The two inevitable questions about the Iranian elections are:
(1) Who will win?
(2) Does it make any difference?
No one knows the answer to the first, including even political specialists in Iran. In the past 24 hours I have heard utterly confident predictions by knowledgeable Iranians that Ahmadinejad would win and, alternatively, that his primary rival Mousavi would prevail in a second round runoff election after both fail to get the required 50% in the first round.
I have learned to be cautious. Only a few weeks before Mohammed Khatami won in a 69% landslide in 1997, most experts were predicting that the establishment candidate, who had the clear support of the Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i , would inevitably win. In 2005, just a few weeks before the last presidential election, I spent most of a day with a group of sophisticated Iranian observers and analysts. The name of Ahmadinejad did not even come up in the discussions, since he was regarded as a nonentity with no credible political support or leadership prospects. Of course, he won.
So you’ll get no predictions from me in answer to (1).
Question (2) is more interesting, and of course much more complicated. Regardless of the outcome of the election, Iran’s fundamental interests will not change, and its core policies are unlikely to change radically. Iran will insist on its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, which inevitably will give Iran at least a latent capability to build a nuclear weapon at some point in the future. Iran is also unlikely to change its fundamental opposition to Israel and a two-state solution in Palestine. Iran will certainly not denounce its lengthy relationship with Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So what difference does it make who wins?
A lot. Although it is conventional wisdom to dismiss the presidency as relatively unimportant and totally subservient to the Leader, that grossly underestimates the influence that the Iranian president is able to exert, especially on foreign policy. In the three presidential elections in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran has undergone a series of very important changes that were attributable almost exclusively to the incumbent president.
Mohammed Hashemi Rafsanjani in the early 1990s introduced a new measure of pragmatism into Iran’s policies. He initiated an opening to the Arab states of the region that reversed the hostile policies under Khomeini and has been a major feature of Iran’s foreign policy ever since. Khatami in the 1997-2005 period launched an opening to the United States and promoted a “dialogue of civilizations” that significantly changed perceptions of Iran. There is reason to believe that Khamene`i, despite his authority over foreign policy, was not the prime mover in either of these cases and may even have opposed them. Ahmadinejad, of course, has taken the system back to a policy more resembling the days of Khomeini, with a hostile and confrontational foreign policy, though he has not entirely erased the legacies of his predecessors.
How you see the role of the president of Iran depends very much on your expectations. If you will be satisfied with nothing less than the transformation of a revolutionary and thorny Iran into a benign state that meekly conforms to U.S. policy interests, then you are going to be disappointed with any president. If you believe that the only test of Iran’s policy is whether or not it will get rid of all its centrifuges and content itself with dependence on outside supplies of nuclear fuel, then yes you are likely to be disappointed.
If, however, you believe that genuine progress in slowing or stopping Iran’s nuclear development, together with greatly expanded transparency of its entire nuclear infrastructure, would be an important achievement, then the personality of the president of Iran does make a difference. President Ahmadinejad summarily replaced a tough but expert negotiator on the nuclear file (who was regarded as close to Khamene`i) with a lackey who is as ideological as he is clueless about nuclear policy. Returning to a negotiator who was more technocrat than ideologue would not solve all of the problems in talks with Iran, but it would avoid some superfluous obstacles. Similarly, returning to the days when Iran subordinated its opposition to Israel and its anti-Israeli rhetoric in favor of other policy objectives would not solve the Palestinian issue. But it would improve at least marginally the chances for progress.
If Ahmadinejad is reelected, must all hope of a negotiated settlement with Iran be abandoned? No. But as Ahmadinejad’s political opponents are saying openly in the current campaign (as reported in the link above), his policies have been harmful to Iran and have impaired Iran’s ability to interact effectively with the rest of the world.
So we don’t know how this is going to turn out, but it does matter. The first round of voting is on June 12.
