards what you could have done to him? Is this what you promised people at the beginning of the revolution? What has happened to your dignity as a member of the Guardian Council?!

Karroubi, after expressing concern's for Yazdi's "age and illness" ("I hope you get better soon"), "pointed out the financial interests that Ayatollah Yazdi and his son have in the country and the incidents that has shown his incompetence as a former head of the judiciary; he then asked him to resign from his public posts as a member of the Guardian Council and a member of the Assembly of Experts so that he won't make more mistakes either for his own gain or due to wrong information".

Meanwhile, Rafsanjani had a succinct suggestion for Yazdi, who argued that Rafsanjani's family members should be tried for activities surrounding the Presidential election, "Get Help":
For many years my response to Ayatollah Yazdi has been greetings and wishing him health. If some think that by intimidation and bullying they can solve the problems they are making a mistake and even if they can solve the problems temporarily but after a short while those problems will return in greater extent than before.

1628 GMT: Tearing Down Internet Walls. The US State Department has notified Congress that is waiving the threat of sanctions on US companies that provide anti-censorship software:
The Department of State is recommending that the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issue a general license that would authorize downloads of free mass market software by companies such as Microsoft and Google to Iran necessary for the exchange of personal communications and/or sharing of information over the internet such as instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking. This software is necessary to foster and support the free flow of information to individual Iranian citizens and is therefore essential to the national interest of the United States.

1617 GMT: Lemming Mediawatch Alert. Forgive me for being cranky, but we've been immersed for a few hours in an intense period of political activity inside Iran --- an episode which could lead to a breaking-point conflict between the regime and figures like Hashemi Rafsanjani --- and the "Western" media are still fluttering about the Iranian missile test from this morning, which frankly doesn't mean that much. (Really.) So --- CNN, Los Angeles Times, Washington PostNew York Times --- you're on notice.

(Credit to Reuters, which has picked up on the threat of the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, that there is "enough evidence" to try opposition leaders --- see 1125 GMT.)

1614 GMT: What's the Fuss About Rafsanjani About? Have a look --- we've posted a second English summary of his 6 December speech in Mashhad, together with background on his "unity" strategy and a link to the first summary of the speech.

1610 GMT: Peyke Iran have published an updated list of people detained in 16 Azar (7 December) protests.

1538 GMT: Accessing Mowjcamp. The Green Movement website, which was hacked earlier today (0725 GMT), can now be accessed via an alternative Internet address.

1530 GMT: Mortazavi's Back. Amidst the rhetorical drama of today, an announcment which is relatively low-profile. It is confirmed that former Tehran Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi, who has led the legal crackdown on post-election protests but had been rumoured to have fallen out of favour in Tehran, is now back in the Presidential fold. He has been appointed as Ahmadinejad's special representative to combat smuggling of goods and currency.

1525 GMT: And Now from the Reformist Side. The regime makes its threat, and reformist MPs hit back. Darius Ghanbari has warned that pro-Government "extremists" want to put millions in Iran's jails.

1510 GMT: More on Regime v. Rafsanjani. Yep, as we noted below (1440 GMT), it is Rafsanjani's Mashaad speech that has lit the fire under the Government. The Governor of Tehran Province, Morteza Tamedon, admitted as much with his own challenge to the former President: the recent remarks had put the "wood" on the "fire" of the post-election conflict.

1455 GMT: The Green Counter-Attack. Alireza Beheshti, the chief advisor to Mir Hossein Mousavi, has said in an interview that it is curious how the Iranian regime leaves no time and space to "replace their lies about imperialism". In a direct rebuke to the Supreme Leader's representative to the Revolutionary Guard, Mojtaba Zolnour, who called yesterday for the arrests of opposition figures, Beheshti said that the lies were being spread to destroy the leaders of the Green Wave.

Beheshti's statement is also an implicit attack on the Supreme Leader's continuing focus on the evils of the US and Israel, including their attempts to use the opposition for regime change in Iran.

Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife, has also intervened against the regime's criticisms on the "burning of Khomeini" incident, arguing that the Green Movement is a result of the ideals and approach of the Imam.

1440 GMT: Urgent --- The Attack on Rafsanjani. This can now be classified as an all-out assault, short of arrest, on former President Hashemi Rafsanjani to shut him up and block any manoeuvres against the Government.

We have more details of Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi's attack (see 1125 GMT), made in a meeting with the leaders of Tehran's mosques, military representatives, and officials. Moslehi, in a conference about the post-election crisis, emphasised that meetings had been held in Britain before the 12 June Presidential vote to stir up trouble against the Ahmadinejad Government and the Islamic Republic.

