Is the Khomeinist leadership preparing to retreat from confrontation over Tehran's nuclear ambitions?
Until recently, the answer was an emphatic "No." According to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, such retreat would limit Islamic sovereignty by giving the United Nations a veto on Iran's energy policy.
But now Tehran is trying to forestall the passage of a second, and presumably tougher, resolution by the Security Council in March.
Several versions of the presumed Iranian initiative are in circulation. Former President Muhammad Khatami presented one to American and European personalities on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
In this scheme, Tehran is prepared to comply with the Security Council demand to suspend uranium enrichment - as part of a diplomatic package. In this plan, an arbitration group would inspect and assess Iran's nuclear program, reporting back after six months. The group would include the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and India on behalf of the nonaligned movement. During the six months in question, the Islamic Republic would suspend enrichment of uranium.
In exchange, the Security Council would postpone its March session on the issue and would suspend the sanctions it already approved. Tehran would also insist on an undertaking from the United States not to take military action against Iran.
There are other signs that Tehran is trying to cool things down:
* It has not carried out its threat of suspending relations with countries that voted for sanctions, nor has it organized demonstrations by the usual suspects around the embassies of those nations.
* The regime has shown uncharacteristic timidity on the issue of its senior Revolutionary Guard commanders and intelligence officers who were arrested and are being interrogated by U.S. forces in Iraq.
* The Islamic Republic did not vote against a resolution passed by the U.N. General Assembly last week condemning the denial of the Holocaust. (This was an indirect correction for Ahmadinejad, who re-launched the Holocaust-denial debate last year.)
"We hear a moderate message from Tehran," says a senior British official. "And that in a tone we had not heard since Ahmadinejad [became president]."
That at least part of the Khomeinist leadership might want ways to defuse the situation is not surprising. The sanctions, though nothing more than a gentle rap on the knuckles, have already started to bite - with a disproportionate psychological impact on some players in the Iranian economy. Iranian businessmen see the measures as a kind of aperitif for a deadlier main course to be served later.
The Iranian currency, the rial, is showing the jitters as never before. Thousands of contracts remain frozen, pending the outcome of the crisis. If current trends continue, hundreds of thousands of Iranian workers may be thrown out of work within months.
The plummeting of oil prices has also done its bit. Over the past year, the Islamic Republic has seen oil revenues decline by almost 20 percent - even as Ahmadinejad's largesse, designed to bribe his constituency, has pushed public expenditure to an all-time high. In recent months, the government has been unable to pay the salaries and bonuses of some employees, including teachers, on time.
The perception that the Bush administration may be preparing military action has sent shivers down the spines of many mullahs and Revolutionary Guard commanders who account for a good part of the wealthy elite.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the richest man in Iran, has seen contracts negotiated by his agents with European, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese companies put on hold because of fears of sanctions and war. Not surprisingly, he decided to send Khatami, one of his protégés, to Davos to look for a deal.
However, economic hardship alone would have no effect on a regime that, according to its founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is about "jihad and martyrdom, not worldly goods." But the Khomeinist leadership is also trying to cope with political setbacks.
Its attempt at seizing power in Lebanon, through Hezbollah, has split the Shiites and hit a wall of resistance from other Lebanese communities and from Western and Arab powers.
In Iraq, the Islamic Republic's principal clients, Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, have their backs pressed to the wall because of a new aggressive policy unveiled by President Bush and approved by the Iraqi parliament.
During the past two weeks, Iraqi and U.S. troops have killed some 400 Mahdist fighters and rounded up another 1,000. Sadr, who only last December announced a plan to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has been forced to eat humble pie by announcing the return of his group to the parliament and the end of his boycott of the Maliki government. Sadr made that move after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani told him at a meeting this month that neither Sistani nor other senior clerics would oppose the disarming of the Mahdi Army.
Ahamdinejad's hope of seizing control of radical Palestinian movements has also run into trouble. He unrolled the red carpet for visiting Hamas leaders and signed checks worth $150 million - but failed to buy their exclusive allegiance. Worse, Hamas has now responded to a higher bid from Saudi Arabia, and is to attend a Mecca meeting to resolve intra-Palestinian differences, in preparation for talks with Israel.
In Iran itself, Ahmadinejad has failed to persuade the ayatollahs of Qom and Mashad to issue anti-American "jihad fatwas" in anticipation of a clash with the "Great Satan." One prominent cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad-Reza Shabestari, has made his rejection of Ahmadinejad's demand public. "I would rather defrock myself than issue a fatwa in support of wanton adventurism," he told his Qom seminary last week.
There may be one more reason why the Khomeinist leadership might wish to cool things down. Sources say the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei's health is in decline. This does not mean that he may be incapacitated, let alone die, anytime soon.
But there is no doubt that the establishment is preparing for all eventualities. One sign was a surprise television program this month in which the Islamic TV's popular star Farzad Hassani invited viewers to name their "favorite living theologian apart from the current Supreme Guide."
Clearly, picking a fight with the rest of the world while coping with a crisis of succession at the top of the regime is not a prospect the Khomeinist establishment would cherish.
What should the United States and its allies do when, and if, the Khomeinist regime offers a partial retreat?
The temptation to make a deal - as well as the pressure in its favor - would be immense. The Bush administration would face a crucial question: Allow a dangerous but wounded enemy to recover, or go for the kill?
Click Here to support Frontpagemag.com.