Simon Tisdall writes: Tehran’s vow to stop US warships crossing international waters in the strait of Hormuz, following 10 days of provocative Iranian missile tests and naval exercises, is seen in Washington as evidence that ramped-up western sanctions are finally beginning to bite.
While this conclusion may be correct, there is always the danger of a disastrous miscalculation. Iran could be merely sabre rattling, as American analysts suggest. But what if it is not?
Seen from Tehran, the most serious threat to the survival of the regime led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei comes from within, not without – a consideration not sufficiently understood in the west. The political establishment is riven by deep divisions, principally between economic reformers loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and clerical arch-conservatives backed by the Revolutionary Guards and a wealthy, corrupt merchant class that has grown fat on the 1979 revolution.
Khamenei appears to be trying to hold the line between the two factions. What worries him more than the movements of the USS John C Stennis aircraft carrier group in the Gulf, or even US and EU oil sanctions, is the thought that crucial parliamentary elections due in March could produce a permanent rupture within the Islamic Republic. Such a split could open the way to a second Iranian revolution.
Memories of the mass demonstrations that shook Tehran and other cities in 2009 after rigged presidential elections have not faded. The Green movement’s leaders are dispersed, in jail or under house arrest. But their demands for transparent democracy, freedom of expression and an end to misrule by mullahs have not been forgotten. Millions of young Iranians have been watching the Arab spring unfold and they believe Iran’s turn will come.
Khamenei is running scared. As Yasmin Alem noted in a recent commentary, the supreme leader views the coming election as a potential “security challenge”. The minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, says the polls will be the “most sensitive elections in the history of the Islamic Republic”.