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Iran: What Does Ahmadi-Nejad's Victory Mean?

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran’s domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern.

I. Overview

The surprise election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is being sworn in as president this week, has given rise to dire predictions about Iran's domestic and foreign policies and relations with the U.S. and the European Union. There are reasons for concern. Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the revolution's early days: more ideological, less pragmatic, and anti- American. But for the West, and the U.S. in particular, to reach and act upon hasty conclusions would be wrong. Iran is governed by complex institutions and competing power centres that inherently favour continuity over change. More importantly, none of the fundamentals has changed: the regime is not about to collapse; it holds pivotal cards on Iraq and nuclear proliferation; and any chance of modifying its behaviour will come, if at all, through serious, coordinated EU and U.S. efforts to engage it.

Ideologically, Ahmadi-Nejad remains somewhat of a mystery, not so much because he conceals his beliefs as because they are strikingly abstract. His campaign utterances, much like his mayoral tenure, were dominated by lofty phrases about economic justice, Islam, national dignity and the need to protect the national interest against foreigners. Arguably the best indicator of his views are the positions of his allies -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the basij militia, and the Abadgaran movement, all of which have embraced socially conservative and internationally confrontational outlooks, and some of which have supported violent activity abroad.

But presidential change is unlikely to signify fundamental policy change. Ironically, the same U.S. observers who before the election argued a reform victory would make little difference because unelected officials make decisions, have been quick to express alarm at a threatened rightward turn. Given Iran's political system, earlier assessments ring truer. Domestic changes may come at the margins, not spectacular enough to provoke international opprobrium, albeit serious enough for those affected. On the foreign front, the style likely will be more confrontational and less appealing to Western audiences, and in the short run at least, Ahmadi-Nejad's surprise victory is likely to aggravate tensions with Washington and perhaps with Brussels. A diplomatic newcomer, Ahmadi-Nejad brings a less sophisticated approach than his predecessor; alone among the candidates, he did not broach improved relations with the U.S. during the campaign and, since his victory, has been at best indifferent about them. But bottom line positions -- on Iran's nuclear program, regional interests, Iraq policy -- almost certainly will not budge in the foreseeable future.

The new president is dismissive of the need to improve relations with the U.S., and his election strengthened those within the U.S. administration who have long believed engagement would only further entrench a hostile, undemocratic regime and who wish to pursue a strategy of "delegitimisation". But though both sides might take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, this posture is unsustainable. On at least two burning issues -- Iraq and the nuclear question -- the U.S. and Iran inexorably must engage, collide or both. While Iran has turned a page on the Khatami era, President Ahmadi-Nejad faces the same situation and President Bush the same dilemmas as before.

In short, and for all their flaws -- hundreds of candidates, including all women, were disqualified by an unelected body, and there were serious charges of irregularities --the election clarified some core realities of Iranian politics, with significant implications that the West cannot afford to ignore:

  • The current regime is not about to collapse, and any reform movement will need time to revive. In an election that by regional standards was competitive, had strong participation, and offered a broad choice, Iranians voted on the basis of economic rather than political needs. There is little doubt a vast majority wants genuine reform but at this point is more interested in its well-being, and Ahmadi-Nejad spoke to that issue best. In contrast, the reform movement is in disarray, unable to find a way to participate in the political system without ultimately being stymied and discredited by it. Reformers are disorganised, lack a strong leader, have a desultory eight-year record and are failing to connect with voters' everyday concerns. In other words, for all the dissatisfaction, the regime is not nearing collapse. For the U.S. to assume that popular anger will translate into an organised opposition and that the regime is ripe for a fall would be a risky gamble that virtually nothing in Iran appears to validate.
  • Serious, coordinated U.S.-EU engagement with Iran on the nuclear issue is required to avert a full-blown crisis or, at a minimum, genuinely test Tehran's intentions. Renewed Iranian threats to resume work at a uranium conversion facility in Isfahan are only the latest indication that the current process is not working. More creative proposals -- allowing Iran to operate a small enrichment capacity under strict international surveillance or joint Iranian/international management of nuclear sites -- should be put  on the table, along with discussion of Tehran's security concerns, before taking the uncertain step of Security Council  referral.
  • On Iraq, Washington eventually must have   a dialogue with Iran to maximise chances of stability. Even with enhanced regional cooperation, in particular from Tehran, the U.S. will continue to face a resilient insurgency and a tenuous Iraqi political process; without it, the tasks will be considerably more difficult.
  • Engagement by  the  U.S.  and  the  EU  does  not mean appeasement, and certainly not indifference to human rights abuses. A first test will be the status of Akbar Ganji, a political prisoner whose health has deteriorated dangerously as a result of a hunger strike. His release would constitute an important symbolic gesture by the Ahmadi-Nejad administration.

