Mixed signals of Iran politics

August 14, 2006|By SANAM VAKIL

Nuclear politics have transformed Iranian politics.

Once vibrant and integrated, the regime under President Mohammad Khatami was engaged and active in international relations, having emerged from the shroud of isolation into the warmth of the community of nations. The excitement of the domestic reform movement nonetheless motivated Iran's youthful population, albeit fleetingly, to bask in the warmth of the "Tehran Spring."

Such flourishing was soon contained as government hard-liners were threatened by the prospect of any regime change. Slowly and methodically, Mr. Khatami and his ambitions were restricted to foreign policy pronouncements, while a domestic institutional purge began to strike at the internal opponents of the regime.

Throughout this time, President Khatami maintained diplomatic links with the international community, using his foreign ministry to broker the nuclear negotiations that began in 2003.

The 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, led to a reversal of fortune.

His election not only brought a unified conservative bloc to the government, but his confrontational foreign policy altered Iran's nuclear strategy. At first, President Ahmadinejad's aggressive tactics were shunned in Tehran. But, today, they are welcome.

During a recent visit to Tehran, in meetings north and south of town, I heard a chorus of unanimity on the need to stand firm in defiance of American pressure. After four years of negotiations and frustrations, Iran's nuclear program, as argued by a colleague, has come to represent "modernization, independence and resistance." These three aspirations dominate the regime's mindset.

Indeed, President Ahmadinejad has more strength and support because of his assertive policies. There exists a common perception that he has brought Iran more regional respect and international concessions with regard to the nuclear program. Interestingly, time and again, I heard that Iran's nuclear posturing was a result of American threats, sanctions and regime change policy. For Tehran, the vulnerable security environment reinforces the need for an enhanced nuclear program to protect the regime and those at its helm.

The Islamic Republic is a regime with unique contradictions. As the U.N. Security Council has imposed a final conciliation deadline of Aug. 31 through Resolution 1696, Tehran has only weeks to solve its nuclear dilemma. It's the final countdown.

Despite the usual statements and harsh rhetoric emerging from Tehran, the government is up to its old antics, attempting to broker a last-minute exit strategy to avoid sanctions. Its deputy petroleum minister, Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Hossenian, has subtly suggested that oil will rise above $100 a barrel because of the Middle East crises, including the forthcoming Iranian one. More importantly, Mr. Ahmadinejad, having been rejected by the West, is engaging the East. At the Organization of Islamic Conference held Aug. 3 in Malaysia, he called for a cease-fire in the current Lebanese war and argued yet again that the region would be more peaceful "without the existence of the Zionist regime."

By challenging Israel as well as taking on the banner of Hezbollah, Tehran seeks to illustrate its indispensability in the region. A majority of Iranians believe their country should be a player in the region, which would improve security for the entire region.

Moreover, many feel that President Ahmadinejad's personal letters to President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- despite their content -- were an attempt by him to engage the West on the nuclear issue.

These veiled attempts at moderating Iran's nuclear position haven't convinced the Security Council that Iran has changed its position at all. And what President Ahmadinejad fails to realize is that the patience of the West has run out. After compromising tremendously, the Security Council needs to see an Iranian compromise.

As the deadline swiftly approaches, the Iranian people, amid the economic morass and political disappointment, are resigned to the reality of sanctions. With talk already circulating in Tehran of gasoline rationing to prepare for the inevitable, it is clear that the masses are the ones who will bear the burden of the return to sanctions and isolation. Many recalled the eight painful years of the Iran-Iraq war, knowing that if they survived then they can do so again. The people are less concerned about what awaits them. The regime, however, clearly is not.

Why else would it be sending such mixed signals?

Sanam Vakil is an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her e-mail is svakil1@jhuadig. admin.jhu.edu.

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