April 6, 2009


Can Iran Change?: High stakes in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reëlection campaign. (Jon Lee Anderson, 4/13/09, The New Yorker)

Many people within Iran’s political establishment privately disdain Ahmadinejad, precisely because of his background. “He’d only travelled outside Iran once before he came to power, and that was just to Iraq for a couple of days,” one former diplomat said. A European diplomat said that a senior Iranian official had confided to him that before Ahmadinejad became President he was the sort of man whom the official would have kept waiting for thirty minutes outside his office, just to put him in his place.

Still, to dismiss Ahmadinejad as a rube is to misunderstand him. He is a populist along the lines of Hugo Chávez, of Venezuela, a politician who knows that his country is full of people like him, and knows how to speak to them. Ahmadinejad is, for some of his supporters, a throwback to the ideological verities of the first years of the Islamic Republic, when Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini reigned, and teen-age boys volunteered to be martyrs. For many Iranians, Ahmadinejad’s promise of restoring Iran’s “rightful place” in the world—and providing subsidies and jobs—holds great appeal.

Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of a nuclear program taps into this nationalism, and has broad support among Iranians. “What they want is respect,” Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, who has been an influential voice on U.S.-Iran policy, said. “And the best way they thought to get it was to master the nuclear fuel cycle.” [...]

How much power Ahmadinejad actually wields in the complex structure of the Iranian state is not transparent at all. There is no one more powerful than Ayatollah Khamenei, who has been Supreme Leader, the country’s paramount religious and political authority and the commander-in-chief of its armed forces, since Khomeini’s death, in 1989. Ahmadinejad requires the approval of the Majlis, or parliament, to pass laws; Khamenei can issue a fatwa. After his election, Ahmadinejad publicly kissed Khamenei’s hand, demonstrating his fealty. Hossein Shariatmadari, who is the Supreme Leader’s representative and the editor of Kayhan, the newspaper of the clerical establishment, said, “Mr. Ahmadinejad, you know, is only the head of the implementation in Iran.”

Their relationship is more complicated than that. On one visit I made to Tehran, with Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, in December, 2006, Iraqi officials who were present for the highest-level meetings told me that Ahmadinejad had been deferential with the Supreme Leader, but that the two men clearly worked closely together. One of Talabani’s senior aides recounted a significant moment. Talabani had given a blunt assessment of the situation in Iraq; at the time, Shiite-Sunni sectarian killings were at their height, and Iranian-backed militias were heavily involved. As Talabani described the violence, Khamenei repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh, how terrible! We are praying for you.” Finally, Talabani interrupted him: “What we need is not prayers, we need medicine.” Khamenei replied, “I will provide the prayers and he”—he gestured to Ahmadinejad—“will provide the medicine.”

“We can guess ourselves silly about the intricacies of Iranian politics,” Lee Hamilton said, “but we will never really know the truth.” Vali Nasr added, “Even Khamenei’s authority is constrained by a whole web of relationships.”

Thomas Pickering, a former Under-Secretary of State, who has been meeting with Iranians in an effort to help formulate a new U.S. policy approach, said, “In talking with the Iranians for several years, we have discovered that it’s difficult to know for certain the Iranians’ internal political architecture. There’s no way to have the tight intelligence to know when the right or wrong time to try talking with them might be. With the opacity of their system, it’s always going to be a kind of crapshoot.” [...]

Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor and rival, is a religious moderate, and thus, in Iranian terms, a reformist. That is the usual formulation. But what does it really mean? There exists a bewildering array of definitions for political types in Iran. They range from hard-line religious conservatives, represented by Ahmadinejad, to religious pragmatists, to religious reformists. “Reformist” is a relative term. No one in Iranian politics is talking openly about separation of church and state, for example, or even contemplating it seriously. When I spoke to Khatami recently, he said that Iran could have “democracy, human rights, and all the freedoms that we want,” but only in an Islamic “moral framework.”

Khatami wavered for months over whether to run in this year’s Presidential race, an indecisiveness that frustrated his followers. He had said from the beginning that if Mir-Hossein Mousavi ran he would drop out, and he did so after five weeks. Mousavi, who is sixty-seven, served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989, but then withdrew from politics for more than a decade, after losing a political battle with Ayatollah Khamenei. (One commentator, remarking on Mousavi’s return, called him “the Persian Cincinnatus.”) What most Iranians remember about him is that he managed an effective rationing system during the Iran-Iraq War, keeping families supplied with basic goods despite severe shortages. Mousavi emerged from the milieu of Iran’s radical left, the members of the revolutionary generation who joined with the clerics to oust the Shah, and were hostile to the West and free-market economics. “Many of the people who became reformists were at the beginning leftist Islamists,” Nasr said. Mousavi is aligned with the reformists and, because of his quarrels with Khamenei and his reputation as a manager, is considered one himself—someone who is willing to challenge the theocrats. But his past makes him relatively appealing to Iran’s clerics and to the Revolutionary Guards; they do not despise him, as they do Khatami.

The reformist camp apparently calculated that Mousavi had the best chance of winning. [...]

Khatami continued, “I am a child of the Revolution, you know. I was involved from the very beginning, with Ayatollah Khomeini. We knew that there had been changes in the world, in science and technology, and that we could not ignore these things. And Iran also needed its independence. Iran has had a great civilization. We religious intellectuals thought we could achieve all of this—that we could achieve modernity and be Islamists, too.” Khatami paused, and said, “We were very different from those who want to take the world backward. . . . The destiny of Islam depends on the outcome of this—Islam that can bring dialogue and logic instead of terrorism, and actually contribute things to the world. I think that’s what Iranians want. And I think that’s what Imam Khomeini wanted, too.”

Many Iranians are not particularly anti-American, or especially concerned with politics. But Ahmadinejad is the product and the defender of a deeply ingrained strain in Iran’s political culture, which tends, historically, toward absolutism. Khomeini and his fellow-clerics scorned the imperial trappings of the Shah’s regime but shared his belief in Iran’s past and future glory—its Persian exceptionalism. Iranian society today is characterized by an unreconciled mixture of religious nationalism and everyday pragmatism. Xenophobia is coupled with a sense of entitlement. The state is a chimera: an Islamic theocracy wedded to a regime chosen in heavily contested (if not entirely free) elections, in a globalized economy. The election this summer will help determine whether Iran’s fractures—at home and abroad—can be repaired through moderation and compromise, or whether the regime will continue to sustain itself through coercion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2009 7:08 AM
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