Tehran/Brussels, 4 August 2005

Trip to Bushehr Province - President visits Bushehr Atomic Plant, 13 January 2015. president.ir

Iran Briefing Note #7

Iran Briefing Notes highlight and provide context for the previous week’s major events featured on International Crisis Group’s Iran-U.S. Trigger List. This infographic resource tracks developments on key flashpoints between Iran, the U.S. and their respective allies in the Middle East.

Events of Note:

28 July: JCPOA’s Joint Commission meets for an emergency session in Vienna.

29 July: UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says “no quid pro quo” with Iran over detained tankers. 

30 July: Iran and UAE hold maritime security discussions.

31 July: U.S. and Europeans meet to discuss maritime security in Bahrain.

31 July: U.S. extends sanctions waivers on nuclear cooperation projects by 90 days.

31 July: U.S. sanctions Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif.

1 August: Syrian state media reports Israeli airstrikes in Quneitra province.

1 August: Bernd Erbel, former German ambassador to Iran, assumes presidency of INSTEX.

Staying the Guns of August

President Trump on 29 July tweeted that “the Iranians never won a war, but never lost a negotiation”. 

Why it matters: Today’s confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is reminiscent of tensions on the eve of World War I. The standoff is akin to what happens when an irresistible force – the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign – meets the immovable object of Iran’s resolve to resist rather than yield. The 31 July decision to blacklist Iran’s top diplomat and label him “an illegitimate spokesman” underscores a fundamental tension in U.S. policy: expressing an interest in talks while undermining prospects for their initiation, let alone success. As tensions escalate, the impact of a potential collision would extend far beyond its two main protagonists. In a new Crisis Group report based on dozens of interviews with U.S. and Iranian officials as well as a broad range of regional policymakers from Yemen to Iraq to Israel, we examine the escalatory risks of a confrontation in key flashpoints and propose a tactical détente whereby Tehran and Washington each take a step back from the brink and let third-party mediators plot a de-escalatory path.  

Nuclear Waivers Live to Fight Another Day

The U.S. on 31 July announced that it was extending waivers on international nuclear cooperation projects in Iran.

Why it matters: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) provides for international cooperation on Iranian civil nuclear projects. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the U.S. allowed these initiatives to continue by issuing specific waivers. These include converting the heavy-water reactor at Arak into a proliferation-resistant one, turning the Fordow facility into a research and medical centre, as well as Russian cooperation on running the Bushehr power plant. In May, however, the U.S. began to tighten the screws by ending waivers on storing of heavy water and sending enriched uranium abroad. Some in Washington, including a group of lawmakers, had been advocating that the waivers be terminated altogether, further undermining the nuclear deal and putting its remaining parties in a position of violating their JCPOA commitments or else risking U.S. penalties. Iran had suggested that revoking the waivers would give it reason to further roll back its obligations under the deal, while putting the blame on the U.S.’s doorstep. The waivers’ extension for another 90 days provides a reprieve, but the clock has already started ticking, which may reduce the incentive for the other parties to the deal to engage in long-term nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Narrowing the Gulf

A UAE delegation was in Tehran on 30 July for discussions on maritime issues.

Why it matters: Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, the UAE is usually seen as one of the main regional supporters of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. But growing risks of a U.S.-Iran clash are keenly felt in the Gulf, particularly among smaller states on the front lines of a potential confrontation: an escalation could endanger their infrastructure, economy, tourism and energy exports. While Tuesday’s meeting was ostensibly technical and following up on existing bilateral consultations, the timing and acknowledgement of a “satisfactory” session could signal Abu Dhabi’s interest in a cooling down of tensions. It’s also worth recalling that the UAE was careful not to publicly blame Iran for attacks on tankers in the port of Fujaira in May, and in June drew down its forces from fighting the Huthis in Yemen (though it remains heavily committed in the south of the country). “We are very alarmed at the sporadic nature of the escalation [between the U.S. and Iran]”, a senior UAE official told Crisis Group. “We’re at the brink of something”. The logic may be that keeping channels of communications open translates that alarm into a de-escalatory message intended for both Washington and Tehran.

What to Watch

24-26 August: G7 meeting in Biarritz, France.

6 September: Iran’s next deadline for reducing its JCPOA commitments.

17-30 September: UN General Assembly; general debate begins on 24th.

Click here to see the U.S.-Iran Trigger List, and here for a two-page, printable PDF of the Briefing Note.