Moslehi claimed that Rafsanjani and an unnamed leader of the Green movement had sent emissaries to these meetings. He also noted that Rafsanjani's son Mehdi Hashemi is now in Britain, where he has spent most of his time since June amidst allegations that he has been involved in illegal activity surrounding the election.

The specific naming of Rafsanjani, rather than a figure such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, indicates that the Government has specifically targeted him as a threat who must now be removed amidst the continuing protests and calls for "unity" to remedy post-election problems and injustices. The move is probably linked to Rafsanjani's recent speech in Mashhad, which we covered extensively on Enduring America two weeks ago.

1235 GMT: Defending Opposition Leaders. With the regime stepping up its verbal attacks on the opposition, two reformist members of Parliament, Mohamad Tabesh (the nephew of Mohammad Khatami) and Nasrullah Torabi, have defended the movement's top political figures. Torabi said that, if the regime tried Mousavi-Karroubi-Khatami on charges, they "should try the history of the Islamic Revolution", given the important role that the three men had played in that revolution since 1979.

1230 GMT: March Manoeuvres. With Mir Hossein Mousavi's petition, submitted with Mehdi Karroubi, for a march protesting the attacks on Imam Khomeini, likely to be rejected, his supporters have  a new approach this morning: a letter calling on the Green movement to join the already-authorised marches after Friday Prayers.

1125 GMT: A Renewed Threat of Arrests? EA correspondent Mr Azadi brings us a rush of stories and invites us to connect the dots:

1. Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi has launched a new attack on the family of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. In a speech on the "intrigues" of those who wanted to undermine the Islamic Republic, Moslehi specifically mentioned the "children of Rafsanjani". The assault is now the lead story on the Islamic Republic News Agency website.

2. The previous IRNA lead story: Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, has called the opposition "un-Islamic" and opposed to Iran's Revolution and the ideals of Imam Khomeini.

3. Perhaps most ominously, the head of Iran's judiciary, Sadegh Larijani --- only days after meeting with President Ahmadinejad -- has said that his offices have "enough evidence" to bring opposition leaders to trial. He specifically indicated that Mehdi Karroubi may be prosecuted over false allegations of the rapes of post-election detainees, and he added that Mir Hossein Mousavi's statements of the last month are similar to those of the "terrorist" Mujahedin-e-Khalq in the early years of the Islamic Revolution.

0955 GMT: Sanctions Folly, Khatami Fun. We've got two new entries: a story from Gary Sick about a US simulation pointing out the weaknesses in American strategy on Iran and a Picture of the Day of Mohammad Khatami's cellphone.

We also have an update on the Time "Person of the Year" story.

0905 GMT: Lemming News. The BBC has joined the Iran missile story, although it at least puts in a caveat before getting panicky: "Correspondents say it is not the first time this missile has been tested, but it is likely to provoke condemnation from the West as a provocative act." (Al Jazeera English has the story, but without the tagline promoting how the "West" will respond.)

CNN is promising on Twitter, "More on", but the folks on their website don't seem to have gotten the message yet.

0755 GMT: The "We're Tough-You're Scary-Stop the Presses" Roadshow. And here's one that may keep the media diverted from other issues today. The Iranian military is declaring that it "has successfully tested an optimized version of the solid-fuel Sejjil-2 deterrent missile as part of its long-term plans to defend the country's borders". Look for "Western" media to seize on this as more evidence of Iran's offensive intentions, linking it to the nuclear issue.

(Well done, Sky News, for making my prediction come true within two minutes of posting: "The move is likely to increase tensions with the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions." Two minutes, it's MSNBC from the US with "an announcement likely to add to tension with the West".)

0753 GMT: The Sanctions Cycle. Well, here's a surprise on all fronts: US House of Representatives, the lower house of Congress, passes bill for sanctions on foreign companies supplying gas and petroleum to Iran; Iranian official declares, "They cannot succeed...."

The question beyond the posturing is whether the Congress rams through the measures despite opposition from the US State Department, which fears that the bill in current form could alienate American allies.

0750 GMT: Mahmoud Gives Danish TV a Slap. Hundreds of miles away from the main action, President Ahmadinejad can strike a tough pose. In an interview with Danish television, Ahmadinejad, was asked, "Would you like a nuclear bomb?" He offered the response that nuclear bombs were a bad thing which brought the journalist's follow-up, "So you can say to me, the whole world and all viewers in Denmark and Europe that you will never have a nuclear bomb?"

Oops, that crossed a line. The President replied, "I gave a clear answer to your question. I would like you to be aware of who you are talking to."

