Iran: Dealing with Ahmadinejad
Iran: Dealing with Ahmadinejad

Iran: Dealing with Ahmadinejad

Ignoring the hardline president is the wrong approach to Iran in an election year.

Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda promises engagement with Iran, but many are advising him to delay any moves until after the Iranian presidential elections in June. Their reasoning is that the new administration should not "reward" Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad by allowing him to take credit for "delivering" dialogue with Washington, which may help his re-election chances.

This, however, would be the wrong approach.

By firing off a letter of congratulations to Obama immediately after his victory in November and showing expectations of a change in U.S. foreign policy, Ahmadinejad put himself in a win-win situation.

If Obama ignores the missive, he would offer Ahmadinejad a perfect opportunity to lead an anti-American crusade. This would help the Iranian president in distracting the public from holding him accountable for his failed economic policies, and it would paralyze the other presidential contenders in the critical months before the election. Ultimately, a non-response could facilitate Ahmadinejad's re-election on an anti-American platform, something he may be wishing for and expect.

The question is not whether Obama should respond. Obama wants to convey a number of messages to Iran's leadership, especially the importance of a comprehensive dialogue to address Iran's nuclear ambitions. He also wants to discuss parallel interests in stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region; and modify Iran's support for what Washington sees as terrorist organizations.

In terms of how to convey these messages, one option would be to ignore Ahmadinejad, his annoying grandstanding and reprehensible rhetoric, and engage directly with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei through his office and advisers, especially his senior diplomatic aide, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister. Khamenei holds the real power in Iran and has the final say on all strategic and diplomatic options.

However, a frustrated Ahmadinejad would promptly denounce an overture that bypassed him, the formal head of state, as betraying the Islamic revolution's principles. And he would succeed, because he has smartly staked out his political space by occupying the domain of the regime's most radical ideology. In doing so, he has deprived his rivals of the capacity to contradict him publicly. Who among Iran's leaders could oppose Imam Khomeini's Islamic legacy? Ahmadinejad's defense of the revolution's dogmas and anti-American roots would be so loud that Khamenei would not contradict him.

Moreover, Khamenei fully supported Ahmadinejad's initiative to write to Obama. The letter therefore expresses the supreme leader's will. This means that any attempt to circumvent the letter's author could be interpreted as unacceptable meddling in the constitutional order and Ahmadinejad would seize on it to denounce Washington's imperialist posturing in choosing its Iranian interlocutors. Again, no one would contradict the elected president.

The Iranian president has become such an obsession that ostracizing and avoiding him has become the core of policy toward Iran.

This "everyone but Ahmadinejad" strategy is inappropriate for two main reasons. First, betting on Ahmadinejad's electoral defeat involves taking an irrational risk. Chances are better than average that the incumbent will be returned to office. Moreover, a strategy based on an anti-Ahmadinejad agenda would suck the U.S. into a factional game that would instantly discredit those who are Washington's preferred interlocutors. Ahmadinejad would tar them as traitors, and his denunciation of the U.S. for interfering in the elections would resonate beyond the regime's core supporters in the much broader community of staunch Iranian nationalists.

Furthermore, the elections will not determine whether Iran will take the path of rapprochement with the U.S. It is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is in charge of strategic issues. If the leader favors dialogue, he will impose his decision to initiate it on everyone, including the president. On this issue there is no "good" versus "bad" candidate. Were Ahmadinejad to be reelected, he might very well implement a strategy of detente with the U.S. if this is Khamenei's will. Inversely, Ahmadinejad's defeat in June would not mean an easier path toward dialogue. There is no pro-American candidate on the horizon.

The U.S. must act quickly for four reasons:

First, delays will play in Ahmadinejad's favor. Waiting until after the elections will improve his electoral fortunes more than starting a dialogue with him before June.

Second, there is a major advantage in dealing with Ahmadinejad. Since he is the most radical among Iranian political actors, any dialogue with him will have to be continued by a more moderate successor if he is defeated.

Third, talking to Ahmadinejad will neutralize his ability to sabotage a dialogue, while the real decisions will be taken not by him but by Khamenei.

Finally, successful dialogue cannot be limited to individual items but must be guided by a strategic vision of mutual benefit that takes into account Iran's demand for respect, sovereignty and recognition of its status as a key player in the Middle East. Only by treating Iran as a necessary interlocutor on issues of common interest can Washington begin to effectively address the crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere.

Such a vision could only be produced by fresh U.S. leadership acting swiftly and decisively. If Obama wrote to Ahmadinejad proposing a place, date and level of engagement for a first meeting to discuss mutual grievances as well as shared interests (before moving on to the harder issues), perhaps the ghosts of the past can be laid to rest and the foundation built for a new relationship.

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