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February 05, 2007

Separating Ahmadinejad from Iran
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

I am not anything close to an expert on Iran, but like anyone else with an interest in how to rehabilitate US foreign policy, I've been reading and thinking more about this rising Persian power in recent months.  Its pretty obvious that a resolution that reintegrates Iran into the international system and normalizes relations with the US, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will have to be at the very least sidelined.   This is so whether such a rapprochement were to occur prior to the realization of Iran's nuclear ambitions, or afterward as part of an effort to get Iran to behave responsibly as a nuclear power bound by traditional rules of deterrence. 

This and many other pieces explain why Ahmadinejad won't be part of the solution.   He is a regional power-monger whose appeal is predicated on rejecting any concession to the West.  While experts seem to agree that among the most important offerings the US could make in the context of a diplomatic resolution to the Iran standoff is a blanket security guarantee, Ahmadinejad's fiery personae could never abide the idea of Iranian security being beholden to a pledge from Washington.  Ahmadinejad's hold on power rests in his revolutionary populism and his fearless willingness to stand up to the US and the world.  The minute a diplomatic compromise is reached, his raison d'etre as a leader is destroyed.  On the other side, the fear Ahmadinejad has sown in Israel and the West means that even if he were to transform himself in a moderate direction, the rest of the world would never trust it.

While Flynt Leverett and others have made a compelling case that the best resolution to the Iran standoff is a grand diplomatic bargain, Ahmadinejad will need to be jettisoned before such a breakthrough is possible.  This doesn't mean that without Ahmadinejad a deal is guaranteed or even likely.  Far from it.  Anti-Americanism, Islamic radicalism and nuclear aspirations do not stop with Ahmadinejad.   But there are longstanding signs that other leaders in Tehran leaven these beliefs with more pragmatic calculations of the country's political and economic interest.

In Iran's convoluted power structure, Ahmadinejad's status as President means less than it would in a Western democracy.  Just how much sway and staying power he has are matters of debate.  His obsession with bucking international pressure to stem Iran's nuclear program has come at the expense of delivering on promised economic reforms.  Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini has the power to oust Ahmadinejad, and there are rumors that relations between the two are increasingly strained.  Student protesters have decried Ahmadinejad's denunciation of the Holocaust, arguing that it is discrediting Iran.  Its hard to know how much to make of these seemingly promising signs, but given the alternative of a potential armed conflict, it sure seems worth trying to build on them.

All this speaks to the difference between rogue leaders and rogue states, a distinction that strikes me as warranting more attention and analysis than we've given it.

Make rhetorical distinctions between Ahmadinejad and Iran - As the White House heats up the rhetoric on Iran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq, little effort is made to differentiate between the present regime and the country as a whole, including its population.  If our goal is to pry Ahmadinejad away from his support base, that distinction should be drawn (as was done with the Taliban vis-a-vis the people of Afghanistan and for Saddam in relation to Iraq).

Avoiding shoring up Ahmadinejad - We need to avoid steps that buttress Ahmadinejad's hold on power.  There's more to it than this, but given the US's unpopularity in the region, its a good bet that the more this looks like a direct standoff between Tehran and Washington, the more that serves Ahmadinejad.  Thus the importance of maintaining a measured stance and a united front with Europe and others. 

Expand measures that weaken Ahmadinejad - Signs suggest that even the weak sanctions now in place have pinched the Iraqi people and hurt Ahmadinejad's popularity.  Thus the impetus to go further.  If its true that many Iranians worry that the President's outspoken Holocaust denial is damaging his country's credibility, this can also be played up through more aggressive international repudiation of this discredited stance.  But open efforts to discredit Ahmadinejad or pressure Iranians to turn away from him could yield the opposite result.

Work back channels to other leaders - I don't know to what degree back channels with other Iranian leaders like relatively pragmatic Iranian National Security Adviser and nukes chief Ali Larjani are open and active.  It was thought for a time that James Baker's meetings in Iran as part of his work on the Iraq Study Group were the beginnings of a second diplomatic track, but the reception afforded Baker's proposals makes that seem unlikely.  The Administration's blunt rejection of the proposal to engage Iran to discuss the deteriorating situation in Iraq suggests that such contacts, if happening at all, are deeply buried.

