Friday, December 30, 2005

Friend or Foe?

Rasha Saad, Al-Ahram:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landslide victory in Iran's presidential elections in June ushered in a new era of Iranian history, one that has kept the world waiting with bated breath. International expectations of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani -- considered a pragmatist -- topping the ballot box, were spoiled at the polls, as were hopes of turning over a new leaf in Iran's relations with the US, and keeping the Iranian nuclear issue from being referred to the UN Security Council.

The reformists' defeat, however, should not have been a surprise. READ MORE

2004 saw the popularity of Mohamed Khatami, the president at the time, plummet, as the public became increasingly disillusioned about his inability to push through reforms. It also saw growing public scepticism over the reformists' ability to deliver on promises of greater democracy, and more jobs for Iran's 10 million unemployed. Parliamentary elections in 2004 were described as a political earthquake, with pro-reform candidates, who had dominated parliament since 1997, winning only 40 seats in the 290-seat assembly. Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a conservative, replaced reformist Mehdi Karroubi as parliamentary speaker.

The sudden victory of ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad must be placed in this context, as should the fear that he will turn the process -- begun by his predecessors Rafsanjani and Khatami -- of re-integrating Iran into the international community around.

Within months of being sworn in, Ahmadinajad was making headlines with fiery comments, causing controversy inside and outside Iran. He stunned the world in November when he said that Israel should be "wiped off the map". Some argued that the rhetoric merely pointed to political inexperience, that the Iranian president might not have been fully aware of its impact. But the fact that Ahmadinejad refused to back down, and made even more controversial comments just weeks later, showed that the speeches were not accidental. He refuted the Holocaust, and asked Europeans to "give part of Europe to the Zionist regime and let them establish any government they want".

Ahmadinejad's timing is interesting. For the past two years, controversy over the Iranian nuclear file has preoccupied world powers, with referral of the issue to the Security Council serving as a constant threat to the Islamic Republic. Thus while it is not uncommon for senior Iranian officials to criticise Israel, Ahmadinejad's comments, made amidst international suspicion over Iranian intentions, did much to confirm fears that the newly elected president was reverting to a hard-line foreign policy. Aware of the consequences, reformists rang alarm bells. Former President Khatami criticised Ahmadinejad, saying, "those words have created hundreds of political and economic problems for us in the world."

While nuclear talks with the EU were stumbling when the reformists were in charge, they came to a halt when Ahmadinejad assumed power. One week after swearing in its new president, Iran carried out its threat, and resumed work at a uranium conversion plant near Isfahan. Two tense weeks of debate between Tehran and the EU did not succeed in convincing Iran to forego its nuclear ambitions, and ended with an Iranian rejection of the EU package of incentives that included a trade agreement with Europe and help getting Iran into the World Trade Organisation.

Why was the Iran-EU package of trade and cooperation incentives, in return for "objective guarantees" that Tehran will not develop nuclear weapons, turned down? According to the Iranians, negotiations went well in the first stage. They claim, however, that the Europeans came under intense pressure from the US to politicise the talks, demanding that Iran offer guarantees that it would reconsider its policies in the Middle East, especially with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another sticking point: while Iran insists that its suspension of uranium enrichment is a voluntary and temporarily move, they fear that the US, and apparently the Europeans, are aiming for Iran to fully halt all nuclear activities the same way Libya did -- a demand Iran totally rejects.

At the beginning of 2005, bets remained divided between Iran and Syria as to who would be next, after Iraq, on the US regional hit list. Following Rafiq Al-Hariri's assassination in Beirut in February, and subsequent efforts to pressure, or possibly oust, the Syrian regime, an imminent military strike or confrontation with Iran seemed farfetched. Postponing a confrontation with Iran, analysts argue, is related to the US quagmire in Iraq, with any confrontation with Iran at this time only making that situation worse.

Controversy over how much influence Iran has in Iraq continues to concern analysts, despite a widely circulated report from the International Crisis Group, published in March, that found little evidence of Iranian attempts to destabilise Iraq, or even successfully intervene in other ways. Reports of Iranian involvement in Iraq have circulated since the fall of Saddam Hussein. They increased amid Iraqi elections in January, in which many Iranian allies -- top Shia politicians, many previously exiled in Iran -- gained power in Baghdad. Several Arab countries have become alarmed by these developments, especially Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said that the US invasion and occupation had widened sectarian rifts to the point of handing Iraq to Iran.

Iran does not deny having what it terms "influence", but rejects allegations that it is "meddling" in Iraq. According to the Iranians, Iran has legitimate interests in Iraq's stability, as well as acting as a counter-balance to America's agenda. Fearing a recurrence of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, Iran wants guarantees of a friendly government in Baghdad. Having a government hostile to Iran and friendly to the US on its borders is seen, understandably, as great danger, since the Iranian regime has been described by Washington as a member of the "axis of evil", and a potential US military target.

Iranian analysts find it ironic that Arab officials criticise Iran about its stance on Iraq, while remaining passive about the US invasion, with some countries even offering logistic support to the US operation. Iranians have always argued that since Arabs chose to be absent from the Iraqi scene, Iranians refuse to act in the same manner.

It is in this context that relations between Iraq and Iran developed during 2005. Agreeing that former president Saddam Hussein's regime was the aggressor in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Iran and the interim Iraqi government looked forward to "a period of friendship and peace". A remarkable three-day first visit to Iraq by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in June marked a new chapter in Iraqi-Iranian relations. Also, shortly after Saudi accusations of Iranian interference in Iraq, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani arrived in Tehran -- the first Iraqi president to visit Iran in the past four decades -- heading a high-level political and economic delegation on an official visit. He insisted that Iran was "not interfering in Iraq's internal affairs", and that, "the Iraqi president, prime minister, entire cabinet, and parliament members are Iran's friends".