I think Roger Cohen exaggerates Bibi’s “victory” over Obama. There was, indeed, a burst of irrational exuberance among Bibi’s supporters when they heard all the nice words and compliments being sent his way by Obama. That sense was reinforced by the exaggerated predictions of doom with which they had approached this meeting.
You could almost hear their sighs of relief when the worst did not happen.
But in the cold light of the post-visit dawn, my sense from the Israeli press is that whatever sense of triumph and relief they may have felt at first, a hard look at the actual words, combined perhaps with some hints that the private conversations between these two very different leaders were not quite so agreeable as their public utterances, together with the rather blunt words they continue to hear about settlements, have all combined to restore some of the original sense of a potential train wreck.
My reading of the meeting is that Obama is a very good politician who wanted to deliver a tough message without getting into fisticuffs.
Frankly, that makes a lot of sense. The game has just begun.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Everett wrote an important op-ed in the NY Times over the Memorial Day holiday. It wonders whether the Obama administration has not already “lost Iran,” almost before it has begun. [Click on the above title to see the full text.]
The first clue to their very negative interpretation of current U.S. policy toward Iran is their regret that President Obama has refused to pursue “an American-Iranian ‘grand bargain’ — a comprehensive framework for resolving major bilateral differences and fundamentally realigning relations.” Of course this is a disappointment for them since they have been the most prominent, persistent and persuasive advocates of such a “grand bargain.”
Their disappointment is justified. Obama made it clear from the beginning that he was not going to rush into substantive negotiations with Iran at least until the Iranian people had a chance to vote on June 12 in what is perhaps their most important presidential elections in the thirty years since the Islamic revolution. One may argue with that judgment, but I for one think that it was the right approach, since I did not think the Iranians would be in any position to give us a constructive, positive response while the electoral campaign was underway.
There is also a more philosophical concern about a Grand Bargain. One should not confuse a desirable outcome of U.S.-Iran relations with a negotiating strategy. A very successful outcome of negotiations with Iran might indeed incorporate changes in Iran’s nuclear activities, their support for radical organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and cooperation on regional security in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Persian Gulf region; in return for changes in U.S. policy on sanctions, detailed assurances about U.S. involvement with dissident groups aiming to overthrow the Iranian government, and practical adjustments in U.S. regional security activities, e.g. basing, deployments, targeting and operations along Iran’s borders that they may see as threatening.
Although some or all of those elements (or others) may be seen as an ideal outcome by many, it is just that – an outcome, not a negotiating strategy. It is where you hope to emerge, not where you go in. If all these issues are linked together at the start in a highly ambitious package, it will almost certainly fail. An overdose of linkage, in which lack of movement on one front can prevent progress on another, is a recipe for stalling and stalemate.
The Leveretts’ disappointment that these elements have not yet been introduced in the first four months of the Obama administration suggests that they believe such a package is the appropriate starting point for a U.S. engagement with Iran. If so, I suspect that represents a distinctly minority view.
Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett also view with alarm the appointment of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and regional adviser Dennis Ross. Clinton has been much more hostile in her comments about Iran than has President Obama, and they quote Ross (quite persuasively) as favoring negotiations only as precursor to more radical pressure on Iran after the negotiations fail.
If, again, we are thinking about how we enter negotiations with Iran, the tough words of Secretary Clinton could be regarded as a positive factor, if only to let Iran know that there is opposition inside the administration to any easy deal and they should not expect a pushover. After all, that is exactly the posture that Iran strikes – letting everyone know that there are radical and conservative factions within Iran who are likely to view any deal with the United States as appeasement. That is a realistic opening tactic in what is likely to be a difficult and prolonged negotiation, and there is no reason we should not play the same game. We need to be ready to walk away from the table to make a point.
