Here's something worth watching - the likelyhood of a high-level power struggle between Ahmadinejad's hardliners and more moderate elements:
The death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, chairman of the powerful experts' assembly, aged 86, from blood and lung disorders, is likely to increase the influence of Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mr Rafsanjani, conservative pragmatist and pillar of the Islamic regime, has emerged as favourite to succeed Mr Meshkini as chairman of the 86-member assembly, which is empowered to choose and remove Iran's supreme leader.Despite rhetoric from the extreme right about the "dictator" Ahmadinejad, he's limited by law to two terms and won't be Iranian president by 2014 - or even earlier if he loses the 2009 election. That's becoming more and more possible as his economic policies go from disaster to disaster while his hardline attitudes create ill-will among ordinary Persians, who prefer nose-jobs to nukes.
Mr Rafsanjani is almost certain to be challenged by Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a radical cleric who is seen as a religious mentor to Iran's Islamist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr Rafsanjani was judged to have staged a successful political comeback from his 2005 presidential election defeat to Mr Ahmadinejad when he received the most votes in last December's elections to the assembly. Around three-quarters of the body's members are loyal to him, leaving him well placed to become its new chairman.
That could increase his leverage with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom Mr Rafsanjani has had numerous disagreements. Mr Rafsanjani favours re-establishing links with the US and a more flexible approach to Iran's nuclear programme. Mr Khamenei is widely believed to have sabotaged Mr Rafsanjani's hopes of becoming president by backing Mr Ahmadinejad in the last election.
Eesa Saharkhiz, an analyst, predicted that Mr Khamanei might try to block Mr Rafsanjani again. "The influence of Mr Khamenei will be very important. He may think he would rather have someone else in charge of the assembly," Mr Saharkhiz said.
The assembly was often criticised as toothless under Mr Meshkini's leadership. Despite the supervisory powers guaranteed by Iran's constitution, it never summoned Mr Khamenei to its meetings or asked him to submit reports.
Some analysts have suggested that Mr Rafsanjani could use leadership of the assembly as a springboard to the supreme leader's post. The position is the most powerful in Iranian politics, entitling its holder to the last word on all state matters. However, Mr Rafsanjani has told associates that he favours replacing the current one-man role with a collective leadership of several heavyweight figures.
Now, the more moderate (yes, I know that's a relative term in this context) Rafsanjani has a window of opportunity to gather real power in the council that weilds even more power than the supposed dictator and obviously has plans to neuter the office of Iran's true dictator even should he achieve that office himself.
Such a possibility should bolster the arguments of the more moderate (yes, I know that's a relative term in this context) elements within the Bush administration. Ezra Klein writes today that those elements - including Rice and Gates - are widely regarded by beltway insiders as having the ascendancy over the Cheneyite warmongers at present.
Dick Cheney may still be nuts, but all reporting suggests that his power is ebbing, particularly as compared to Condoleeza Rice's influence. And Rice does not want to go to war with Iran. What she does want to do is, say, negotiate with North Korea, which the Bush administration then did, to the consternation of longtime Cheney favorites like John Bolton. Indeed, Cheney's favorites are actually leaving the White House in frustration. Bolton fled, for one, as has J.D Crouch, a hardline deputy national security advisor, and the former policy planning director at State, Stephen Krasner. And the new hires, as Steve Clemons has been ecstatically documenting, are realist-Rice types.Well no, not all reporting, Ezra.
None of this is to say that we couldn't yet bomb Iran. But literally no foreign policy type I've spoken to -- which includes establishment folks who wouldn't be unhappy with that outcome -- thinks there's much of a chance that we will. And the actual movement within the Bush administration appears very much against the hardliners on the issue. And reporting on the opinions of the military types suggests that they too are against bombing Iran, and are probably telling Bush what a disaster it will be. The scenario in which all bets are off is one in which Cheney becomes president, as the Daily Show so ably documented a few weeks ago (mildly not safe for work). But in general, I think the situation is largely aligning itself against such crazed actions.
However, if there's an international incident then everyone at the current White House will get behind a policy of "bomb them all, let God sort them out", in my opinion. And the circumstances for just such an incident are very much present.
As Reuters reports today, the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway is still the most likely flashpoint:
It was in this murky stretch that 15 British military personnel were captured by Iran earlier this year and accused of straying into its waters. A long-running dispute over the nearby Shatt al-Arab border river has helped spark war in the past.If someone panics or gets over-zealous on the Shatt al-Arab, we won't find out who the instigator was until after the last bomb has fallen and the last tanker has been mined. Brinksmanship, especially where there is no parallel dialogue to fix the dispute engendering such risk-taking, is not a clever foreign policy in such circumstances.
Now, the U.S. military and its allies patrol as close as possible to where they believe Iraq's territorial waters end, but as tension rises between the Islamic Republic and the West, so does the potential for accidental escalation.
"We set a line where we think it's reasonable, and by customary use, going up and down that line, we try and set the tone," said John Chandler of the Australian HMAS Anzac warship, part of the coalition patrolling Iraqi waters.
"The Iranians have slightly different view as to where the line is."
The last time Iran and Iraq agreed on the division of their waterways was in 1975, when the Shatt al-Arab river and its mouth into the Gulf were split along their deepest channel.
Since then, Western navy sources said, silt has shifted the riverbed's topography but no new marine border has been defined, leaving right of passage to custom: use it or lose it.
...The sailors in the most recent incident...denied trespassing in Iranian waters, but a British parliamentary report last week criticised the use of a map showing a defined boundary, which experts said does not exist.
USS Typhoon Commander Joel Lang does not let the incident deter him from taking his gunboat into the troubled waters, in a bid to back Iraq's territorial claims with military muscle.
"We're going to drive down the line on the Iraqi side, and we're going to drive down slow. For Americans, we see this as driving down the strip on a Friday night, waving to all our friends," he said on the way to the disputed area.
Lang said his ship was "armed to the teeth", but he takes care to keep his gun teams discreet to avoid provocation. He likened his role to an armed policeman patrolling a beat.
"We may get to wave at some Iranians and some of their gunboats as we go down. Sometimes they wave back. Sometimes they tell us we're number one," he said, referring to the extension of the middle finger, an obscene gesture in Western society.