Making clear that the door remains open if Iran is ready to alter course - In the fall the Administration sent several signals - its agreement to lift sanctions to allow for the repair of Iranian civilian aircraft and its decision to leave the package of incentives offered to deter Iran's nuclear program on the table even after Tehran refused it - that showed open-mindedness and a willingness to embrace an Iranian change of heart should one manifest.  Of late, the rhetoric has stiffened and no longer seems to speak to those seeking to wring change from within.  If more moderate Iranians become convinced Washington is bent on war come what may, they may see little incentive to back more moderate leadership.


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Wow, I hardly know where to start.

First, Ahmadinejad is not "in power" in Iran. He has no more authority than our Interior Secretary. Whatever he says or does is mandated by Imam Khomeini--Iran is an Islamist state.

Second, Iran has made all kinds of overtures to the US, trying to ease tensions, including a letter from Ahmadinejad to Bush. These are remarkable when you consider our history with constant meddling in Iran's affairs, threats, and egregious acts such as the assassination of Iran's premier, the installation of our brutal puppet shah and our support of Iraq in its bloody war on Iran. All they have gotten for these overtures are threats of nuclear attack and fifty warships off their shores. The US refuses to have diplomatic relations with Iran. Where's James Baker?

Third, the charges that Ahmadinejad has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and denies the holocaust are incorrect. They were concocted by a Zionist translation service, MEMRI, together with the New York Times. Go here and here.

Fourth, Europe is somewhat irrelevant to all this. Iran enjoys support from Russia, China, India and the Non-aligned Movement of 115 nations, many of whom applaud Iran's resistance to US world hegemony AKA The City On The Hill.

Fifth, let's keep in mind that Iran is in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty, which the US and Israel are not. Iran has called for the denuclearization of the Middle East to the rebuff of the United States. Hey, it's a big secret, Israel (an NPT non-signer) has atom bombs, ssh don't tell anybody.

Well that's a start.

The second link is:

What's the point of this post, Suzanne? Who are you talking to?

For the next 2 years there will be no good faith negotiations from this administration. Just a few months ago the hawks scuttled talks by leaking the necessary face saving measures for Iran. It's child's play for Cheney.

All you're doing is reinforcing a false sense of crisis and playing into Bush's hands.

We could be just weeks away from a disastrous war with Iran that will backfire badly on America and Israel. That's the real crisis, and the Dems need to speak up now to counter this insanity.

I would take issue with several aspects of your interpretation, Suzanne.

Ahmadinejad is indeed a populist who, like Hugo Chavez, seeks popularity at home and abroad by portraying himself as someone who resists US imperialism and domination. His target audiences are domestic and global. He sees himself as one of the heads of a new global non-aligned movement standing up for the dignity of middle powers and lesser powers against US and western imperialism.

But I don't see see much evidence that Iran under Ahmadinejad is a "regional power monger". Where, for example, are the threatening Iranian armies poised to seize more power? And Iraq? Iran's increased influence in Iraq is due almost entirely to the upshot of a chaotic reorganization of that country that was caused by the US invasion, and the Shia ascendancy in Iraq was essentially thrown into Iran's lap by the US. Da'wa and Sciri were both part of the Iraqi National Congress and received US backing early on - throughout the 90's - in spite of their connections with Iran. Their ascendancy in Iraq is not owing to any Iranian skullduggery, but is a natural result of the political empowerment of Shia Iraqis due to the toppling of Saddam and the establishment of an elected government.

Iran's activities in Iraq since the war actually seem quite restrained. For example, Shia groups come under heavy insurgent attack almost every day via car bombs and truck bombs, and yet we don't see Iranian air assaults against Sunni strongholds, the provision of heavy weaponry to Shia forces, etc. Instead we see a lot of diplomatic and other activity aimed at propping up the very same government that the US claims to support.

