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Hot times and cool heads

24 Mar 2009 18:296 Comments

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As Ayatollah Khamenei endorses possible talks with the United States, Iran's pragmatic conservatives hope the presidential election will help trim Ahmadinejad's international role.


By GARETH SMYTH
in Beirut

There are many asymmetries in the U.S.-Iran relationship. The United States is a huge military power and a massive economy. Iranians have a sense of history and geography that Americans simply do not understand.

And there is another asymmetry, at least for now. Barack Obama is a new president elected on a slogan of change -- while Iran is approaching a presidential election in June.

The interplay between the international situation and Iranian domestic politics is exorcising the minds of many in Iran's political class as they contemplate the possibility of talks with Washington.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's measured, and near instant, response to president Obama's video message to Iranians has signaled that Iran is open to dialogue. Tehran, said the supreme leader, is willing to change if the United States does. This is now well understood in Iran, even if many western commentators claimed Ayatollah Khamenei had "dismissed" Obama's overture.

For Iran's pragmatic conservatives, the prospect of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being involved in such a dialogue is an uncomfortable one. This partly explains the current talk in Tehran of broadening out the government after June's election.

The idea of a "unity" government seems to have originated with Mohsen Rezaie, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, but was taken up last week by Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, who is fast becoming the bete noire of Ahmadinejad supporters.

The experienced hands in Iran's political class know very well that the maneuvering in the new international situation requires diplomacy and calm heads (even though Iran's approach will continue to be set by the leadership group, in which Ayatollah Khamenei is pre-eminent). Those acting for Iran should therefore be experienced, trustworthy and reliable.

Ahmadinejad and his closest allies, like Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, do not fit the bill. For many regime insiders, talks with the United States should be handled by seasoned hands -- the likes of Hassan Rowhani, the former top security official, Larijani or even Rezaie.

Such pragmatic conservatives probably consider it is likely Ahmadinejad will continue as president after June, but they want him as hemmed in as possible. They would welcome a broader range of ministers in domestic portfolios, and they would also like to ensure that what they see as Ahmadinejad's excitability and populism do not affect Iran's diplomacy.

In essence, this reflects the dilemma Ahmadinejad has posed for them, and indeed for Ayatollah Khamenei, since he came to office.

On the one hand, Ahmadinejad invigorated Iran's politics. The 2005 election confounded those expecting a low turnout and showed that a fundamentalist, loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution, could appeal to the people.

As president, Ahmadinejad has reached out to every corner or Iran through high-profile trips and made the nuclear programme into a popular mission with an appeal throughout the Muslim world.

But on the other hand, Iran finds itself in a delicate period, potentially more dangerous than at any time since the 1979 Revolution. Washington under Obama may be ready for compromise over the nuclear issue -- or it may be ready for further sanctions or even military attacks. And so Ahmadinejad's radicalism needs to be managed.

The president himself was clearly hoping to breeze through the election campaign by attacking Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president. The spectre of Khatami sparking "social unrest" -- as in his previous presidency -- was a nightmare for many fundamentalists and was driving them behind Ahmadinejad.

But Khatami's withdrawal removed a negative pressure for unity in the fundamentalist, or principle-ist, camp. It eased political tension.

It is now more likely that another fundamentalist candidate -- possibly Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran's mayor -- could run, or that some price can be extracted from Ahmadinejad for avoiding such a challenge.

These are busy days for the president. At the same time as dealing with conservative critics, Ahmadinejad needs a new plan to defeat the two surviving reformist candidates, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, both of whom will emphasize day-to-day economic issues rather than Khatami's "social freedom." Mousavi is arguing for a kind of "third way" between reformism and fundamentalism, an Islamist version of the Blairite-Clintonesque appeal for the center ground.

As he struggles also to get his budget through parliament, Ahmadinejad has his hands full. His conservative critics hope they will be so full that he will have to keep them away from where they are not wanted.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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6 Comments

Here is my wish for Nowruz. May the United States truly come to want peace and prosperity for the world community and by definition for Iran as a member of that community (which, by the way, it already is!). May the Islamic Republic of Iran truly come to want peace and prosperity for the world community and by definition for the United States as a member of that community. May they rely on our ancient traits of forgiveness and humility and announce the forgiveness of the transgressions of the past without asking for apologies and show that the ways of good as promised by Nowruz is always with Iran.With this Iran will be coming to the table in an honorable way having shown its historically true and tried values and its civilized ways. Iran has done this with almost all invaders and aggressors of the past in its five thousand year history. We have forgiven Russians for invading northern Iran in the Second World War; the United Kingdom for invading Iran's southern ports during the same period, and for partitioning and taking away parts of the country in the northwest and northeast in the 19th century by Russia and the UK (now parts of former republics of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan); and as recently as with Iraq after it started a war and invaded our borders throughout much of the 1980s.

Anonymous / March 24, 2009 8:37 PM

"Tehran, said the supreme leader, is willing to change if the United States does."When did Ayatollah Khamenei say such a thing? It seems you know Persian. Show us Ayatollah's exact statement. If you don't know Persian, have someone with a better knowledge of Persian translate it for you. Don't present your wishful thinking as facts. And as for the kind of change you wish, Iran won't stop its nuclear energy program; it won't stop supporting the anti-zionist movements, and yes, Dr. AHmadinejad will win in elections.

Anonymous / March 25, 2009 5:55 PM

Dear Anonymous, Thank you for the comment. I've posted the relevant text of Mr. Khamenei's speech here: http://tehranbureaublog.blogspot.com/2009/03/happy-friday-happy-spring-happy-nowruz.html. The translation is from the U.S. Commerce Dept. I direct your attention to the last paragraph in particular.KGN

Golnoush / March 25, 2009 9:02 PM

Dear Golnoush:I tried the link. This is what I found:Blog has been removedSorry, the blog at tehranbureau.blogspot.com has been removed. This address is not available for new blogs.Doesn't it speak volumes?Cordially,professor of the Muddle Eastern Literatures and Cultures

Anonymous / March 25, 2009 9:24 PM

Thank you very much for that. Let's try again: http://tehranbureaublog.blogspot.com/2009/03/happy-friday-happy-spring-happy-nowruz.html

Golnoush / March 25, 2009 9:28 PM

For the most part, everyone likes to belittle Ahmadinejad.... I am impressed by the fact that this guy has a PHD in urban traffic planning and engineering, actually fought in the war with Iraq (Mr. Bush after all only joined the weekend reserves to be able to participate in the hazing and boozing it seems) Managed Tehran (poorly or well, it still was more complex than Texas, yet alone, a Baseball team) and then faced off against Bush and Cheney and creamed them both...It may be time for a fresh face, but let's not forget this nemesis was more than a match for Mr. Bush.. I would recommend the neo cons in the republican party to come and take a lesson or two from Mr. A. on how to do it right w style....

Anonymous / March 27, 2009 3:36 PM