President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy
President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy
Why Israel-Iran War Is a Lifeline for Netanyahu
Why Israel-Iran War Is a Lifeline for Netanyahu
Interview / Middle East & North Africa 7 minutes

President-elect Will Defer to Supreme Leader on Foreign Policy

Karim Sadjadpour, the representative in Iran for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit group that works to prevent and resolve conflicts, says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran's presidential runoff was the result of a widespread feeling that "he was the candidate who could offer a certain economic deliverance and do away with a lot of corruption and economic stagnation that had marked Iranian politics and economics for the last eight years."

Sadjadpour says Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, is a foreign-affairs neophyte and will defer to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad's election won't signal an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations, "because the supreme leader is very skeptical of Washington and the Bush administration," he says. Things might have turned out differently if Ahmadinejad's rival, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had won. "He might have been able to make progress" on improving Iranian-U.S. relations, "if the Americans were amenable," Sadjadpour says.

Sadjadpour was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of CFR.

CFR: Were you surprised by the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Karim Sadjadpour: I think everyone was surprised at the results of the first round of the election held June 17. Just a few days prior to the election, Mr. Ahmadinejad was posting in the single digits in opinion polls. Anecdotally, not that many were talking about him. But in the second round, on June 24, [his showing] was less of a surprise. His campaign really picked up steam, and there was a sense among many that he was the candidate who could offer a certain economic deliverance and do away with a lot of corruption and economic stagnation that had marked Iranian politics and economics for the last eight years. Rafsanjani epitomized a lot of the problems people had with the economy.

Ahmadinejad had his first news conference as president-elect yesterday. What is your read of that?

Basically, they talked about the implications [of his election] for foreign policy; they talked about the nuclear issue, about human rights, and about social and cultural reforms, and whether he would reverse some of the social reforms of recent years. On one hand, I think he took a very typical establishment line: He intends to continue with uranium enrichment and project Iran as a model Islamic society for the rest of the world. At the same time, he attempted to set some of his critics at ease by saying that he's going to pursue a modern republic, not a radical or fundamentalist one.

In Washington, he seems to be regarded as a classic conservative. But in Iranian terms, he's considered a kind of social reformer, is that right?

I would compare him to some of the populist politicians of Latin America like Lula [President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] of Brazil or Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. I think his mandate was definitely an economic one. There's a sense that he did a very effective job of marketing himself as a man of the people--a guy with a very simple lifestyle and background--and I think people were taken by this.

What kind of relationship will he have with Khamenei?

I expect that this is not going to be an independent-minded presidency. I think that, in many ways, this has been a consolidation of power by the supreme leader. I would expect that they will have a cordial relationship and I think Khamenei will have a lot of influence. They have a similar vision of what the Islamic republic should be--what it should be politically, socially, and even economically.

What about Ahmadinejad's view of foreign affairs, on relations with the European Union and the United States, particularly in regard to the ongoing nuclear talks?

We'll have to wait to see who he chooses as his foreign minister or who, perhaps, the supreme leader chooses as the foreign minister. That will be a good indicator. We won't see a huge departure in the foreign policy. It will be more of the same. But Ahmadinejad's election doesn't signal any improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, because the supreme leader is very skeptical of Washington and the Bush administration. And Ahmadinejad has made it clear that relations with the United States aren't really a priority for Iran.

Do you expect stepped-up Iranian support for extremist groups in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East?

I think we might see increases in funding for religious and social welfare programs in Iraq, like funding for a mosque or other religious institutions. But I don't see dramatic changes in Iranian foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine or Iraq.

Do you think Rafsanjani would have tried to improve relations with the United States, or was that American wishful thinking?

Rafsanjani's advisers made it clear it was a major priority for him, that Iran is now a different country than it was 26 years ago [when the revolution occurred] and that it is time to end the feud with the United States. I think Rafsanjani is one of the few, if not the only, politician in Iran whose word carries as much weight as the supreme leader's. So he might have been able to make progress on this issue if the Americans were amenable. But as I said, foreign policy is not a priority for Mr. Ahmadinejad. He doesn't have much experience in the foreign-policy realm, and the supreme leader is going to be making those decisions. And the supreme leader these days is looking much more toward Asia, especially to China and India, than to the United States

In other words, Iran sees its oil exports going to the East and not necessarily to the West.

Exactly. There's a sense--and you get this also from Mr. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric--that Iran is not dependent on the United States. The Iranians have been going on without relations with the United States for 26 years, and now, with China's and India's growing energy demands, they could look to Asia for a partnership, rather than the West.

You live in Tehran. What kind of mayor was Ahmadinejad?

He was very popular among the lower income classes. He championed subsidies to lower income classes, forgave loans, offered loans to newlywed couples. There's a sense among lower income classes that "he's one of us and looks out for our interests." Among the middle classes and upper classes in the north end of the city, his social politics weren't well received. There was a consensus that he was a close-minded, religious ideologue and that he changed cultural institutions into religious institutions. [Voters in the middle and upper classes] were wary that if he became president he would do this on a larger scale.

So there's gloom among the Westernized Iranians? Are young people in the universities upset at the results?

There are mixed feelings. On one hand, some are concerned that he intends to reverse the progress made in the social realm of the [outgoing President Mohammed] Khatemi era. There's a lot of rumors, but a lot of others say, "Give the guy a chance. He's yet to take power.' They kind of feel they need a new face. The first priority of the youth is economic improvement. So a lot of the youth, even those who disagree strongly with Ahmadinejad's social views, are hoping he can improve their economic lives.

In what kind of shape is Iran's economy?

The Iranian economy is very interesting right now, because when you look at it from abroad, GDP [gross domestic product] has been growing strongly for the last five years and oil prices are soaring; oil revenue has tripled since the late 1990s. But when you come here, you notice that it doesn't translate anecdotally. People are constantly complaining that they're just working morning and night and they can't make ends meet. The Iranian economy has two major problems: high inflation and high unemployment. They both hover slightly below 20 percent. This has been a product of the demographic bulge as much as anything. At the beginning of the revolution, Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini issued an edict saying people should have children in order to produce a robust Islamic society. Now these children of the revolution need to be fed, educated, and employed. By its own statistics, the regime can provide only about half the jobs that it needs every year to accommodate the burgeoning labor force.

One of the concessions the United States recently made as part of the nuclear negotiations was to promise support for Iran's membership in the World Trade Organization [WTO]. Does the new president care about such things?

I don't know if he's commented on the WTO, but basically he's a man who looks internally. He doesn't have a very international outlook. So I would imagine that something like the WTO is not a huge priority for him, because he's looking at internal ways to improve the economy and he's pushing a populist agenda, trying to help out the lower income classes. I don't think that he would see WTO accession as a huge priority for Iran.

Are rumors swirling about who he might pick to run the foreign ministry?

There are a few rumors, but it's just speculation. It will be interesting to see whether there will be new faces, likeminded individuals from his own party, or older men essentially chosen by the supreme leader.

I think what's surprising to most people is how young the new president is--he's 48--in a society in which a lot of the leadership is quite old. He was very young when the revolution occurred. What does that signal?

You do have this group of firebrand conservatives, who were in their late teens and early twenties when the revolution happened. They were very taken by the revolution; they were very taken by Ayatollah Khomeini. They fought bravely in the Iraq-Iran War, and afterward they served the country as Revolutionary Guards. Many of them became disillusioned with the revolution and they turned into reformists. A lot of these reformists are like Abbas Abdi, leaders in the [1979-81] hostage-taking crisis [when U.S. Embassy employees were held by Iranian extremists] who turned to social, political, and cultural issues.

Now, Ahmadinejad's group also became somewhat disillusioned with the path that the revolution took, but more from an economic and religious standpoint. They felt that the economic injustices, which the revolution was supposed to solve, had in fact been, in many cases, exacerbated as a result of the revolution. And rather than moving toward the left on social and religious issues, they moved toward the right.

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