Hot times and cool heads
24 Mar 2009 18:29
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