Monday, January 14, 2008

Was the NIE report a brilliant piece of misinformation?

A report in the IHT last week brings up an interesting consequence of the NIE report:
A rift is emerging between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggesting that the president no longer enjoys the full backing of Khamenei, as he did in the years after his election in 2005.

In the past, when Ahmadinejad was attacked by political opponents, the criticisms were usually silenced by Khamenei, who has the final word on state matters and who regularly endorsed the president in public speeches. But that public support has been conspicuously absent in recent months.

There are numerous possible reasons for Ahmadinejad's loss of support, but analysts here all point to one overriding factor: the U.S. National Intelligence Report last month, which said that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure. The report sharply decreased the threat of a military strike against Iran, allowing the authorities to focus on domestic issues, with important parliamentary elections looming in March.

"Now that Iran is not under the threat of a military attack, all contradictions within the establishment are surfacing," said Saeed Leylaz, an economic and political analyst. "The biggest mistake that Americans have constantly made toward Iran was adopting radical approaches, which provided the ground for radicals in the country to take control."

While the pressure was on, the leadership was reluctant to let any internal disagreements show. Senior officials, including Khamenei, constantly called for unity and warned that the enemy, a common reference to the United States, could take advantage of such differences.

The Iranian presidency is a largely ceremonial post. But Ahmadinejad used the office as a bully pulpit, espousing an economic populism that built a strong following among the middle and lower classes and made him a political force to be reckoned with. That popularity won him the strong backing of the supreme leader.

But the relationship began to sour even before the National Intelligence Report was released. A source close to Khamenei, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said Khamenei had been especially disappointed by Ahmadinejad's economic performance, which had led to steep inflation in basic necessities, from food to property values.

"Mr. Khamenei supported Mr. Ahmadinejad because he believed in his slogans of helping the poor," the source said. "But his economic performance has been disastrous. Their honeymoon is certainly over."

Economists have long criticized Ahmadinejad's economic policies, warning that his reliance on oil revenues to finance loans to the poor and to buy cheap imports would lead to inflation and cripple local industries. Inflation has risen from 12 percent in October 2006 to 19 percent this year, according to figures released by the Iranian Central Bank.
The rift between Khameni and Ahmadinejad has been obvious for months and the external threat was the major factor keeping it from becoming blatant. Bush couldn't backtrack on his approach to Iran without raising eyebrows, but the NIE was a neat way to get the US to back off on pressuring Iran - the press seized on the document, misinterpreting it to be far more damning to the Bush administration than it really is.

The idea of backing off from a belligerent tone with Iran for the purpose of weakening it was raised in another IHT article by academic Roger Stern:

Tehran seems unimpressed by administration war talk, perhaps because it has confidence in its navy. Lots of other people are scared, though. Take oil traders. Oil prices used to have a tight relationship with Saudi spare capacity. When capacity went up, prices went down. After two years of escalating threats between Tehran and Washington, however, new capacity no longer calms the market.

Under the old market rules, prices would be $50, not $100. So war talk sends an extra $20 billion a year to Tehran. The Bush administration's bellicose rhetoric thus makes a mockery of the president's pledge to "do everything in our power to defeat the terrorists."

If it wanted to honor this commitment, the administration would stop saying things that drive up oil prices. As it is, the long parade of threats just makes the mullahs richer.

Yet they spend their $90 a barrel windfall faster than ever, trying to buy legitimacy with pork. Deeply unpopular, the Iranian regime now relies on constantly rising oil prices for survival.

Its spending has quadrupled in the last six years, a remarkable rise that's evolved in lockstep with oil prices. Here, at last, is our adversary's weakness: An oil price decline would be a mortal threat.

If Bush wants to hit the regime where it hurts, conciliation should become his byword. In the price collapse that would follow, he'd find a brand new Iranian appetite for negotiation.

This is because, unlike sanctions that might take years bite, a peace initiative would threaten the mullahs tomorrow. Talking peace, which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will certainly scorn, would also help reformers in the approaching Iranian elections.

So before the president begins another war whose risks may be greater than he thinks, General Van Riper should be heard. And if the president really wants to regime change, he should talk peace, now.

He doesn't even have to mean it. At today's oil prices, just the threat of peace will do.

It is somewhat possible, although I wouldn't judge it as likely, that the Bush administration was one step ahead of this analysis, using the NIE report as a backhanded way to cool things off. Bush will still be quoted as being intransigent and as disavowing the NIE memo, but all the while wheels are in motion that could hurt Iran economically far more and far faster than any sanctions can.

Of course, oil price have risen since the NIE report, not dropped, so this wishful thinking is somewhat lacking. But there still may be more behind the scenes than is being "leaked."