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Iran's Domestic Woes Dictate Outcome of Nuclear Talks

by GENEIVE ABDO and SHAYAN GHAJAR

20 Jan 2011 00:43Comments
ad47124eacf11404bf65e38ae251-grande.jpg[ opinion ] As Tehran's government prepares to discuss its nuclear program in Istanbul with the P5+1 on January 21 and 22, the behavior of Iran's leaders is likely to be influenced by whether they believe they are in a weak or strong position at home. Historically, when Iran has felt weak, there was a greater chance of Tehran striking a compromise with the West.

At the moment, Iran faces several domestic conflicts which expose the increasing fragmentation within the state. Internal divisions between hardline loyalists of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate traditional conservatives are widening, as Ahmadinejad is forced to defend a controversial vice president from political attack. Simultaneously, Ahmadinejad himself is under fire for his aggressive annexation of powers previously within the domain of the legislative and judicial branches.

Supreme Leader Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad during the post-election protests of 2009 is taking a toll on his ability to maintain the cohesion of the government. Khamenei faces a great dilemma: he has invested too much in Ahmadinejad to de-legitimize him, but he also needs the support of Ahmadinejad's foes -- the moderate conservatives who threaten to impeach the president. In fact, some Western diplomats posted in Tehran believe Khamenei will tap a moderate conservative -- not another hardliner -- when Ahmadinejad's presidential term expires.

In order to provide balance so that one faction does not become too powerful -- Khamenei's classic style of governing -- he has taken away powers from Ahmadinejad and given them to other institutions. For example, this month Khamenei announced that the Expediency Council will work to resolve a dispute over how much power the president should hold in selecting the chief of the Central Bank. The Expediency Council is an advisory body for the Leader with ultimate adjudicating power in disputes over legislation between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The Supreme Leader appoints its members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures. The current head is former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a bitter Ahmadinejad foe.

As the infighting continues in the government, the Islamic Republic is also renewing its efforts to neutralize all political dissent. Recent weeks have witnessed a controversy surrounding whether or not opposition leaders Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi will be arrested and put on trial for their actions during the emergence of the Green Movement. Tehran's Chief Prosecutor called for their arrest, while the Supreme Leader seems to have opted for simply stifling the opposition leaders. It is believed that Khamenei's preference is to make them irrelevant by keeping them under quasi-house arrest. Even in this discussion, the schisms within the government are becoming more pronounced.

The Islamic Republic is also intensifying the scope and severity of its campaign against women's rights activists. For their unprecedented activities in the post-election protests, women and women's rights campaigners are being targeted on an unimaginable scale, more so than any other category of dissenters. Their situation worsens daily.

Finally, Iran's government faces an external threat as the past year has witnessed the assassinations of prominent scientists connected to the nuclear program. Iran's Ministry of Intelligence claims to have cracked an Israeli-trained spy ring responsible for the scientists' murders. Meanwhile, Israel's recently-retired chief of Mossad declared that Iran's nuclear program has been delayed -- though he offered no precise details as to why -- and will be incapable of nuclear weapons production until 2015. The world learned the reason, after the New York Times published an expose on Jan. 16, which stated that Iran's nuclear program was experiencing setbacks due to the Stuxnet computer virus. The Times reported that the virus was masterminded by the United States and Israel.

As Iran prepares to go to Istanbul, its leaders face a host of problems at home and abroad. The question is whether the Iranians believe they would become empowered by making any compromises on their nuclear program.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and the editor and creator of www.insideiran.org. This commentary is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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