The results of Friday’s election for Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, generate a political climate in Tehran that augurs well for the commencement of talks over the nuclear issue. The US administration senses this. The big issue is whether President Barack Obama can carry the United States’ two key allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – in the quest of finding a „permanent” solution to the US-Iran standoff.
Yet this has been a season of fables. Iranian politics arouses great curiosity, and election time becomes a carnival of fables. Four years ago Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was usurping political power and the country was becoming a military dictatorship. This year’s hot pick (so far) is that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is dispatching President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to political exile and the Majlis is their arena of contestation. It’s all forgotten how Khamenei fought off single-handedly the reformists’ challenge in 2009 and preserved Ahmedinejad’s presidency.
True, Iran’s politics, like politics anywhere, is complex. The Shi’ite religious establishment is known in history as fractious. Party politics as is known in Western liberal democracies does not exist in Iran. But factions and cliques and interest groups realign incessantly, and that gives much verve to Iranian politics.
Friday’s election has been no exception. An added factor is how the newly elected Majlis will affect the country’s power structure – and what impact that will have on policies – at a juncture when Iran is at crossroads against the backdrop of the epochal upheaval in the region.
From the results, the composition of the Majlis may shift in a direction that can have positive fallout for regional security. The factions and cliques that can be called „conservative” – in the Iranian context – bonded together as „Principalists” and fought the election as an identifiable grouping, and they have done exceedingly well.
The Principalists comprise clerics and non-clerics who formed a „united front”. What brought them together is their conservative political outlook as regards the ideology of the Iranian revolution and the absolute centrality of velayat-e faqih – Shi’ite government.
The dominance of Principalists in the Majlis will make the overall power structure far more cohesive than at any time in the past decade and a half. But the paramount role of the supreme leader was never in doubt, and that institution didn’t need strengthening by the Majlis.
What cannot be overlooked either is that the authority of the president and the effectiveness of his executive power always depended on his ability to work within the system.
The Principalists significantly strengthen the power structure. As far as Iran’s interlocutors are concerned, they will probably hear a more unified voice. All in all, therefore, what matters to the international community is that Tehran is getting its act together as it approaches the negotiating table on the nuclear issue.
The West almost reflexively runs down Iran’s elections. However, Obama perceives the shift in the locus of power in Tehran and the consolidation of authority as a window of opportunity.
It wasn’t lost on Obama that in the run-up to the Majlis elections, Iran’s supreme leader made a hugely significant statement with regard to the nuclear issue. While addressing a gathering of Iranian nuclear scientists, Khamenei said:
The purpose of the uproar they [the West] cause is to stop us. They know that we are not after nuclear weapons. They already know this. I do not have any doubts that in the countries that are opposed to us, the organizations in charge of decision-making are fully aware that we are not after nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons are not at all beneficial to us. Moreover, from an ideological and [velayat-e] faqih perspective, we consider developing nuclear weapons as unlawful. We consider using such weapons as a big sin. We also believe that keeping such weapons is futile and dangerous, and we will never go after them. They know this, but they stress the issue in order to stop our movement.
Thus, after mulling over Khamenei’s pledge for a full fortnight, Obama decided to acknowledge it. That became a key salience of his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly last week.
Obama underlined that he was looking for a „permanent” solution to the Iran nuclear issue, „as opposed to temporarily”. He then pointed out that a permanent solution was possible only if Iran were „self-interested”. In a brilliant use of double negative that would be the envy of any Persian speaker, Obama added:
They [Iranians] are sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they’re experiencing … They are able to take decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they’re presented with options … then there’s no guarantee that they can’t make a better decision.
Obama admitted that the US would have to make some sort of a deal, and that’s feasible because he thinks the Iranian leaders are at bottom rational actors. On the other hand, Obama thought a military strike against Iran would be a needless „distraction”.
Because, as he put it, „Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us [Washington] having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
Having ‘Israel’s back’
So an incumbent president in the White House is probably getting Iran right, finally. However, the problem for Obama is going to arise from two quarters. One is Saudi Arabia, whose regional priority at the moment does not lie in US-Iran engagement but is on forcing a regime change in Damascus through a Western/US intervention, which it hopes would drive a spear straight into the heart of Iran’s standing as a regional power and weaken the cause of Shi’ite empowerment (including in Saudi Arabia itself).
The dramatic „walkout” by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal from the „Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis last week shows up the straws in the wind. But having said that, the Saudis also understand very well that what Khamenei has probably achieved is that the sort of factionalism that threw Iranian policies (and negotiators) into disarray in the most recent years – including on the nuclear issue – isn’t repeated.
Conceivably, a cohesive power structure in Tehran suits the Saudis, too. The point is, Tehran is going to have to make some difficult decisions in the period ahead, and it should be strong and resilient enough to show flexibility.
Obama’s main problem lies elsewhere. He has to tackle the Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama has a tough customer in Netanyahu, although the media hype that „Bibi” would be the arbiter of Obama’s re-election bid is stretching the point too far.
The „Netanyahu problem” is compounded by the fact that 2012 is an election year in the US and, as Obama derisively suggested, „You have a set of political actors [in US politics] who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish-American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy.”
But Obama’s political instinct is right. The fact is, he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, and they didn’t vote on his Israel policy alone. Again, in Israel itself, the majority opinion militates against any form of conflict with Iran.
This is where Obama’s message counts during the interview with Goldberg – his forceful statement that the US „has Israel’s back”, and his consistently pro-Israel posture throughout the interview.
Not surprisingly, Obama also utilized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) forum on Sunday to make unequivocal pledges of solidarity with Israel. He made it „my commitment” – not US commitment. „When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”
But then he came back to the point – namely, Washington’s current strategy of sanctions against Iran is working and he isn’t done with diplomacy: „I firmly believe that an opportunity remains for diplomacy backed by pressure to succeed.”
At the end of it all, there was no mistaking what Obama intended as his lasting message to the AIPAC audience: „Already there is too much loose talk of war.”