In Iran, Things Can Always Get Worse

June 10, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the American Prospect on June 10, 2008.

On May 28, Ali Larijani, former nuclear negotiator and close confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i, won the position of speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s parliament. Larijani is a member of the mainline conservative faction in Iran — which is different from the more radical faction led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Iranian political observers have aptly borrowed the American term “neoconservative” to refer to the Ahmadinejad faction.)

Larijani’s rise was the first of a series of political changes in Iran. At about this time next year, Iran will hold a presidential election. Its outcome could depend, in part, on the outcome of the 2008 elections here in the United States. Given the serious disputes between the two countries and the prospect of another war in the Middle East, Americans — and American presidential candidates — should take a moment to think about how our election could influence Iran’s.

(Obligatory “to be sure” qualifier: Iranian elections are by no means free or perfect. Candidates for office in Iran can be approved or barred from running based on the whims of the clerical leadership. Even so, they reflect the direction of the political winds within the country’s controlled political climate.)

In the years preceding the last Iranian presidential election, which produced Ahmadinejad, American neoconservatives repeatedly minimized the differences between members of the Iranian leadership. Michael Rubin, for example, told National Review readers in 2002 that then‐​President Mohammed Khatami was “neither a reformer nor a democrat” but rather “a fraud.” President Bush subsequently slotted Iran into the Axis of Evil and settled in for an indefinite occupation of neighboring Iraq, making little effort to reach out to Khatami’s government and spurning its offer of negotiations. What Rubin, Bush, and others failed to grasp was that, despite Khatami’s faults, things could get worse.

And get worse they did. During his 2005 campaign for the presidency, Ahmadinejad did not emphasize foreign policy, focusing instead on economic populism. Still, a vote for Ahmadinejad, a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was widely viewed as a vote for confronting America. And Ahmadinejad wasted no time proving that view right, from his “world without Zionism” conference to his flamboyant defiance of the United States.

In recent months, by contrast, Khatami has been busy making biting reformist speeches throughout Iran. In Tehran in March: “People want freedom … Freedom means people be allowed to question the ruling system and change it without use of force if the establishment doesn’t respond to their demands.” In Gilan in May: “What did the imam [the founder of the Islamic revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini] mean by exporting the revolution? Did he mean that we take up arms, that we blow up places in other nations and we create groups in other countries to carry out sabotage in other countries? The imam was vehemently against this and was confronting it.”

Disparaging Khatami and convincing ourselves that there is no difference between him and Ahmadinejad is foolish and counterproductive. Unless we want war or a nuclear‐​capable Iran, America needs a negotiating partner, and so much the better if he is similar to Khatami — or even Larijani — rather than Ahmadinejad.

Now, mercifully, the economic demagoguery of Ahmadinejad and his compatriots has been shown to be a disaster. Despite soaring oil prices, Iran’s economy is in shambles. But if anything can save the hardliners from the consequence of their own bumbling stewardship of the economy it is a vague sense that war with America looms just over the horizon. As early as January 2006, Ahmadinejad’s economic policies were wreaking havoc, but as one legislator critical of the president pointed out, “as the [foreign] pressure has increased, the safety margins for him to operate have widened.”

And so it may be in the coming presidential elections. In all likelihood, Iran’s neoconservatives will blame their economic woes — in the mold of Fidel Castro — on the American Colossus, which stands athwart Iranian development.

But there are even bigger prizes than the presidency in Iran. The aptly named position of supreme leader — the ultimate center of power in Iran — eventually will be at stake, and probably sooner rather than later. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamene’i, has been in office since 1989 and will be 69 years old this summer. Speculation about his health has been a parlor game in both Tehran and Washington.

While there are a number of potential candidates to replace him, one, Mohammed Taqi Mesbah‐​Yazdi, is the clerical equivalent of Ahmadinejad and a close spiritual adviser to the firebrand president. Should the international environment remain as poisonous as it is today, it is possible to envision the Assembly of Experts (a body of clerics that selects the Supreme Leader) selecting a hardliner such as Mr. Mesbah‐​Yazdi as Supreme Leader, which would be a hugely negative development in terms of U.S.-Iran relations.

Which man Americans select as their president will likely have a meaningful effect on U.S. foreign policy and on U.S.-Iran relations particularly. He could also have an effect on the nature of the next generation of Iran’s political leadership. One U.S. candidate has sung a song on the campaign trail about bombing Iran, and the other has called for lowering the temperature and making a forthright effort to negotiate.

There is no immutable law of politics that says moderation on one side will lead to moderation on the other. At the same time, it is difficult to see how electing a man wedded to the most wild‐​eyed neoconservative vision of foreign policy would cause Iranians to select more temperate leaders.

Either way, Americans’ choice could influence the nature of the next generation of Iran’s leaders — and with it, the contours of U.S.-Iran relations for decades. With so many Americans ruing the war in Iraq, they would be well‐​advised to consider the prospect of war in Iran, and what they can do to influence whether or not such a war comes to pass.

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