August 16, 2005


Meet President George W Ahmadinejad (Arang Keshavarzian, 8/16/05, Asia Times)

Iran now has a 49-year-old devout president with a doctorate in engineering rather than a seminary education. He has been shaped as much by the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the military establishment as by the 1979 revolution and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's circle of students (Khomenini died in 1989).

To date, Ahmadinejad has been active only in local affairs (Tehran municipal and Ardebil provincial governments), not in national politics. In his campaign he was able to combine his loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his staunch social conservatism with a Robin Hood-style populist, anti-corruption message and a promise to bring oil revenue to the home of every Iranian. Thus, in a remarkable move Ahmadinejad maintained and mobilized his very close ties with the conservative establishment - such as the office of the supreme leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the volunteer groups of mobilizers (basij) - while convincing the "common folk" that he was "one of them".

Unlike traditional conservatives, (principally the merchant class and the clerical hierarchy), Ahmadinejad and Iran's neo-conservatives have cobbled together an electoral base comprising the revolutionary military establishment, war veterans and the economically disenfranchised to trumpet a message that is as threatening to capital interests as it is to supporters of democratization and pluralism. [...]

Whatever Ahmadinejad's true intentions, a pragmatic foreign policy is the probable outcome. To begin with, the Islamic republic tends to moderate ideologically driven politicians be they democrats, Islamist radicals, supporters of a centrally planned economy or privatization fans. As the lead article by Saeed Laylaz in the reformist newspaper Sharq explained, the Islamic republic's system has the tendency of transforming radicals, revolutionaries and fundamentalist forces into pragmatists and moderates. [5] This is likely to also be the case for the new administration, which, despite its mission to implement sweeping managerial changes, will face a bureaucratic machine full of overlapping institutions and competing interests. Any government fueled by oil revenues tends to sideline long-term plans and ideologies in favor of stopgap measures and personal gain. Hence, despite his supporters' aspirations and Washington's fears, Ahmadinejad's cabinet will face the same institutional dead ends that its more reformist predecessor faced.

Even if Ahmadinejad and his loyal supporters prove impervious to these structural forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is controlled by Supreme Leader Khamenei, and there is little opportunity for the new and inexperienced president to act independently. In fact, for much of the last eight years, those who sought to downplay Khatami's political powers and importance - such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the American Enterprise Institute - pointed out that foreign policy in Iran is not implemented, let alone dictated, by the president.

The Iranian constitution places foreign relations exclusively in hands of the supreme leader. Thus, if Iran has taken a generally more pragmatic approach to regional and international affairs since the mid-1990s, we have Khamenei to thank as much as Rafsanjani and Khatami. Considering that Ahmadinejad is so closely allied with Khamenei and supporters of the preeminence of his office, it seems unlikely that the new administration will do much more than follow the official line laid down by the supreme leader, as was Khatami's general pattern. [...]

With a seemingly subservient president and potentially fewer domestic critics and rivals in authoritative positions, Khamenei may find greater political opportunity to begin a rapprochement with the US. Under Khatami, achieving major breakthroughs in US-Iranian relations was a difficult task because the Islamic republic's ideological and tactical differences came to the surface and fueled contentions by critics of US-Iranian detente that the Islamic republic would collapse if Khatami had his way.

Since Khatami was susceptible to criticism from government conservatives that he was not anti-imperialist enough, making too many foreign concessions was politically risky. However, with a unified conservative Islamic republic, the prospects for meaningful and serious US-Iranian negotiations may increase. Some argue that peace in Israel and Palestine is more likely when hardliners, such as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and fundamentalist group Hamas, are part of the bargaining process. Likewise, governments driven by neo-conservative leaders in Washington and Tehran, rather than administrations headed by the US Democratic Party and Iranian reformists who can easily be labeled as soft and accommodationist, may enable credible concessions and discussions to take place. Of course, this would require the Bush administration to sincerely engage in deliberations and to compromise on various issues.

There is, of course, no bargaining process in Palestine. Ariel Sharon understood that by acting in his own nation's best interest he could force the Palestinian leadership to act in the best interest of its people. It's likely that the President can similarly poke the Iranians to make the kjinds of political and economic reforms they need without ever negotiating. The first thing he should do is give a speech about Iran's post-Islkamicist furture just like the one he gave about post-Arafat Palestine and Ronald Reagan gave about post-Soviet Russia. It would be a nice touch to make it somewhere in the Middle East.

Mother Knows Best (ZEV CHAFETS, 8/16/05, NY Times)

Last Friday...on the eve of the Gaza withdrawal, in an interview with the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Mr. Sharon gave a strikingly succinct explanation of his diplomacy. "I've reached a deal with the Americans," he said. "I prefer a deal with the Americans to a deal with the Arabs."

American presidents since 1967 have been trying to get Israel to make a deal that includes leaving territories it occupied in the Six-Day War. Until now, not one of them has been successful. But George W. Bush has pulled it off.

This diplomatic success was possible only because Mr. Bush won Ariel Sharon's trust. Previous administrations tried to bribe or pressure Israel into making territorial concessions. The president used different tools - common sense and credibility.

As a master politician, Mr. Bush realized that there were political limits on what Mr. Sharon could do. Neither Mr. Sharon nor any conceivable Israeli prime minister would ever evict the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who now live in East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs of the West Bank. Asking for that would be an automatic deal-breaker. Same for the Palestinian demand that millions of Arab refugees and their descendants be "returned" to Israel. And Israel would never relinquish its option to respond militarily to armed aggression.

Mr. Bush acknowledged these Israeli truths in an official letter he sent to Mr. Sharon in April of 2004. In exchange for that recognition, however, the president asked for - and got - Mr. Sharon's agreement to do what he could do. Evacuating Gaza was one of those things.

The American vision for Middle East peace sees exit from Gaza as a first step. Next comes an Israeli withdrawal from those settlements in the West Bank that aren't already de facto parts of Israel, and then the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2005 9:35 PM

Bill Clinton was also a 'master politician'. However, instead of understanding and appealing to Netanyahu, he dispatched Carville and co. to Israel to help get him replaced by Barak. I believe this led to an extra 2 years of bloodshed.

Ahmadinejad will have to circumvent the 'guardian council' if he is going to get anything of value done. I hope OJ is right, but I do not hold much hope for him.

Posted by: JAB at August 16, 2005 9:51 PM

The best hope is that he kills all the Guardians. Or they kill him. Just being Khameini's proxy doesn't amount to much, and it is difficult to see how anything in Iran will change without some sort of internal jolt like that.

Posted by: ratbert at August 16, 2005 10:38 PM

He was a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Assassin & terrorist training division,
a prison warden at Ervin,

Posted by: narciso at August 17, 2005 7:50 PM