0740 GMT: Karroubi Gives Yazdi a Slap. An interview I wish was available in English: Mehdi Karroubi spoke on Tuesday about Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the Ahmadinejad ally and former head of judiciary who has been issuing threats of prosecution against opposition leaders and Hashemi Rafsanjani's family. Karroubi's message to Yazdi? Step down from your positions, do a bit of learning, and just get back to me.

0725 GMT: One success for the regime this morning: the key reformist website Mowjcamp has been hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army.

0715 GMT: The feeling yesterday was of chesspieces being moved once again. Mir Hossein Mousavi put out a statement of encouragement to the students while he and Mehdi Karroubi waited for an answer on their petition for a march to promote the defacing of the image of Imam Khomeini. Their supporters also highlighted the latest declaration of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri supporting protest and denouncing the oppression of the regime.

On the Government side, officials such as the Governor of Tehran made noises about security being out in force to prevent the opposition spoiling the month of Moharram and the days of Tasua and Ashura (26-27 December). The Supreme Leader devoted himself, in a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, to the "Israel is very, very bad" theme. Notably, however, President Ahmadinejad is again removed from the scene, attending the climate change summit at Copenhagen.

News of university protests was concentrated on two campuses, Tehran Azad (where state media was also playing up a pro-Government rally, for which we have still seen no visual evidence) and the science and technology institution Elm-o-Sanat, with reports and footage of a rally at Razi University in Kermanshah. But here was the new twist: students were demonstrating at Qom University. That's Qom, as in the heart of the Tehran clerical system and establishment.

Iran: Why the US Sanctions Game on Tehran is All Wrong

IRAN NUKESGary Sick, an official in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan Administrations and now a professor at Columbia University, was a key participant earlier this month in a Harvard University simulation of US-Iran relations. His conclusion, published in The National: "Is the United States really going to proceed with Iran on the basis of a sanctions policy that has consistently failed? One hopes that the Obama administration can demonstrate more imagination and agility than its Harvard namesakes."

(David Ignatius also has a column on the event: "The simulated world of December 2010 looks ragged and dangerous. If the real players truly mean to contain Iran and stop it from getting the bomb, they need to avoid the snares that were so evident in the Harvard game."):

Can the United States forge a mutually constructive relationship with Iran? Can a global superpower find a way to persuade a recalcitrant and paranoid regional power to enter the community of nations as a responsible participant?

Iran: US State Department Pushes for “Proper” Sanctions in 2010
The Latest on Iran (16 December): What’s Next?

For 30 years, both America and Iran have answered those questions with a resounding no. The United States has historically taken a coercive approach, which has only driven Iran further into petulant isolation.

The Obama presidency promised a different strategy.

Rather than indulging in extravagant Axis-of-Evil invective, which even the outgoing Bush administration had come to regard as counter-productive, the United States would cool the rhetoric and extend a hand. That policy was only four months old in June, when Iran descended into its most excruciating domestic crisis since the civil war in the early 1980s. The resulting loss of legitimacy by the ruling elites and their utter preoccupation with their own survival meant that foreign policy decisions – always difficult at best – were now subject to a new set of internal dynamics and uncertainties.

Despite these new complications, Iran’s national security leadership accepted and even promoted an agreement with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) for a swap of nuclear material. Iran would relinquish a sizable proportion of its stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), which would be further enriched by Russia and then fashioned into fuel cells by France to supply the Tehran Research Reactor. Both sides regarded this as a win-win agreement and an important step towards further negotiations.

But the proposal met a chorus of disapproval from Iran’s parliament and even the “Green” opposition, who argued that Iran should not give up a “national asset” – the uranium – without absolute assurances that the P5+1 would fulfill their end of the bargain. Iran’s leaders were forced to propose an alternative arrangement: that the swap take place inside Iran.

At that point, the United States and its partners could have responded with a counter-offer that would, for example, sequester the Iranian LEU under strict safeguards until the replacement fuel cells were available, thus accomplishing most, if not all, of their original objectives. Instead, they ended all negotiations and introduced a sharply critical resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency board.

Iran predictably responded by declaring it would reduce its cooperation with the IAEA and, in a fit of blustery indignation, announcing a new plan to build 10 additional enrichment sites – a hollow threat since Iran lacked both the centrifuges and the necessary raw uranium fuel to carry it out.

Iran withdrew into its cocoon of haughty and pained victimization. The United States and its allies made a similar retreat to a posture of righteous indignation, the better to fashion “crippling” sanctions designed to force Iran to change its policies.

This sequence of events suggested that the future of interactions between the United States and Iran under Barack Obama might not look so different from his predecessors. A recent experience convinces me that such a conclusion may not be entirely fanciful.

