Saturday, September 09, 2006

Making Sense of Ahmadinejad

Amir Taheri, The Jerusalem Post:
While diplomats at the United Nations ponder what to do next about the Iranian nuclear program, the state-owned media in Teheran are conducting a psychological campaign to prepare the public for a long crisis if not actual war.

Many Iranians, however, are not sure what the fuss is about and are asking whether the confrontational course adopted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the only, not to say the best, strategy. READ MORE

Doubts about the wisdom of Ahmadinejad's defiant posture, initially voiced by the anti-regime opposition at home and abroad, are now spreading to factions within the Khomeinist regime itself. One example is an article by Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister and advisor to former president Muhammad Khatami. The article, published by an online newspaper owned by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, warns that the Islamic Republic may be courting diplomatic isolation and possible UN sanctions solely because the new radical administration wishes to cultivate a macho image at home and abroad.

At first glance, Tajzadeh's concern, echoed by several members of the Islamic Majlis (parliament), appears well placed. Ahmadinejad decided to reject the package offered by the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, because he was not prepared to offer a minor concession in return.

The concession demanded was that Iran should agree to suspend its uranium processing and enrichment activities. This should not have been difficult for two reasons.

The first is that Iran, in any case, is doing very little uranium processing and no enrichment, despite the threat to embark upon enrichment on an industrial scale at the Isfahan plant.

The second is that Iran has no immediate need of any enriched uranium. In fact, Iran does not have any nuclear power station at all and thus does need enriched uranium for fuel. The only nuclear power station that Iran is building, with Russian help, is scheduled to go on stream next March. Even then, Russia has already signed contracts to provide all the fuel that the plant would need for the first 10 years of its existence. Russia is even ready to provide the fuel for the entire 37-year lifespan of the plant.

AT THE very least, Iran could have agreed to a temporary suspension until next March, allowing negotiations on the 5+1 package to begin. The talks could then have helped foster an atmosphere of trust on both sides and shifted the focus from the very narrow and precise issue of uranium enrichment.

Accepting a temporary suspension would not have hurt Ahmadinejad's macho image. For one thing, his opponents, both within the regime and outside it, support the suspension and could not have blamed him for accepting it. The Rafsanjani-Khatami faction would have had nothing to say on the issue because it had itself accepted a three year-long suspension without receiving any rewards whatsoever.

Launching a process of negotiations would have had further benefits for the Islamic Republic, if only by alleviating the political tension that is already wreaking havoc with the Iranian economy.

Locking the United States into a process of negotiations with the Islamic Republic would have tied the hands of all those in Washington who support regime change in Iran. The process would have enabled the Islamic Republic to call for a lifting of American sanctions that have already crippled the nation's vital oil and gas industry.

In other words, the Islamic Republic would have had everything to gain and virtually nothing to lose from a process aimed at preventing it from doing things that it shouldn't be doing anyway in exchange for massive economic, scientific and technological aid, not to mention international acceptability.

SO, WHY did Ahmadinejad, no doubt with the consent of the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi, choose to reject the package and vindicate the "regime change" faction in Washington?

The first is that Ahmadinejad believes that the Bush administration will not be in a position to turn the heat on Iran at least until the November mid-term elections in the US. If Bush manages to maintain a majority in Congress, Teheran could always agree to a temporary suspension and re-start the process. If, on the other hand, Democrats win control of one or both of the chambers of Congress, Bush would become a lame duck president facing a political elite and public hostile to any new confrontation in the Middle East.

The failure of Americans to develop bipartisan positions even on issues of vital national interest, plays into the hands of adventurers like Ahmadinejad.

The second reason is that Ahmadinejad and his faction have their own electoral calculations. Soon, Iranians would be called upon to choose a new Assembly of Experts and local and municipal councils across the country. If Ahmadinejad's faction succeeds in winning control of the assembly, they would be in a position to either replace Khamenehi as "Supreme Guide" with one of their own, or divest the position of much of its real power.

Finally, it is clear that the Islamic Republic fears any prospect of normalization with the American "Great Satan" at least as much as it worries about ineffective sanctions. The Islamic Republic does not feel self-confident enough to enter a process through which the US will exercise some influence on the course of Teheran's policies. While the conventional wisdom is that it is the US that does not want to talk to the Islamic Republic, there is evidence that the opposite may be true. This is why Teheran has refused to make the symbolic gesture of goodwill the 5+1 group demanded as a prelude to talks.