The boys done good

In December, at the conclusion of Tony Blair’s Middle East trip and following his Dubai speech in which he singled out Iran for yet more criticism, the Guardian leader writers gave him a rough time. They claimed:

His thesis subsumes too many discrete issues under one roof, portraying a clash not of civilisations but of ideologies…Dubai represented a return to Mr Bush’s “axis of evil” approach but this time with only one named member state – Iran.

It continued:

The prime minister’s speech was disconcerting too because it so closely echoed Mr Bush’s bellicosity and went against the idea in James Baker’s Iraq Study Group report of reaching out to talk to Iran (and Syria)…If the US and Britain understood in the frozen depths of the cold war that they had to talk to their Soviet enemy, surely Iran is too a serious a player in today’s Middle East to be addressed solely through the rhetoric of confrontation?

Ignoring for one second the implication in the final sentence that either or both Bush and Blair have ever suggested or implied that force/war/belligerence alone will serve our wider international interests, this commentary amounts to more of the same ”aren’t Bush and Blair silly – don’t they understand that such confrontational language will simply stiffen the resolve of dictators” narrative of which we’ve heard so much since the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment program started to make headlines. The characterization is one of bumbling fools itching for a fight. It doesn’t take a Steve Bell cartoon depicting Bush as a chimp and Blair as poodle to make the point, but we usually get one anyway.

Yesterday’s paper carried a related story with the headline:

President’s future in doubt as MPs rebel and economic crisis grows

The president in question is Ahmadinejad and further reading makes it clear that it’s not simply macro-economic forces that threaten his tenure:

MPs also criticised Mr Ahmadinejad’s role in the UN security council dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme amid growing evidence that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ordered him to stay silent on the issue.

The supreme leader, who was hitherto loyal to the president, is said to blame Mr Ahmadinejad for last month’s UN resolution imposing sanctions over Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment.

The waning of Ahmadinejad’s star began in earnest with last month’s electoral meltdown which also saw the (relatively speaking) moderate Rafsanjani come top in an election to the body responsible for appointing the supreme leader. Rafsanjani has criticized his rival for his fiercely uncompromising, anti-western stance that Rafsanjani – and it would appear an ever increasing number of Iranians – believe threatens to bestow pariah status on the country.

Pragmatists within the Islamic leadership claim that Mr Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric, including a declaration that Iran would not suspend uranium enrichment for “even one day”, sank any chance of a deal [at the UN].

The newspaper, Hamshari, whose director, Hossein Entezami, is a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, was more blunt: “At the very moment when the nuclear issue was about to move away from the UN security council, the fiery speeches of the president have resulted in the adoption of two resolutions [against Iran].”

Now, at least a few of those “fiery speeches” were aimed squarely at Washington and London who, let’s face it, have been in the vanguard of those wanting to see Iran brought to book for her indiscretions. When others were favouring a more conciliatory tone, it was the chimp and the poodle who insisted it was hard-ball, or no ball.

And this is the result:

“Ahmadinejad’s golden era is over and his honeymoon with the supreme leader is finished. He has problems even meeting the supreme leader,” said an Iranian political commentator, Eesa Saharkhiz. “The countdown to his dismissal has already begun. There is a probability that he cannot even finish his current four-year period.”

The truth that dare not speak its name is that on Iran, Bush and Blair have played a blinder. Both may yet retain a grip on domestic power that survives their Iranian nemesis, and both have demonstrated that whilst confrontation may not be the only game in town, softly, softly doesn’t always catchy monkey. I don’t claim for either great foresight in the matter of Iran’s economic woes, but at least some credit for Ahmadinejad’s current predicament is owed to the unflinching determination of Bush and Blair to face down their foe.

If Steve Bell is struggling for ideas, I can suggest Blair and Bush in wrestling leotards, arms aloft, bestriding a forlorn and broken Iranian president while the great and the good from the international community applaud from a safe distance.

Don’t. Hold. Your. Breath.

Gene adds: But let’s not forget that terms like “moderate” and “pragmatist” are– by contemporary Iranian standards– extremely relative. Rafsanjani, after all, has been charged by Argentine prosecutors with involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, which killed 86 people. And the newspaper Hamshari sponsored last year’s disgusting Holocaust cartoon contest.

Even if Ahmadinejad is forced out, the struggle for freedom in Iran will be far from over.