The re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the subsequent violence in Tehran deepens the challenges facing American President Barack Obama in his desire for engagement with Iran.
Ahmadinejad does not control Iranian foreign policy, but he will probably have a stronger voice in a leadership group where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, is pre-eminent.
The stiff reaction from the authorities to the demonstrations reflects a real fear among Iranian conservatives, especially in the Revolutionary Guards, that the “green wave” offered by Mir Hussein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, was an attempt to repeat the “orange revolution” of 2004 in Ukraine.
While Ayatollah Khamenei in March held out the possibility of talks with the United States, he stressed the need for the US to “change its behavior.” Iran is in a strong position, say state newspapers and state officials, and the US is stuck in a quagmire.
“The Americans have made lots of mistakes [and]… they need Iran to save them,” opined Kayhan, the leading conservative daily, in April. “They have tried and examined all possible ways and eventually found no solutions. That is why, now, they have no other choice but to turn to Iran.”
In private, some Iranian politicians acknowledge that the US’ formidable military power means things are not quite that simple. Hence, while Iran’s political class — including Moussavi and Ahmadinejad — share a commitment to the country’s nuclear program and its “right” to be treated as an international power, there are important differences over talks with the US.
In the recent election campaign, Ahmadinejad slammed his predecessors for the 2003-2005 talks with the European Union under which Iran suspended uranium enrichment as a “goodwill gesture,” even though the move was endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari has consistently argued against talking to the US, even though the supreme leader has accepted the possibility.
In any case, the fractures in the political class do not suggest the Iranians will readily focus on negotiations. Iran is not China, where uniformity can be readily imposed.
The wide coalition against Ahmadinejad has taken shape since about 2006. It has included both Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, the former speaker also defeated in the presidential election. But it has also involved the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads two important state bodies, the Experts Assembly and the Expediency Council.
This “coalition of the concerned” came together through fear that President Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric was damaging Iran’s international position, no matter how popular it was across the Islamic world. Tougher sanctions, the president’s critics have argued, compound the damage done by Ahmadinejad’s reflationary economics.
The coalition helped shape the political agenda, to the extent that conservatives like Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, and Mohsen Rezaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, called for a national unity government.
Moussavi ran for president with a skillful pitch for the middle ground, a “third way” promising adherence to principles (the conservatives call themselves “principle-ists”) as well as judicious reform. But the resulting melee has done anything but consolidate the middle ground.
Unfortunately for engagement prospects, many of Iran’s natural diplomats occupy the middle ground. Some are professionals, and others more or less allied to Rafsanjani, long seen as an advocate of talks with the US. Many have already been swatted by the Ahmadinejad government, beginning with his early purge of ambassadors and including spying charges in 2007 against Hossein Moussavian, the former negotiator with the European Union.
Rafsanjani remains a central target for Ahmadinejad, who came to office in 2005 attacking a man he alleges has enriched himself at the people’s expense. Ahmadinejad has consistently attacked the “oil mafia,” and, in the recent televised election debate with Moussavi, tried to link him to Rafsanjani in the hope this would weaken his support.
In seeking an interlocutor in Tehran, the US has long known it must talk to Ayatollah Khamenei, but president Obama can hardly relish dealing with an Iranian leader facing an internal crisis and possible power struggle.
And if that weren’t enough, opponents of engaging Iran in Israel and the West now have fresh wind in their sails.
US neo-conservatives have rushed to back “democracy protests” in Iran — which they say are a post hoc vindication of the George W. Bush strategy of spreading democracy — and to demand further ostracizing of Iran.
In Israel, the Netanyahu government is stepping up its argument that Iran is such an urgent military threat and that tackling it dwarfs such minor matters as Jewish settlements and blockaded Gazans.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, now at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, has gone further, arguing that an Israeli strike on Iran “could well turn Iran’s diverse population against an oppressive regime.”
No wonder the neo-cons are cock-a-hoop. Events in Tehran not only make it harder for Obama to win the argument for engagement. They make it harder for engagement to succeed.
Gareth Smyth is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran