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Thursday, February 15, 2007

who's running this thing?

Yesterday, February 14, Bush held a press conference at which he accused forces in Iran of sending weapons to Shia militants in Iraq. Unusually, he admitted not knowing who in Iran was responsible for the decision:
'What we do know is that the Quds force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. We know that. And we also know that the Quds force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds force to do what they did. But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know, and what matters is, is that they're there. What's worse, that the government knew or that the government didn't know?'
This is a rare admission of ignorance on Bush's part, but what could it mean? How could Iran be sending weapons to Iraq without knowing about it? Like the old saying about a stopped clock being right twice a day, I for once believe that Bush is right on both points. In order to understand how this can be and what it means, let's review what we know about Iran.

The Iranian Revolution that brought Ruhallah Khomeini, the famous ayatallah, to power in 1979 was a strange thing and the Islamic Republic that it founded remains equally strange. Let's think about that name for a second: Islamic Republic. There are many Islamic-majority states, like Turkey and Syria, that are governed as secular republics. Other states, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have Islamic polities, but they are run by hereditary emirs or kings, not republics. The Iranian Revolution did not create an emirate, let alone a caliphate which is a Salafist dream that Shias do not share. It led instead to an Islamic Republic. But what does that mean?

In practice, it means two things. One is that Iran holds fair democractic elections for executive and legislative offices. Elections there are 'fair', meaning that the votes are accurately counted, but they cannot be called 'free' since only candidates approved by religious authorities can stand for office.

Which brings us to the second feature: the Islamic Republic of Iran is ruled by both political and religious authorities, currently President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. These dual authorities are not always in accord with each other, and competition occurs between them. U.S. intelligence agencies are often unsure as to who decides what in Iran, and Iranians themselves don't necessarily know either. In a scenario like that, whom are the Iranian intelligence agencies and elite units likelier to follow: the elected president or the religious ruler? No one can say for sure, and therein lies Bush's uncertainty.

So we don't necessarily know who, but we can say quite a bit about why. Reader, the answers may surprise you. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for part two , entitled 'Ayatallah Guevara'.

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