reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Crisis Deepens

4 MINS READMay 5, 2009 | 01:59 GMT
It is rare that we address the same issue in consecutive Geopolitical Diaries, but occasionally an event discussed one day warrants closer examination the next. In yesterday’s diary, we noted that the Iranian political establishment was in crisis because many within the political establishment were openly referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's domestic and foreign policies as a national security liability. Adding to the issue, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who in the past has gone out of his way to defend the president – on Monday overruled Ahmadinejad's decision to fire the head of a key state institution, and Tehran announced that the president's trip to Latin America had been indefinitely postponed. Though Khamenei has reversed a presidential decision before — in early 2008 he ordered Ahmadinejad to implement a law calling for natural gas to be supplied to remote villages — the context and timing of Monday's action is noteworthy: It comes little more than a month before Iran’s presidential election, in which Ahmadinejad is expected to seek a second term. For Ahmadinejad, facing mounting criticism from opponents affiliated with a number of state institutions was one thing. The Supreme Leader publicly rebuking him and the cancellation of a trip abroad is quite another. Given the murkiness of the Iranian political system and its elections, it is not clear what effect Monday's events will have on Ahmadinejad's re-election bid. But it is becoming clearer that the approaching election is shaking up the status quo on Iranian foreign policy. STRATFOR has said before that any substantive progress on the Obama administration's efforts to engage Iran’s clerical regime diplomatically will come only after the presidential elections. The Iranians need to sort things out on the home front before they agree on a response to the overtures from the United States. Despite the complexity of their political system and decision-making process, the Iranians until fairly recently have managed to achieve consensus on how to pursue their foreign policy goals. This was partly because the conservatives were a coherent group and — since the mid-1990s — were further unified by the rise of left-of-center forces. The resurgence of the conservatives in 2004 and the rise of the hard-right under Ahmadinejad the following year, however, set off a process of fragmentation within the conservative establishment. Meanwhile, the U.S. decision to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003 created a situation that the Iranians wanted but for which they likely were not prepared. Ensuring that a new Iraq would be dominated by Iran's Shiite allies required extensive back-channel dealings with the United States. The logical outcome of this dynamic would be a restoration of public U.S.-Iranian diplomacy on issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Tehran's nuclear program. But despite considerable concessions from the Obama administration, such dealings have yet to take place — primarily because the Iranians disagree on how to achieve their goal of securing both their western and eastern neighbors as launch pads for regional power projection. For a very long time, the Iranians were accustomed to playing defense and opposing the United States. But they now face an unprecedented situation: They need to cooperate substantively with the United States in order to assert themselves beyond their borders. These issues have exacerbated the rift between the rival conservative factions in Tehran. The pragmatists want to seize the opportunity and work out a deal with the United States in order to realize Tehran's national security and foreign policy objectives. The hard-liners argue that giving up the path of "resistance" would lead to the Islamic Republic's undoing. The differences between these factions are unlikely to be settled by the outcome of the June 12 election. Regardless of whether Ahmadinejad secures a second term, a consensus among the stakeholders in Tehran will not materialize anytime soon — which means that U.S.-Iranian diplomatic dealings will continue to be an excruciatingly slow process.

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