As President Obama looks at the landscape of international challenges surrounding him, he may take comfort from one of the most unexpected of all trouble spots. The news from Iran, for a change, brings a glimmer of light to an otherwise somber scenery.
It looks like that nemesis of Washington and its friends, the regime that rules the Islamic Republic of Iran, is facing a mountain of troubles. That is excellent news for Obama, the West and almost every country in the Middle East.
Still, it is much too soon to assume that the outcome of the unfolding crisis in Tehran will lead to the results Washington would like to see.
Two sets of revelations from Tehran in recent days point to significant divisions within the ruling regime and to serious setbacks in Iran's nuclear program.
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Iranian media report that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has survived a parliamentary effort to impeach him, but only because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the legislature to stop. Apparently, the push to remove Ahmadinejad is not over.
Unlike the violent confrontations in the aftermath of the stolen 2009 elections, this is not a fight between conservatives and reformers. This time, conservatives are leading the movement against the ultraconservative president and his powerful protector.
They accuse Ahmadinejad of 14 counts of breaking the law, including trading millions of barrels of crude oil for gasoline and withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars from the country's foreign reserves without parliamentary authorization.
An even more serious challenge to the regime comes from the economic squeeze that has intensified in recent months. This is partly because of international sanctions imposed as a result of Iran's refusal to stop a nuclear enrichment program that many believe aims to produce nuclear weapons. It is also because of horrific mismanagement of the economy by Ahmadinejad and his predecessors.
Tehran spends about one-third of the national budget on subsidies. Amid harsh sanctions, the $100 billion subsidy price tag has become unsustainable, even if it helps millions survive in a struggling economy.
Amid the growing turmoil comes word that nuclear enrichment suddenly stopped in mid-November. United Nations inspectors, visiting the Natanz enrichment plant for only about one hour, noticed that the plant was shutting down. The Stuxnet computer virus, a sophisticated program that infected Iran's nuclear installations, may have forced the shutdown, dealing it an important, if temporary, setback.
A victory for Obama, however, is far from assured. Even if Ahmadinejad falls, the nuclear effort enjoys broad support in Iran. His successor very likely would support it as well. In fact, Ahmadinejad's undiplomatic presence arguably helps Washington's international sanctions efforts more than would another less-strident Iranian leader espousing the same ideology.
Iran remains in the clutch of the religious and military establishments, with the Revolutionary Guard Corps as powerful as ever and the Basiji militia ready to brutalize any serious opposition.
And yet the latest news from Iran does show that the country is feeling the pressure. Iran's regime is making a cost-benefit analysis: Is the cost of the sanctions — and the possibility that Iran could face military strikes — worth continuing with international defiance? The higher the cost, the higher the possibility that a growing number of Iranians, in and out of government, could decide it's time to put an end to the nuclear program, and perhaps even to the current regime.