But those days are gone. Iranians now care less about nuclear centrifuges than they do about jobs. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 promising to end corruption and put Iran’s oil money on people’s dinner tables. He did neither. His fraudulent 2009 election “win” only further damaged his credibility and shattered Tehran’s already faction-ridden elite. Several of his numerous political opponents, notably former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, now routinely use the nuclear issue to attack Ahmadinejad, blaming his diplomatic crassness for Iran’s increasing isolation and suffering. “Wherever Iran finds a loophole [around the sanctions],” Rafsanjani exasperatedly told Iran’s Assembly of Experts last year, “the Western powers block it.” The nuclear program has transformed from a national rallying cry to a political hand grenade; what was once the regime’s strength has become its weakness.
The price Iran is now paying for its program threatens to destabilize or even destroy the regime – the one thing the mullahs fear above all else. So while Iran’s journalists busy themselves with hubris, its politicians now worry about nemesis. When Iran and the P5 +1 met last month, the talks, while yielding nothing substantial, were universally hailed as positive. Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, uncharacteristically described the discussions as “very successful.”
It was a signal. The last time the Iranians were this scared was shortly after Washington had conquered Baghdad, in mid-2003. Four months later Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment while it waited for promised talks to “resolve all outstanding issues” with the Europeans. Those talks never came (without U.S. involvement, I was told, there was simply nothing of substance they could offer Iran).