Escaping the worst
Iran may have dodged Bush's sabre-rattling, but it is not entirely out of the woods yet, writes Mustafa El-Labbad
Iran breathed a sigh of relief as 2008 drew to a close. It had wagered on the electoral victory of Democratic candidate Barack Obama and the receding chances of a US military strike against it. Now the path seems open to US-Iranian negotiations that could lead to an established role for Iran in the region. Nonetheless, the prospect of war continued to loom ominously until the end of the year, if only because of the Bush administration's well-known ideological zealotry and military adventurism. Ultimately, however, Iran's deterrent powers prevailed over Washington's military swagger. The failure of US policies in Iraq and the rest of the region helped Iran optimise and extend its already considerable assets. The toppling of the Saddam regime gave larger and more populous Iran the opportunity as never before to expand its influence into Iraq and to tip the balance against US interests in the region. In addition to its sway in Iraq, Iran has been able to augment its regional assets in Afghanistan and Lebanon, and plays expertly on the keys to escalation or calm in these areas. Iran also sits atop the Strait of Hormuz through which passes 40 per cent of the world's oil, and it overlooks the Arabian oil wells on the other side of the Gulf that it could easily hit with short-range missiles.
Yet, as valuable as these cards are, they remain primarily defensive weapons to be deployed only in the event of the threat of aggression. It is virtually impossible to picture Iran using them offensively in order to pressure Washington. But Iran took ample advantage of every opportunity in 2008 to remind the US of its deterrent powers, perhaps operating on the well- known military premise that threat is more powerful than the actual use of the deterrent in question itself. In all events, the restraint of the Iranian media and Iran's tactical clear-headedness reflect Tehran's awareness of the dynamics of the conflict and its ability to manage them in a manner that serves its negotiating strategies. Thus, the alacrity and coolness with which Iran has played its relatively strong hand in the changing regional context -- as opposed to hot-headed ideological sparring -- have given Tehran opportunities to achieve understandings in depth with the sole superpower. Certainly, given that Iranian and US interests overlap in many areas it would seem that military escalation would be counterproductive for both sides.
PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS: Among the most important events in Iran last year were the eighth parliamentary elections in March, which led to Ali Larijani substituting Ghulam Ali Haddad Adel as speaker of parliament. The campaigns saw stiff competition between what would best be termed two alignments as opposed to two camps. The first was the Khatami coalition, led by the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest Iranian reform party, which is headed by Mohamed Riza Khatami, the brother of former President Khatami. The coalition also includes the National Confidence Party led by former speaker of parliament Mehdi Karrubi, the Organisation of the Mujahideen of the Islamic Revolution, and the Executives of Construction Party associated with Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the keys to the decision-making process in Iran. The rival alignment of hardline conservatives consisted of the United Fundamentalist Front, which backs the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Expanded Fundamentalist Front, which is represented by such prominent figures as Larijani, Governor of Tehran Baqer Qalibev and former Revolutionary Guard Chief Mohsen Rizai.
Interestingly, the most intense competition to the incumbent president came from within the latter camp. The electoral campaign of the Expanded Fundamentalist Front zeroed in on the failures of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, as evidenced by rising unemployment and inflation rates, and succeeded in drawing significant support away from his party. As a result, the electoral returns demonstrated that the real challenge to Ahmadinejad comes not from the reformists but rather from Larijani and the pragmatic conservatives. It also suggests the existence of a rivalry between the clergy and military establishment (as represented by the Revolutionary Guard) over their relative weight within their mutual alliance, which forms the socio-economic base of the Iranian regime. The election results further reflect a clear shift in the Iranian political pendulum from the ultra-right, as was the general character of the previous party, towards the centre and centre-right.
THE NUCLEAR QUESTION: The Iranian nuclear question is the heading for Iranian regional ambitions, on the one hand, and the Bush administration's drive to bring the Iranian regime to its knees, on the other. The year that just ended brought another visit by EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana to Tehran carrying a bundle of economic, technological and political incentives with which to tempt Iran into halting its uranium enrichment activities. Tehran politely refused the offer. Moreover, the Iranian way of refusing illustrated Tehran's diplomatic genius. Iranian negotiators did not adopt the Arab method of snubbing the offer as though it were "not worth the paper it's written on". Nor did they refuse to receive Solana, even though they knew in advance that his visit would probably not turn out as they wished. Instead, upon Solana's arrival they seized the initiative and produced a bundle of counterproposals.
Still, Tehran would have to address the major price it was expected to pay in exchange for Solana's offer, namely renouncing its determination to acquire the full nuclear cycle as the guarantee of the peaceful intent of the Iranian nuclear programme. Tehran's response was Iranian par excellence. It said "No, thank you," but in a way that left the door slightly ajar. Halting its uranium enrichment activities is the "reward" that Tehran would grant in exchange for the best deal it could possibly obtain. To halt these activities in advance of talks, as Washington wants, would be negotiating folly. To halt them during talks would, similarly, not befit an astute negotiator of the Iranian calibre. Therefore, Tehran played on the time factor by keeping its enrichment activities going and informed Solana that his offer was not commensurate to the reality that Iran now had some 5,000 centrifuges.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2009: In becoming speaker of parliament, Larijani stands a better chance against Ahmadinejad if he decides to field himself in the 2009 presidential elections. We can also expect an increasing influence of the "pragmatic" conservatives in tandem with the continued decline of "reformists" in the Iranian political arena. Meanwhile, the drop in the international price of petroleum will cramp Ahmadinejad's domestic policies. He will not, for example, be able to press ahead with economic programmes geared to placate the poor and limited income sectors of Iranian society.
On the external front, Tehran and Washington will probably enter into negotiations, although these will not necessarily, at least in the short run, meet Iran's hopes for US approval of an Iranian regional role. Although the Obama administration will undoubtedly be more farsighted and realistic than the Bush administration was, it will still face the pressure of the Zionist and Saudi lobbies in Washington. Therefore, while the Iranian political elite might take heart in the fact that the new US president's name means "He's with us" in Persian, they are not so optimistic as to believe that Tehran and the US will come together around the negotiating table while Ahmadinejad is still president. In the Bush-Ahmadinejad dichotomy, it is not only Bush who lost with Obama's arrival in the White House. It is therefore possible that Ahmadinejad will not be nominated in this year's presidential elections in Iran, clearing the way for a candidate from the pragmatic conservatives. If that is the case, then this year could bring talks between, say, Larijani or Baqer Qalibev and Obama.
This new year will present Iran with opportunities to achieve its negotiating goals and improve its international image. But it could also be dangerous for Iran if Tehran mismanages its dealings with the new US administration. Iran has two competing images in the region and the rest of the world. It would like to be seen as the "guarantor of stability" as opposed to the "troublemaker" as it is portrayed in the West. Which image prevails will depend on how the Iranian regime handles the Obama administration in 2009.