Hizbollah is another group often cited as evidence of a new Iranian assertiveness. But Hizbollah is on a continuation of the political trajectory it began long before there was an Ahmadinejad - one that seems driven far more by Lebanese politics than Iranian manipulation.

The Iran-Syria relationship is also sometimes cited as evidence for Iranian "power-mongering" in the region. But this relationship goes back about 25 years, and was cultivated heavily by Ahmadinejad's predecessors. The Bush administration's renewed diplomatic belligerance toward the two countries, followed by the US invasion of Iraq, gave it renewed vigor - before Ahmadinejad came on the scene.

I dispute the notion that Ahmadinejad will not or cannot make a deal with the West, or that his domestic "appeal is predicated on rejecting any concession to the West." While insisting on Iran's right, under the NPT, to a domstic nuclear power program, Ahamdinejad has left the door open on several occasions to negotiations. And certainly the broader Iranian government has done so. It has sought to create opening for negotiation on several occassions, but the White House has at the same time worked hard to kill these openings, including one developed by their own former ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad. They also worked to censor Flynt Leverett for having the temerity to inform the American public about the existence. And of course the frequent floating of regime change calls in well-connected US circles has played a role in dampening the potential for negotiations.

The posture of Iran toward negotiations with the West appears to be predicated on the demand for a modicum of respect and dignity. It will not negotiate to the extent that those negotiations are seen as knuckling under to imperialist demands and dictation of terms. The current US posture based on preconditions seems designed to prevent such negotiations from occuring as the US regime buys time to work on Iranian regime change.

My reading of Ahmadinejad is that he is a "talker" - a person who feels he has a lot to say and get off his chest, and craves an audience and attention. He has written long and rather philosophical epistles to the US president and the American people - somewhat strange for the president of a country. Such people - the soapbox-cravers - are not noted for being hard bargainers. They tend to regard attention and recognition as victories in themselves, and are often overly willing to give away much in exchange for the soapbox.

It is true thought that negotiations with Iran will probably have to avoid Ahmadinejad - at least initially. For domestic US political reasons, Ahmadinejad cannot be the face of Iran's negotiations, so talks should be established at the ministerial level - Rice, or some appointed US representative, Larijani or some other figures.

I'm not so sure that sanctions per se are having that much of an effect. What clearly is having an effect is simply the perception, by both the Iranian people and some of the leadership, of the alienation Iran is experiencing because of some of Ahmadinejad's rather unusual diplomacy - especially the effects of his ridiculous holocaust revisionism conference, which is rightly seen by many Iranians as a public relations disater for the country.

By the way, I'm not so sure it is as easy as you suggest for the Leader in Iran to get rid of the president. While the Leader under the Iranian consitution does have the unilteral power to remove various government officials, the removal of the president has more conditions attached:

10.Dismissal of the' President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country, after the Supreme Court holds him guilty of the violation of his constitutional duties, or after a vote of the Islamic Consultative Assembly testifying to his incompetence on the basis of Article 89 of the Constitution.

A lot of US liberals seem overly invested in the erratic and poorly conceived UN process underway. But the UN hasn't covered itself in glory in this case. The desire to keep the crazy US administration on the reservation has led it to appease Bush, Bolton and Co., and knuckle under on some ill-advides resolutions and santions, only to think better of them afterward.

"While Flynt Leverett and others have made a compelling case that the best resolution to the Iran standoff is a grand diplomatic bargain, Ahmadinejad will need to be jettisoned before such a breakthrough is possible."

While Flynt Leverett and others have made a compelling case that the best resolution to the Iran standoff is a grand diplomatic bargain, Bush will need to be jettisoned before such a breakthrough is possible.



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In Iran's convoluted power structure, Ahmadinejad's status as President means less than it would in a Western democracy.

Weird. Ahmadinejad's status as President means more that it would in Germany, Israel, or Ireland. Suzanne Nossel seems to have some strange ideas about Western democracies.

Similarly, we will not be able to reach an accommodation with Libya until Qaddafi goes.

Oh, wait.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account,

Similarly, we will not be able to reach an accommodation with Libya until Qaddafi goes.

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