Is Iran Dangerous--or Desperate? Both

How Obama and the Israelis have backed Iran's leaders into a corner

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME; Khamenei: Reuters / Landov

How dangerous is Iran, really? Rick Santorum, who truly is a severe conservative, says, "The theocracy that runs Iran is the equivalent of having al-Qaeda in charge of a country." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes Iran is run by a theocratic death cult that will attack Israel as soon as it gets a nuclear weapon. And given Iran's twitchy, trigger-happy behavior this winter--the alleged "sticky bomb" attacks on Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia, the bomb factory that exploded in Thailand, the alleged plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington, the threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear braggadocio--Santorum's and Netanyahu's extravagant fears would appear to have some basis in fact. Israel is certainly acting as if Iran were an imminent threat, dropping hints--very unusual for the traditionally mum Israelis--that a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities may be coming sooner rather than later.

Or maybe not. The reality is that Iran right now is more desperate than dangerous. Its economy is collapsing under the weight of brutal sanctions. Its prime ally, Syria, seems to be collapsing as well. Its internal politics are fractured. Ahmadinejad has been humiliated and marginalized by Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei; most of Ahmadinejad's allies were struck from the ballot for the coming parliamentary elections. And Iran's alleged attempts to cause mayhem in the world--the bombings, the assassination plot in Washington (which, I'm told by intelligence sources, was as real as it was weird)--have been marked by ineptitude and utter failure, especially when compared with the alleged, but likely, Israeli campaign to assassinate Iran's nuclear scientists. Indeed, the pathetic nature of Iran's responses show that it is intimidated by Israel's retaliatory capabilities: Where are the truck bombs of yesteryear? How intimidating can attacks in New Delhi and Tbilisi be compared with murders carried out in the streets of Tehran? Even Iran's nuclear project has been severely compromised by an ongoing, joint U.S.-Israeli sabotage effort; experts say a successful nuclear weapon is at least two years away.

The Iranian collapse has not happened by accident. It has been stage-managed by the Obama Administration. Even the "failure" of President Obama's initial efforts to negotiate with the regime served a larger purpose: it made clear to the Europeans, Russians and Chinese that Iran's leadership was intransigent, which made Russian and Chinese cooperation on the U.N. sanctions possible. Now Iran is nearly isolated in the world, the regime is extremely unpopular domestically, and its revolutionary fervor has ebbed. Far from being the theocratic martyrdom cult that Santorum and others allege, Iran is a fairly traditional military dictatorship with a patina of religiosity. "Khamenei has marginalized the clergy," says Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Khalaji should know: his father is an ayatullah who was imprisoned for a time by the regime. The real power in Tehran is the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)--and there are signs that the IRGC is growing impatient with the Supreme Leader as well. Obama's diplomacy, augmented by Israel's hints of violence to come, has backed Khamenei into a corner. His only reasonable option is to negotiate. But Khamenei is not a reasonable man.

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