Today's mystery: Where's Khamenei ... and where's Biden?

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

Women in the street chant “Damn you, Khamenei” and “Death to the dictator!” Police cannot hold back growing throngs of Iranians in multiple cities protesting the death of a young woman in custody of their morals militia. Once again, thirteen years after their erstwhile “Green Revolution” fizzled out, Iranians are talking about a future without the mullahs in charge.

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And at the same time, the Biden administration has curiously declared their talks with Iran over a renewed JCPOA dead — or at least very shagged out over a prolonged squawk:

The Biden administration’s negotiations with Iran over a revamped version of the 2015 nuclear deal have hit a dead end, jeopardizing the likelihood of a new agreement, senior U.S. officials informed Congress during a classified briefing.

A deal seemed within reach earlier this month as U.S. officials presented Iran with a proposal that would significantly unwind economic sanctions and provide the regime with somewhere near one trillion dollars over the lifetime of the agreement. Iran, however, balked and negotiations are at a standstill, according to Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), who participated in the closed-door briefing held two weeks ago for members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Two weeks ago, they thought they had a deal, and now they know they don’t have a deal, and are stymied about how they get to a deal because they’ve negotiated all there was to negotiate, and, at the end of the day, Iran doesn’t want the deal that was negotiated,” Issa told the Washington Free Beacon. Those details were also relayed by other congressional sources familiar with the briefing.

Needless to say, this is great news for the US, save the parts of it where the Biden administration works. Joe Biden needed this almost as badly as Barack Obama did in 2015, as a means to prove his foreign-policy mettle in comparison to his predecessor. Donald Trump tore up the first JCPOA nuclear agreement and applied a maximum-pressure sanctions regime against Ali Khamenei and his mullahcracy. Biden criticized that as reckless and unnecessary, but has found out that the Iranians aren’t willing to concede anything to the US … as Trump noted at the time, too.

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But still, Biden’s had setbacks before without throwing in the towel. What gives? It may be that no one’s sure who’s in charge in Tehran. ISW picks up on chatter that Khamenei may either be incapacitated or worse. Khamenei hasn’t been seen at all during the recent uprising, and that’s raising eyebrows:

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is at least temporarily unable to perform his normal duties. Khamenei canceled his planned attendance at the annual meeting of the Assembly of Experts—the regime body constitutionally responsible for selecting the supreme leader—on September 7.[10] Khamenei has historically given speeches at these meetings. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal both reported that Khamenei’s health has declined rapidly in recent weeks, prompting him to cancel meetings and public appearances.[11] The New York Times reported that he underwent surgery for a bowel obstruction in early September, citing unidentified sources inside and outside of Iran.

CTP cannot verify these rumors about Khamenei’s health, but circumstantial evidence indicates that Khamenei may indeed be ill or incapacitated. He has been abnormally silent about the ongoing countrywide, anti-regime protests, which began on September 16. Khamenei gave speeches on September 17 and 21 but did not address the protests.[12] Khamenei has never failed to address a major protest wave and responded previously to such protest waves within days of their initiations. He commented five days after countrywide protests erupted in December 2017 and two days after countrywide protests erupted in November 2019.[13]  It is unclear why he did not comment on September 17 or 21, but his continued absence as the protests have expanded and become more dangerous strongly suggests that he is at least temporarily unable to address them publicly.

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We just went through speculative chatter about the public absence of Xi Jinping in Beijing after he returned from the Samarkand conference with Putin. Rumors swirled for days over a coup in China, but those turned out to be false. Xi re-emerged after a quarantine required by his own “zero COVID” policies, none the worse for the isolation.

However, this is a very different situation. Khamenei’s mullahcracy is built on his personal moral and theological authority, which means that any challenge is a direct challenge to Khamenei himself. This challenge has now gone on for weeks and continues to grow, and it should be up to Khamenei to directly rebut it and shut it down. His absence from the public stage has allowed the protests to metastasize into a full-blown populist revolt against his morality laws, at the very least, and threatens to go farther than that.

The longer he’s absent, the more risk the regime runs of losing its authority, a process that may already be underway. ISW picks up on reports that regime figures are beginning to act as though Khamenei’s out of the picture:

Regime power centers are behaving as if succession is either imminent or underway. President Ebrahim Raisi gave a televised address on September 28 boasting of his accomplishments since taking office in August 2021.[14] He mentioned the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests at the end of his speech, reiterating that the regime will crack down on the demonstrations. His address was remarkably tone-deaf given the protests raging across the country and sounded more like an appeal to key regime constituencies for support in a succession struggle than like a president attempting to calm massive and violent demonstrations.

Twenty-four current and former IRGC leaders signed an open letter publicly praising Raisi for his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 21.[15] The letter signatories include Iran’s most high-ranking and influential officers who control most of the Iranian armed forces[.]

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With all of this churn apparently happening — at least speculatively for now — it may well be that Iranian negotiators don’t want to sign off on anything until they know who’s going to have chairs when the music stops playing.

This prompts another question, however. Obama blew a chance to get behind the 2009 Green Revolution when it threatened the mullahcracy, hoping instead to normalize relations with the extremist regime instead. Writing at Bari Weiss’ Common Sense, Reuel Marc Gerecht accuses Joe Biden of going AWOL on the Iranian people in a replay:

In Qom—and across the country—young Iranians are raging against religious tyranny. They want the Islamic Republic to fall. They want liberty. Repeatedly, and in great numbers, they have shown they want democracy.

So, it is a strange thing that the United States, the West’s engine of liberty and democracy, is so ardently seeking a nuclear deal that will enrich the men who are literally beating these women to death.

We have been here before. In 2009, Barack Obama largely ignored the way the regime crushed ordinary Iranians—it took him nearly two weeks to utter any support for the pro-democracy demonstrators and condemn the violence against them—for the sake of a higher cause: his dream of a nuclear deal. …

But if Americans no longer have the self-confidence to engage in such military action, if they just don’t believe U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is worth the price, then they can still default to something less delusional and destructive than paying an endlessly lying enemy to forsake the cornerstone of its hegemonic ambitions. We should take a cue from the protestors in the streets:  a regime that so easily kills women isn’t one the United States can do business with.

American and European “realists” have never been so wrong.  It is the nature of the regime that counts.

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David Strom 8:30 PM | February 22, 2024
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