Iran’s Nuclear Politics

As in Washington, so in Tehran: it’s all about politics

by , February 06, 2013

The good news is that, after many weeks of stalling and delays, negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program are scheduled to begin on Feb 26, in Astana, Kazakhstan. The bad news is that we have no good reason to be at all optimistic about the prospect of a breakthrough. The reason: Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for August, and no settlement is likely until the internal political crisis of the Islamic Republic is resolved.

Penetrating the often opaque internal politics of Iran’s theocracy is key to understanding the reasons for the impasse. To begin with, the popular conception of Iran in the West is that of an authoritarian or even a totalitarian state, which deals harshly with all forms of political dissent and allows no debate, distorts the reality considerably. Iran not only has elections, and a multi-party system, it is also the scene of sometimes bitter political debate, with contending factions openly competing for power and criticizing each other in terms that recall the free-for-all tumult of American politics.

Although there are constraints, these are often overstated. Yes, it’s true that the "Green" reformist movement was put down with an iron fist, and that non-Islamic parties (or parties perceived as such) are disallowed, but within the confines of the Khomeinist paradigm there is vigorous debate, and, indeed, a vicious power struggle is now going on between contending factions of the political class.

On one side are loyal followers and supporters of the Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor as the Supreme Leader, who sits atop a clerical bureaucracy of sub-ayatollahs and directly appoints key figures in the economic, political, and media elite. Since the last presidential elections, in which Khamenei supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against the reformists, the Supreme Leader has been involved in an increasingly open struggle against his former protégé. In the course of this power struggle the nuclear issue has been a political football that has been kicked around for the past two years, although the primary point of contention – who shall rule? – has little if anything to do with it.

The split in the conservative, or "hard-liner" faction has reached a frenzied climax in the prelude to parliamentary elections scheduled for this Friday, with the arrest of a leading supporter of Ahmadinejad – former Tehran chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi – on charges of torturing to death three protesters during the Green Revolution mobilization. The arrest occurred as the Iranian President was visiting Egypt, the first such visit since the Iranian Revolution, and a day after Ahmadinejad played a recording in a meeting of the Majlis (or Parliament) purportedly documenting a bribery attempt by a member of the powerful Larijani family, prominent allies of the Supreme Leader. The scratchy recording supposedly shows Mortazavi being promised a fat business deal in return for switching sides in the internal faction fight. Mortazavi was arrested the next day, just as Ahmadinejad’s plane was taking off for Cairo.

Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader has always been somewhat insecure: he was not expected to succeed Khomeini, and when he did he was forced to consolidate his position against powerful competing currents that were already becoming prominent. He did this, at first, with Ahmadinejad’s support, as well as the support of the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but the two soon fell to quarreling after the reformist challenge of the "Green Revolution" was put down with brutal force.

Khamenei represents the clericalist faction of the "Principalists" (conservatives), who seek to strengthen and institutionalize the role of formal religious structures in the Iranian state, while Ahmadinejad represents the growing power of the secular (i.e. non-clerical, albeit fundamentalist) nationalists concentrated in the Revolutionary Guards and their paramilitary auxiliary, the Basijis, who played such a visible role in the crackdown on the Greens. The Guards, originally a purely military organization, have extended their reach throughout Iranian society, taking over large sectors of the economy and the media.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, has marketed himself as a great populist, the peoples’ ally against an entrenched and corrupted elite, as well as an economic "leftist." He has championed subsidies for the poor, and tighter regulation of the economy, particularly banks, outlawing "usury" and going around the country handing out goodies to his rural supporters. The conservatives around the Supreme Leader have been more interested in promoting the private sector, such as it is in Iran, and the economic interests of the upper classes.

Since this is Iran, there is a religious-theological twist to all this. Ahmadinejad’s supporters have presented his rise in Iranian politics as a sign of the return of the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, whose reappearance is foretold in the Shi’ite sacred texts and is roughly equivalent to the Rapturist vision of the Christian Zionist dispensationalists in America. A documentary video, “The Emergence is Very Near,” made by Ahmadinejad’s supporters in the state-supported cultural apparatus made just such a claim: in return, the Supreme Leader’s faction has labeled this trend a "deviant current," on the grounds that no one can predict when the Mahdi will return. The clerics’ political response was swift: several people close to Ahmadinejad were arrested, last year, on charges of "sorcery"!

The demonization of Ahmadinejad in the Western media has obscured the real outlines of Iranian politics and prevented any understanding of how the nuclear issue is viewed inside Iran. This has been largely in service to the Israel lobby’s contention that the Iranians are irrational actors whose millennialist theology must inevitably lead to a military conflict.

