The failure of Iran and the United States to negotiate risks all out conflict. Western advocates of sanctions against Tehran argue they will pressure the Iranian people to lean on their government to abandon its nuclear program. “Intelligence sources” are claiming that covert operations can do the same.
Many Iranians question this belief. Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii noted that the latest murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, was followed by the plastering of his picture throughout the Iranian media “with his adorable young son, both sweetly gazing at the camera.” She continued: “The picture went viral and, with it, a rather explicit message: America, Britain, and Israel… have killed a father and orphaned a son. It must have been pure fortuity for Tehran that, on the same day, a video of American marines urinating on dead Afghan bodies also took the internet by storm.” The notion that sanctions and covert operations will turn Iran’s leaders rests on some analysis of their psychology and political thinking. But is it right?
Iranian politics is factional. When I lived in Tehran from 2003 to 2007, there was a leadership group of around six to eight people, reflecting the balance of factions within the political class that weighed up important decisions. Within the group, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was pre-eminent as the rahbar (‘leader’) but he was no simple autocrat.
When he succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, he lacked his predecessor’s religious pre-eminence and stature as leader of the 1979 revolution. Partly as a consequence, Khamenei rarely led from the front, preferring to wait for consensus or balance to emerge within the leadership.
True, Khamenei often sided with Iran’s conservatives. In the 1997 presidential poll, he barely hid his support for Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri and when reformist Mohammad Khatami won, Khamenei allowed conservatives to undermine him, especially through the judiciary. But in 2005, he instructed the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, to reinstate two reformists in the presidential election. And in March 2006, he publicly backed talks with the US regarding Iraq, despite strong objections from fundamentalists aired in the media, including by Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan newspaper, who wrote two stinging editorials describing talks with the US as a “trap”. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005 capped a rightward shift in Iranian politics and the new president, endorsed by a landslide, elevated the nuclear program from a state policy to a popular campaign. Slowly, the balance in the leadership had moved in favor of a more assertive — or, as Washington would see it, defiant — foreign policy, and Ayatollah Khamenei moved with it.
When the reformists took to the streets after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009, it was clear that Washington’s political class was wary of the “engagement” promised by Barack Obama when elected the year before.
And like Khamenei, Obama has shown little inclination to lead from the front. Whilst it is true that by recently postponing joint military maneuvers scheduled for April he signaled to Israel not to take for granted US support for a military attack, he has seized on tighter sanctions as a ‘cost free’ alternative to force, as a way to buy time and assuage domestic and international critics. Khamenei knows sanctions are cutting deeper as they have focused on Iran’s central bank and oil imports. Tehran enjoys some leeway due to high oil prices, but this could diminish as China, South Korea and India scale back purchases, or perhaps, in the case of Beijing, use the situation to drive down prices.
Diplomacy barely exists. The P5+1, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, is an unwieldy negotiator led by Catherine Ashton, whose main diplomatic experience appears to have been negotiating the Lisbon treaty through the British upper chamber, the House of Lords. On the Iranian side, Saaed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, lacks the worldliness of predecessors like Hassan Rouhani or Ali Larijani.
If Obama and Khamenei really wanted to talk, they could dispatch serious and trusted people to meet, ideally in secret, in Norway or a South Sea island. But that is where domestic calculations come into play. For all their bluster, neither Obama nor Khamenei are ready for the risks. The outcome is a dangerous drift. And looming US presidential elections this year and parliamentary elections in Iran next year will give plenty of room for advocates of confrontation to make the running.