In Teheran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word. But is the “No” of Iran’s spiritual leader really his last word when it comes to negotiating directly with the U.S. in the conflict over his country’s nuclear program?
Maybe not. His position must be seen in the context of Iran’s domestic politics - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is not in Khamenei’s good books, only has four more months in office. Taking such a huge step as starting to reconcile with the U.S. - something most Iranians want - is not going to take place while Ahmadinejad is in office.
In this conflict, now over a decade old, so many red lines have been crossed, so many opportunities wasted, so many deadlines frittered away, that there is no longer such a thing as “never.” Israeli leaders have been seeing the imminent advent of an Iranian bomb since the mid-1990s.
On the other hand, a few years ago Khamenei himself said that if it served Iran to cultivate relations with the U.S., he would be the first to do so. And if things get that far he wants the credit to go to him, not to reformers or populists. Now however, the Americans have tightened sanctions against Teheran so from his standpoint talk is useless. “I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary,” he says.
A solution to the conflict is possible despite Khamenei’s deep-rooted mistrust of the Americans. Settling the exasperating dispute about uranium and centrifuges would end economic sanctions - and then nothing more would stand in the way of broader reconciliation between the two countries. But here’s the rub - the spiritual leader fears nothing as much as he fears free exchange between people, free exchange of thought and goods. Every chance he gets, he warns of “cultural invasion.”
In Khamenei’s view, the spread of cultural values would lead to moral corruption, promiscuity and the destruction of social fabric. In that sense such values are far more dangerous to him than military attack. Washington pundits are credited with saying that mini-skirts would be more effective than bombs in Iran. This fear is what has led to the recent increase of pressure on Iranian journalists, artists and intellectuals, and the demonization of opposition leaders as “deviants.” For Khamenei, economic sanctions are the lesser of two evils.
Where’s a good Occupy protest when you need one? Those scraggly protesters are making mischief on behalf of “the 99 percent” in Oakland, and they’re raging against university tuition increases in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Cruz. Yet as a municipal crisis unfolds in one of California’s former boomtowns, “Occupy Stockton” is nowhere to be found. If the movement cared about ordinary people as much as it claims, it would have plenty to keep it busy in Stockton, where the greed and shortsightedness of the public sector have sent a relatively poor city careening toward insolvency and unraveled its social fabric.
Because California’s municipalities have squandered so much of their budgets on government workers and retired employees, they haven’t been able to provide the essential services that justify government’s existence. Stockton is a case in point. Bob Deis, who took over as city manager in 2010, told reporters recently that the city’s finances resembled a Ponzi scheme. He had never seen the kind of unaffordable health plan that Stockton employees receive: complete medical care for the employee and spouse for life, available, in some rare circumstances, after only a month on the job. “Employee costs are weighing down the city in the wake of a recessionary slump in revenues,” City Journal’s Steve Malanga observed last week. “Stockton has spent the last two years trying to reduce its budget to avoid insolvency. The city has cut about a quarter of its police, but rich pension and health benefit deals still make it difficult for the city to pay its bills… . Employee costs make up 81 percent of the city’s general fund spending.”
Stockton has taken out pension-obligation bonds and followed other California cities in squandering tens of millions of tax dollars on redevelopment projects—in its case, a new minor-league baseball stadium and a waterfront entertainment project—that it hopes will bring an urban renewal. Yet downtown Stockton, despite its beautiful old buildings dating to the Gold Rush era, is largely a ghost town. An ineffective government, which can’t control crime or even keep the streets clean, is the main source of the problem.