This simplistic narrative is belied, however, by the fact that Ahmadinejad, in spite of his links to the "deviant current," has been more open to compromise with the West than the Supreme Leader and his followers. Khamenei, after all, is 71 years old, a figure from the days before the Iranian Revolution, when the clergy was the center of opposition to the Shah. The 56-year-old Iranian President, on the other hand, is from another generation, one less committed to the clericalist ethos of the post-revolutionary Iranian state and decidedly more pragmatic. He represents a modernizing tendency that seeks to transfer power from the clerical hierarchy to the governmental apparatus, especially the office of the President.

This doesn’t mean he’s necessarily committed on ideological grounds to make a deal with the US on the nuclear issue over the opposition of the Supreme Leader and the clerics: however, his stance – he has openly called for direct talks with Washington – is in keeping with his populist image. Increasingly draconian sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy: the Iranian rial reached new lows the other day, and the people are suffering. Basic medicines are embargoed, and Iranian oil production has slowed to the point where the country is a net importer of energy. Ahmadinejad and his followers are using this misery as a political club to beat back attacks from the Khamenei faction, with some success.

Ahmadinejad must be careful, however, to keep within certain bounds: he can never be seen as selling out to the Americans, and the much-hated Brits. All factions in the Iranian political firmament – including the Greens and reformists of all stripes – support Iran’s nuclear energy program: it is a matter of national pride. Why shouldn’t they enjoy the benefits of technology, just like Westerners?

Although the Supreme Leader is deeply suspicious of Washington’s intentions, the clerics aren’t necessarily opposed to reaching some compromise with the West. Their obstruction of Ahmadinejad’s peace feelers – it was they who scotched last year’s abortive deal to take enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for a lifting of sanctions – was due to a desire to deny the President the credit and political advantage more than their actual foreign policy views. It was, in short, all about political expediency – and that’s the bottom line when it comes to the question of whether we’re going to war with Iran.

My view of foreign relations, which might be called "libertarian realism," holds that the foreign policy of a country is determined largely by the internal politics of the actors. That is, political elites pursue policies – domestic as well as foreign – that secure and augment their power on the home front. Insofar as this theory can be "proved" in real life, Iran is a perfect laboratory experiment.

The source of Iranian political turmoil lies in a crisis of authority: the centers of power are dispersed and divided up among the clerics and technocrats. Ahmadinejad, who studied to be an engineer, embodies the rising power of the latter. In the course of this struggle, the nuclear issue has taken on symbolic importance, with nuclear power representing Iran’s entrance into modernity, as well as its entrance onto the world stage on an equal par with the West.

This why Iran’s nuclear energy program is supported by virtually everyone in Iran. The question is: at what price?

Amid the tides of a rising nationalism and generational change, Iranian politics is in flux, and the future is up for grabs. Ahmadinejad and his fellow "modernizers" are eager to ride that wave into a position of permanent dominance, displacing the clergy and the office of the Supreme Leader, – who will be kicked upstairs like the British monarch and "reign" in a symbolic manner, while the real power is concentrated in the hands of the state. Their attempted coup has been met with fierce resistance, both from the "right" – the clergy – and the "left," i.e. the reformists. Mortazavi’s arrest and imprisonment is the latest chapter in that ongoing drama, which will reach a climactic denouement in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for August.

No progress is apt to be made in Astana, or anywhere the negotiators meet, until after the long hot Iranian summer is over: consumed by an internal struggle that often seems like a low-intensity civil war, the Iranians are too preoccupied – and divided – to reach any kind of consensus on the nuclear issue. If the foreign policy of a nation is determined by the ebb and flow of its internal political currents, then the trade winds of Iran have not yet given us a sign as to which way they are blowing.

That verdict was delivered in our own country this November, when the voters reelected Barack Obama and rejected the Israel lobby’s Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, whose hard-line foreign policy rhetoric gave a war-weary electorate the impression he would be far more willing to bomb Iran than the President. Keeping in mind that such trans-national analogies are always inexact, to say the least, one might think of the November election results as the defeat of the conservative clerics at the hands of the slightly loony and unpredictable "modernizers."

The Obama administration is by no means committed to a more peaceful foreign policy as a matter of principle: like the Iranians, however, they too are compelled by economic and political necessity to pull in their militarist horns and wind down more than a decade of constant wars. Given the right concatenation of events inside Iran, particularly the decisive triumph of one side or the other in the power struggle within the political class, we just might get lucky and avoid another devastating and disastrous war in the Middle East.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I’m on Twitter quite a bit these days: you can follow me here.

Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

Buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books,2000), here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo