Sunday, February 5, 2012

Iran Not In A Hurry For Rapprochement

Compromising on the nuclear issue may give rise to more demands from the West, notably improvement in rights and greater openness
By Mehrdad Balali
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
                                                              Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
If common sense, not ideology, were the guiding force behind Iranian leaders’ actions, they would have had every reason to rush to a meeting with western powers to settle their nuclear differences. Under mounting pressure from inside and out, the Islamic Republic of Iran is going through one of the most critical phases of its three-decade history, amid a bitter power struggle, popular discontent and an economy breaking down under the weight of international sanctions. So far, the divided leadership has stubbornly denied these problems, remaining defiant both toward the West and its own people crying out for change. The question is for how much longer can the situation go on, and whether or not the regime will eventually swallow the bitter medicine to ensure its own survival.
There are indeed some indications that at least some among a cacophony of discordant voices coming out of Iran are aware of this predicament. While many generals and hard-line clerics maintain a posture of bravado on the nuclear issue, threatening to cut oil to the West or close the Strait of Hormuz, the more sensible officials within President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government sound a more conciliatory note. Ahmadinejad himself recently pleaded with western countries to drop their antagonism toward his country and try and reach a settlement on the nuclear standoff: “Why should we shun talks? It is you who come up with excuses each time and issue resolutions on the verge of talks so that negotiations collapse.”
Underscoring Tehran’s eagerness for talks towards ending the sanctions, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said a senior UN nuclear agency team on a fact-finding mission in Iran last week could extend its visit for “as much as it wants.” There have been tentative talks of a new round of negotiations between Iran and “P5+1” (Germany plus all permanent members of the UN Security Council) in the coming weeks, possibly in Turkey, but a date has not been firmed up amid wide differences between the two sides.
Ahmadinejad and his executive team have legitimate reasons to extend the olive branch. Mounting external pressure — coupled with extensive corruption, mismanagement and the government’s shock-therapy price liberalisation programme — have plunged Iran’s petroleum-reliant economy into virtual chaos, with unemployment and inflation going through the roof and the rial continuing its downward spiral against major currencies. Living an ordinary life in Iran is growing ever more haphazard amid total political and economic uncertainty and fear of a military attack by Israel or the US. Few on the streets of Tehran or elsewhere in Iran have a clue where their country is heading and those with the means are packing to leave.
This all is a heavy price Iranians have had to pay for their leaders’ dogged insistence to defend their so-called “nuclear rights,” but with the situation growing grimmer day by day, even those citizens taking pride in their country’s atomic programme are having second thoughts. As things stand, survival, not technological prowess, is the supreme worry on the mind of the average man on the street.
Against this dismal backdrop, Ahmadinejad might be given a freer hand this time to try and reach a deal with “P5+1.” Oddly enough, Islamic hawks rallying behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been more muted nowadays, giving rise to speculation that a heated high-level debate is underway behind closed doors to stop the country’s march to the edge of a precipice.
It remains to be seen if the Iranian leadership will eventually come up with something tangible to woo the world powers back to the negotiating table, but any concession would have to be immediately reciprocated to avoid making it look like a surrender from Iran. Both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad will have much to lose in political prestige should Tehran give in flatly to UN demands for an immediate halt in uranium enrichment, and the country has already paid too high a price to suddenly pull back on its principles.
Ahmadinejad actually swept to power in 2005 partly due to his uncompromising stance on the nuclear issue, a pseudo-nationalistic position that earned him respect from hardliners and overwhelming backing from the supreme leader. But this rigid policy has further isolated Iran and stripped its leaders of all their bargaining cards. At the present juncture, Tehran seems to have been driven against a wall with little room to manoeuvre, as stakes grow higher and Israel and the US itch for war.
Even if the nuclear standoff does not come to a clash, the paralysing effects of sanctions alone may be enough to reignite the social unrest that followed the disputed presidential election in 2009. The Islamic regime brutally quelled those protests, putting its leaders under house arrest and imprisoning many intellectuals and political activists. But general disenchantment with the system continues to smoulder and is likely to flare with the slightest trigger.
For the time being, the Iranian government continues to rule with an iron fist, suppressing all dissent at home in total disregard of international condemnations. The fierce campaign against freedom of expression has taken victims even among some unlikely figures such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. A pragmatic voice in the Islamic system, Rafsanjani has paid dearly for his visceral distaste for Ahmadinejad and for supporting the 2009 Green Movement protests which nearly brought the Islamic regime to its knees. Rafsanjani has since fallen from grace, his website shut down for its mildly critical contents, and his daughter tried and convicted on political charges.
Few experts believe the present situation is tenable, however, especially in light of a deepening political strife in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in March. With all critics jailed or forced into silence, hardliners loyal to Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader are expected to maintain their grip on the next parliament. But the two hardline camps have been at each other’s throats for a while and there are no signs the country is moving toward national reconciliation.
So Iran’s rulers may have no choice but to pursue their current hard-nosed policy, ignoring world opinion while cracking down on critics at home. They well understand that compromising on the nuclear issue may give rise to more undeliverable demands from the West, notably improvement in human rights practices and greater social and political openness. This could in fact be the reason why the Iranians are not in a hurry to work for rapprochement with the West. They don’t want to get themselves in a situation where they will be forced to concede until there is nothing left of the Islamic republic as it is today.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 05/02/2012
–Mehrdad Balali is a journalist and writer living in California. His novel Houri was recently published in New York

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