Ironically, Iran’s reformists have long feared a scenario in which a conservative government would first crush them and then reach an agreement with the United States and reap the domestic political benefits.
Could an agreement with the US, defusing tension over Tehran’s nuclear program, result from June’s presidential election awarded to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with 63 percent of the vote? Could a deal be delivered by a single-minded, unified right wing in control of Iran’s organs of state?
In theory, yes. In practice, it is hard to see Iranian politics being so malleable, even if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, has emerged from the post-election protests still in charge.
While much of the American media has detected a military coup in the election and its aftermath, the claim is unsubstantiated. Even if Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has increased its influence in recent years, overall control of the state lies with a group of clerics and non-clerics, civilian and military, who are subject to factional pressures and various vested interests. Iran is not North Korea.
But it is equally hard to believe the push and pull of factions will ease the chances for engagement with the US, even as the threat of an Israeli military attack increases.
On July 17, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, veteran of the 1979 revolution, gave a sermon at Friday prayers in Tehran calling for unity, the release of detainees and the easing of restrictions recently imposed on the media. He echoed the argument from reformists and senior ayatollahs that complaints about the election should be addressed more thoroughly than the perfunctory official enquiry.
Rafsanjani is no liberal. Rather he has long been concerned by the international challenges facing Iran, and now believes its ability to resist them is weakened by internal strife.
Many others within the elite are just as restive. Ali Larijani, parliamentary speaker, was one of the first conservatives to question the conduct of the election. The conservative-controlled parliament can be expected to resist at least some of Ahmadinejad’s nominations for ministers after his inauguration this month for a second term.
None of this offers a propitious backdrop for talks with Washington. The shift to the right has over several years increased the influence of those most skeptical of engagement and removed those best placed to conduct it.
Many of Iran’s best diplomats — whether professionals or those more or less allied to Rafsanjani — were removed by Ahmadinejad in his first term. The team that conducted the 2003 to 2005 talks with the European Union, during which Iran suspended uranium enrichment as a “goodwill gesture,” has long been out of favor with those who are now in power.
During the presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad attacked those talks, even though they were endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Conservative newspapers, including the state-owned Kayhan, have long argued against negotiations with the US, even though Ayatollah Khamenei in March accepted the possibility if Washington should “change its behavior.”
In seeking an interlocutor in Tehran, the US has long known it must talk to Ayatollah Khamenei, but President Barack Obama can hardly relish dealing with an Iranian leader facing an internal power struggle.
At the same time, the US president faces an American right and Israeli lobby energized by the well-publicized crackdown in Iran, which they say proves the Iranian regime is dangerous. Twitter-armed liberals and feminists in the Democratic party are just as outraged.
American law-makers are discussing an autumn deadline for tougher sanctions if Iran does not agree to talks, and public opinion is far more likely now to accept Israeli strikes.
None of this means successful engagement is impossible. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have calmly insisted that nuclear talks between the leading UN powers and Iran should continue.
In a rare positive sign, the new head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEO), appointed in mid-July, is Ali Akbar Salehi, an American-educated nuclear physicist. The vacancy arose after the resignation of Gholamreza Aghazadeh, reportedly disgruntled with the election.
Salehi, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 1999 and 2004, including the period of the talks with Europe decried by Ahmadinejad. In 2003 Salehi signed, on Iran’s behalf, the additional protocol allowing snap IAEA inspections. His appointment to head the AEO will have been approved by Ayatollah Khamenei and seems unlikely to have been the president’s initiative.
But since Salehi left the IAEA five years ago, Iran has installed in its Natanz plant around 7,000 centrifuges, the devices used for enriching uranium, while the UN Security Council has passed four resolutions demanding Tehran halt enrichment.
The planned expansion of the program will widen the gap between Iran and the US. And the further each must go to compromise, the harder it will be to manage the process domestically. With recent events, Ayatollah Khamenei leans more than ever on those who believe Iran can and should confront the ‘Great Satan’ in Washington.
Gareth Smyth is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran