There’s a Reason They Call Him the “Supreme” Leader

Matt Duss makes the excellent point that we could probably do with less close-reading of Iranian political developments:

switched to support one of Khatami’s rivals, Mehdi Kharroubi. Both candidates are considered reformers, and have been critical of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Today the Washington Post reports that another critic of Ahamedinejad, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi has also announced his candidacy. But while it’s fair to see all of this as evidence of popular discontent with Ahmadinejad’s poor stewardship of the economy, as always it’s unclear what, if anything, any of this says about Iranian supreme leader Khamenei’s orientation toward rapprochement with the U.S., which is the key consideration.

As Duss says, whatever relevance this may have to purely domestic Iranian issues, Americans need to remember that “Regardless of which leaders and factions are up or down at any given moment, Ayatollah Khamenei is always up.” This was a point beloved of the right-wing back during the Khatami era as it was seen to undermine the case for engagement. But the real case for engagement isn’t based on assessing Iranian personalities, it’s a calculation of strategic interests. And that means engaging with the guy calling the shots — Khamenei. It may be impossible to reach a rapprochement, perhaps he doesn’t want one. But it’s worth trying. And that means trying in good faith, which means trying with the man in charge, not trying to think of clever ways to bypass him.