In an article exploring the Ahmadinejad-led “purge” of Iran’s intelligence service, David Ignatius relays this story:
One Iranian political figure has told a Western intermediary that the Obama administration may have unwittingly encouraged the regime’s power grab by sending two letters to Khamenei before the June election. The first, delivered through Iran’s mission to the United Nations, was a general invitation to dialogue. Khamenei is said to have taken a month to answer, and then only in vague terms. A second Obama administration letter reiterated U.S. interest in engagement. According to the Iranian political figure, this may have emboldened Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to think they had a free hand on June 12.
This suggests that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad felt that they did not have “a free hand” in Iran before President Obama sent letters and wished them a Happy Nowruz, which sounds pretty strange to me. The steady takeover of key Iranian state institutions by the hardline faction that supports Ahmadinejad, and is favored by Khamenei, had been occurring for over a decade. This faction was given a huge political boost by President Bush’s “war on terror” policies, which did a great job of confirming hardliners’ propaganda about belligerent U.S. intentions, weakening moderates and making talk of improved U.S.-Iran relations political poison.
An alternative interpretation, one that I’ve heard voiced by a number of analysts, both conservative and progressive, is that Obama’s outreach caused hardline elements in the regime to overplay their hand out of fear that victorious moderates would be able to deliver the U.S.-Iranian détente that a substantial portion of Iranians clearly desire.
According to Patrick Disney of the National Iranian American Council, Ignatius’ anecdote “has it completely backwards.”
Iran’s hardliners had a free hand when George Bush threatened them with military strikes at every turn. It was only when Obama came out with a sensible plan for engagement that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad actually felt threatened. The hardliners knew the majority of Iranians want détente with the US, and they recognized that Obama’s outreach would very likely reveal them — not the West — as the intractable actor.
Everyone knows that whoever delivers a rapprochement with the US will be seen as a hero by the Iranian people. But nothing scares Khamenei and Ahmadinejad more than the idea of a world without the US boogeyman to justify their every move. So they tried desperately to resist change — they cracked down on June 12 because they knew Obama could be a rallying point for moderates to get their foot in the door, and the hardliners just couldn’t accept that.
Examining their behavior over the past few years, it seems clear that Iran’s hardliners were far more “emboldened” by Bush’s supposed “toughness” than by anything President Obama has done in the nine months of his presidency. The hardliners rightly feared that they would be the losers in any warming of U.S.-Iran relations, which could explain the usually meticulous Khamenei’s uncharacteristic overreach, the comically obvious election-rigging, and the eventual security crackdown. Obama’s outreach only “emboldened” the hardliners in the sense that it elicited their over-reaction, resulting in the Islamic Republic’s most serious crisis of legitimacy since the revolution.