The appointment of Ross is a different matter. His last-second, midnight appointment with an exceptionally fuzzy job description suggests that he was not an uncontested candidate. He joined the Obama campaign early, which should not endear him to Clinton. There have been a number of leaks and unsourced press reports claiming that Ross is functioning as the principal manager of the Iran policy review. A lot of those reports read as if they might have originated with Ross himself, who originally proclaimed himself a kind of Iran policy czar and who clearly aspires to that role. However, when the United States met with the other major powers on the subject of Iran in London recently, Washington was represented by Undersecretary of State Bill Burns with NSC adviser Puneet Talwar, and Ross was nowhere in sight…
There is an emerging Washington parlor sport of trying to figure out who is actually driving U.S. policy on Iran. Dennis Ross started about three years ago to refashion himself from a Palestinian-Israeli maven into an Iran expert. Over that period he wrote a number of papers and op-eds, and he participated as a signatory in other studies and web sites – all of which fit the pattern identified by the Leveretts as favoring lip service to negotiations while insuring failure.
Until just before he was nominated for his present position, Dennis Ross was, among other things, the chair of the Israeli-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute http://www.jpppi.org.il/ which is supported by the Jewish Agency and which produces “professional strategic thinking and planning on short and long-term issues of primary concern to the Jewish People, with special attention to critical choices that have a significant impact on the future.” He was for seven years, quite simply, an informal (but well paid) policy planner for the Israeli government, writing policy papers for the president of Israel, among others. That his policy positions parallel those of the Israeli government should surely come as a surprise to no one. That he favors a pro forma attempt at negotiations with Iran, followed by far more severe sanctions or even military action if and when they fail, should also not be a surprise to anyone who reads the Israeli newspapers.
The real question is whether Dennis Ross is actually in charge of U.S. Iran policy. The Leveretts see his presence as evidence that the Obama administration has succumbed to pressure and has therefore “lost” Iran. They cite Obama’s acceptance of a deadline as ominous evidence that he has caved in to pressure.
But President Obama has been saying something very different. His actual words to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu about prospective Iran negotiations were: “We should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction and whether the parties involved are making progress and that there’s a good-faith effort to resolve differences. That doesn’t mean every issue would be resolved by that point.” Although he appreciated the danger of indefinite talk with no action, he rejected the idea of an “artificial deadline.” Obama is very careful with his use of words, and it is important to pay attention to what he actually says, rather than the words that advocates on various sides may try to put in his mouth. That was no deadline.
The Leveretts distinguish between Obama’s rhetoric and the actual policy, but in fact the rhetoric IS the policy at this stage, and the rhetoric has been entirely Barack Obama – not Hillary Clinton and certainly not Dennis Ross. The real question is: Who is writing Obama’s material, if it is not the Secretary of State or the erstwhile adviser on Persian Gulf policy? (Some have even been heard to suggest that that sneaky Joe Biden is getting in a few licks.) I admit I don’t know, and I would be delighted to get a little enlightenment.
The Leverett article is a timely cautionary note, which reminds us that we need to watch the new administration with a careful and critical eye. However, before we give up on Obama’s negotiating approach, I suggest that we wait until there are actually some negotiations. Let us not start at the end of the process but rather at the beginning, where we (and the Iranians) still find ourselves.
Here is the lede of an article in the Washington Post, reporting on a new study by the Rand Corp. for the US Air Force. It is one of several recent studies by Rand that break from the conventional wisdom that views Iran merely as a threat. These studies add a useful dimension to policy analysis by putting themselves in the shoes of the “enemy” — who doesn’t always look so ferocious when viewed from that perspective…
Report Questions Conventional Wisdom About Iranian Regime
"Tehran feels vulnerable, both from outside and from within." That is just one of a handful of intriguing findings in a study released by the Rand Corp. last week that challenges conventional American thinking about the Iranian regime. The U.S. Air Force Directorate of Operational Plans and Joint Matters sponsored the study, given Iran’s apparent drive to develop nuclear weapons and the likelihood that the United States would use air power as a "first resort" military response to meet that threat.