Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad aren’t the only people who have staked their reputations on Iran’s disputed presidential election results. In a TV interview, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah described the Iranian elections as a mass endorsement by the Iranian people of their country’s system of Velayat-e Faqih — or “guardianship by Islamic jurist” — in which the state is guided by a clerical “supreme leader.”
On the surface, it may seem that the leader of Hezbollah was simply using the opportunity to pay homage to Khamenei, who has been a dedicated supporter of the Lebanese Shiite militant group. But as much as Hezbollah relies on Khamenei’s patronage, its investment in Iran’s Velayat-e Faqih system goes much deeper. And the upheaval in Iran, irrespective of its outcome, spells trouble for Nasrallah and Hezbollah.
For years, Hezbollah’s leaders and rank-and-file members alike have looked to Iran’s supreme leaders as their Marjae Taghlid — their sources of emulation. Both Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have been seen by Hezbollah as the Shiite equivalent of the pope. Hezbollah could point to Iran’s relative domestic stability to back its claims that the Iranian system provides a genuine model of Islamic governance for Shiites, one that should be emulated by its own followers in Lebanon.
The recent mass demonstrations in Iran, however, have highlighted the less appealing side of this system. Suddenly, the Iranian system doesn’t seem as if it’s so popular among the people of Iran, let alone something that should be adopted by Shiites abroad. Hezbollah’s Lebanese foes and competitors will undoubtedly use the unrest in Iran as a tool to attack the Shiite group’s model of religious governance. Coming on the heels of Hezbollah’s recent loss in the Lebanese elections, the turmoil in Iran is a particularly heavy blow.
And things could get even worse for Hezbollah, as well as for the Palestinian Hamas movement, should Iran’s reformists end up gaining the upper hand. In immediately and enthusiastically embracing the falsified results showing Ahmadinejad to have handily won reelection, Hezbollah and Hamas likely have tarnished their image among backers of Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the broader Iranian public.
Yet a rift between Hezbollah and Hamas on the one hand and Iran’s reformists on the other was not preordained. Indeed, some Iranian reformers have been influential backers of these groups. For instance, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, a key reformist figure, is credited with establishing Hezbollah in the early 1980s, while serving as Iran’s ambassador to Syria. He has been a staunch supporter of both Hezbollah and Hamas. Given what has transpired since the election, however, he would likely have a much more difficult time lobbying his fellow reformists on Hezbollah’s behalf, assuming he were still inclined to do so.
But while the protests in Iran over the election are bad news for Israel’s enemies, some Israelis don’t seem to have noticed. Instead, key Israeli officials — much like the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah — persist in seeing Ahmadinejad as an asset, albeit for different reasons.
The logic behind their thinking is that Ahmadinejad, with his reckless rhetoric, has single-handedly raised the level of international alarm over the Iranian nuclear program. Therefore, they figure, it is better to have him than a smiling Mousavi, who would undo years of Israeli efforts to paint Iran’s nuclear program and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas as dangers to the region. This sort of thinking may explain why Mossad chief Meir Dagan, in a recent briefing at the Knesset, said that Mousavi would be no different than Ahmadinejad, stressing that, despite Mousavi’s reformist outlook, he has been a staunch supporter of Hezbollah and of Iran’s nuclear program.
Such a view of Mousavi would have been understandable prior to the elections. In the current atmosphere, though, it is a major mistake to say that he is no different than Ahmadinejad. Hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities prove that he is not. Yes, Mousavi did support Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclear program. But Mikhail Gorbachev supported the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and endorsed human rights abuses during the Soviet era, through his participation in the Soviet Union’s communist leadership. Yet it was Gorbachev who instituted reforms that proved to be both popular with the people of the Soviet Union and beneficial to relations with the West.
We should also not forget that Iran’s atomic program is related to nationalistic ambitions. The Shah wanted a bomb, so did Khamenei and, most probably, so will any regime that comes along next, even if it is a Western-style democracy.
Leaders come and go. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and Mousavi won’t be on the scene forever. But the Iranian people are here to stay. If Israelis want to enjoy good relations with Iran, we should respect the desire of the Iranian people for change and hope for an outcome to the current crisis that meets their aspirations. Rooting for Ahmadinejad because of short-term and shortsighted political calculations is a sure recipe for future tensions.
Meir Javedanfar is a co-author, with Yossi Melman, of “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran” (Basic Books, 2007).