Last week I participated in a simulation game at Harvard University’s Belfer Center focused on US-Iran relations. About half a dozen countries or entities (including the EU and the GCC) were represented by teams of participants, many of whom had long years of experience in regional politics. For my sins, I was made the head of the Iran team.

The goal of the American team was to assemble a consensus for new sanctions against Iran. The Iran team, on the other hand, felt confident that the US and its allies could not put together a package that would hurt us in any serious way, and that was indeed the case. By the end of the game, the Americans had driven away all their ostensible allies, and wasted immense time and effort, while Iran was better off than it had been at the beginning.

This was only a simulation, of course. But the moves of the US team were quite similar to the strategy actually employed by the United States over the course of the past three administrations. The pursuit of sanctions in this game, as in the real world, became an end in itself, with little impact on Iran or its ability to continue enrichment. The United States can (and in fact already has) put together a reasonable set of sanctions. These efforts may please the Israelis, the GCC states and other allies as a show of determination. But will they stop Iran?

Those of us on the Iran team scarcely paid any attention to all this massive US policy exertion. Admittedly, we felt lonely at times. But we never believed that our core objectives (freedom to proceed with our nuclear plans and our growing appetite for domestic political repression) were at risk – nor was the survival of our rather peculiar regime, which was of course our most immediate concern.

The offers made by the Iran team were modest in the extreme, yet they formed the basis of the final outcome. No other country had the courage or imagination to remind us of the earlier proposals and suggestions we had made, which were still on the table, nor did they try to sit us down and push us on our plans, or give us a juicy incentive that might have forced us to make real decisions. Also, no one attempted to broaden the discussion to other areas where the United States and Iran share some common interests and might have found common ground.

It was probably realistic that no one challenged Iran’s right to enrich. That has reluctantly been accepted as a fait accompli. But there was no effort to test Iran on safeguards, inspections or other arrangements that might provide reliable intelligence on Iranian activities; neither did any player propose restrictions on specific key elements of the Iranian nuclear program, which would lengthen the time required to break out into production of a nuclear device.

By the end of the game, Russia and China had initiated their own secret accommodation with Iran. That was an interesting development, but one that was by no means inevitable. It happened because of the single-minded pressure of the US team, who demanded support for a sanctions regime that was fundamentally contrary to Russian and Chinese interests.

Relations between the United States and Iran have always been more about domestic politics than foreign policy. That has never been truer than it is today.

For years, the United States attempted to isolate and contain Iran, without much success. Now Iran is isolating itself. A self-imposed “iron curtain” is descending around the country. Communications are subject to surveillance and punishment. Travel increasingly tends to be one way, as individuals decide to leave the country to “cool off” in the face of constant repression or simply to find decent jobs. “Commissars” are being placed in schools and universities to insure that teaching is in accordance with approved dogma according to the Revolutionary Guard. The basij, a popular paramilitary force, is increasingly being used for street enforcement, in place of the less-ideological police.

In the words of Charles Issawi, “Revolutions revolve – 360 degrees.” The leaders of the Iranian revolution are seemingly not content with merely imitating the tyrant that they so proudly overthrew 30 years ago. Instead they have gone even further, and now emulate the crude dictatorship of Saddam Hussein that is an insult to sophisticated Iranian culture. Iran is taking its place among those governments that are incompetent in all things except the repression of their own people.

The slow motion coup that is underway in Iran, with the Revolutionary Guard inserting itself into the very fabric of the state and economy, greatly complicates but does not prevent negotiation of important issues, including nuclear enrichment and human rights. Such an effort, however, requires patience and perseverance – qualities that come hard to American policy makers. Yet the United States negotiated a nuclear arms pact with the Soviet Union while also negotiating the Helsinki Accords, which gave birth to the modern human rights movement and empowered opponents of Soviet rule.

Is the United States really going to proceed with Iran on the basis of a sanctions policy that has consistently failed? One hopes that the Obama administration can demonstrate more imagination and agility than its Harvard namesakes.


The Latest from Iran (5 November): Fun with the Regime

ahmadinejad61910 GMT: Top Reformist Back in Jail. Behzad Nabavi, a senior member of the Mojahedin of Islamic Revolution party, has gone back to Evin Prison after a 10-day temporary release. Nabavi, who is appealing a six-year jail sentence, refused to renounce political activity and was thus denied freedom until his case was resolved. He has been seriously ill and was in hospital during his release.

1740 GMT: Confirming the Disruption. It's not surprising that the regime has moving to choke off Monday's demonstrations by cutting off Internet services today. It does take me aback that "sources" in the regime have confirmed "the decision of the authorities" (to expose the activities of the Government? to intimidate the opposition?).

1710 GMT: Arresting the Mothers of Martyrs. Regular EA readers may recall that each Saturday mothers of those killed and detained in post-election conflict, joined by sympathisers, march in Tehran's Laleh Park. We've been watching reports of clashes at today's demonstration but have not waited for confirmation before posting. This is the latest from a reliable Iranian activist:
Before 5 p.m. today unmarked vans parked along side all streets around Laleh Park with 3-4 agents inside. Around Abnama Square there were police cars...and unmarked vans with tinted windows. Five or six younger women were arrested and taken by the unmarked vans to an undisclosed location. Fifteen or sixteen other women were arrested. Also three men were arrested & taken away.

1405 GMT: Josh Shahryar's Green Brief 74, covering the last 24 hours of developments in Iran, is now out.

NEW Iran: Will Israel Get An International Embargo?
NEW Iran Document: Mehdi Karroubi on The Response to Extremism
Iran: Routes and Information for 16 Azar (7 December)
Iran’s Critical Moment: Two Days to Go
The Latest from Iran (4 December): The Weekend Before

1400 GMT: Disrupting 16 Azar. Activists report that the Internet, and services like Google Mail, are running very slowly inside Iran.

1120 GMT: Pick a Number, Any Number. Maybe the Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Akhbar Salehi, looked at the statements from other Iranian and US officials (see 0940 GMT) and thought that he should raise his game. So he has declared that even the 10 new enrichment plants declared by the Cabinet last week aren't enough: "To provide fuel for our nuclear power plants, we need to have 20 uranium enrichment plants."

0940 GMT: Nuclear Postures. Meanwhile, both Iran and the US are talking tough in the suspended nuclear engagement. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani continues to use the issue to boost his profile, telling reporters Friday night: "Why does the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) continue to make such a fuss over Iran's enrichment activities despite knowing its peaceful purposes? The answer is quite simple really; all they want and seek to do is to deceive Iran and force it to readily accept whatever offer they put forward."

In Washington, the faction of the Obama Administration that favours a move towards sanctions found their own willing reporters, saying that they would move in early January for a new round of United Nations sanctions. Significantly, the leaking official said that the package might not only consist of "smart" sanctions aimed at the Revolutionary Guard, but also restrictions on Iran's petroleum industry. At the same time, the official betrayed an Administration caught between those in Congress pressing for sweeping sanctions and the difficulties of getting other countries to agree: "We are looking to find what everyone can agree will be most effective and have the least impact on the Iranian people."

0855 GMT: We've posted the latest statement of Mehdi Karroubi, issued yesterday, calling for a response to extremism.

0645 GMT: A distinct feeling of lull before "How Big a Storm?". Preparations for the demonstrations of  16 Azar (7 December) continue to circulate, but there is little open movement coming out of the Iranian weekend.

For now the space is filled by tales of President Ahmadinejad and other regime actors, tales meant to be very, very serious but somehow prompting a smile. There was Ayatollah Jannati on Friday effectively admitting, even as the Tehran Revolutionary Guard commander was saying "Nothing to worry about here", that the Government was fretting about the numbers who might hit the streets on Monday. Make no mistake, Jannati warned, you are betraying Islam and working for the Americans --- even as only a few Americans inside and outside the Government were figuring out that something might be happening on Monday.

Then there was the President laying it down to the West/Israel:

Despite pressure, sanctions and threats, Iran is…quiet, victorious and dear. All thought that pressure of bullying powers will lead to the defeat of the Iranian nation. During the post-election events, certain powers unanimously claimed that they can extract concessions from Iranians.

However, the Iranian nation proved that, in reality, enemies can do nothing....If the Zionist regime and its masters join forces, still they cannot do a damn thing....Even if bullying powers stay in the region for another 50 years, they will have no option but to leave the region with humiliation and in vain.

It is obvious that Ahmadinejad is going out of his way to make no reference whatsoever to the opposition within, as opposed to outside, his country. Still the temptation grows, just like when you're watching a horror film or a British pantomime, to shout out, "Mr President, Look Behind You".

Maybe the best tale moving around the Internet, however, concerns Ahmadinejad's speech earlier this week in Isfahan. Even though the crowd was smaller than expected, the President apparently laid it on thick about his valiant defense against the enemy of Washington. He even revealed the true intention of US foreign policy for the last 30 years.

Let it be known that, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, the US Government has been dedicated to preventing the return of the 12th Imam of Shi'a Islam.