On May 31, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said negotiations with Iran could take place if Iran suspends its atomic research activities; direct negotiations between the two countries haven’t occurred in 27 years.
The relationship between the two countries has been particularly tense since the 2002 State of the Union address, when President Bush named Iran part of an “axis of evil,” and asserted that “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror.” Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated further when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president of Iran in June of 2005. Seen as an extremist, in part because of his anti-Semitic statements, Ahmadinejad has continued a policy of advancing Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which led to threats of sanctions from the United Nations.
In These Times spoke with Kaveh Ehsani on May 4 to learn more about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the reasons behind the stalemate between Washington and Tehran. Ehsani is a researcher at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and an editor at the Middle East Report.
In an article recently posted on OpenDemocracy.net, you wrote, “[Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] was not elected on a platform favoring an ideological confrontation with the West, but rather on promises to fight corruption and improve the lot of unemployed and impoverished Iranians.” What were the internal dynamics of the campaign that were missed by the Western press?
When Ahmadinejad was elected in the second round of the elections, what was really highlighted [by the Western press] were his radical and ideological credentials rather than what really attracted a lot of poor and ordinary Iranians to vote for him. The first round of the elections were, by all accounts, ridden with a lot of controversy and perhaps vote rigging and fraud. There was a whole machine of conservative rank-and-file that basically rallied behind him and, with a lot of fraud, managed to kind of put him through to the second round. Then, I think a lot of people voted against [former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani rather than for Ahmadinejad. He just basically came across as an ordinary, non-corrupt, non-clerical candidate, who was trying to better the lot of the ordinary people.
One of his campaign promises was “putting the petroleum income on people’s tables.” Were average Iranians responding to his populist economic appeal?
Yes, but the real picture is a lot more complicated. The perception was that the country’s economy is really monopolized by the political class, with tremendous corruption at the top, and nothing is trickling down toward ordinary people. That’s what Ahmadinejad appealed to with really simplistic slogans, such as “distributing the oil wealth.” Iran’s GDP is something around $300 billion dollars, but while it is oil-driven – annually around $20 to 30 billion dollars – there’s no comparison between the size of the economy and what the oil income actually is. What Ahmadinejad was pointing to symbolically was that fact there is wealth produced, and it has become quite conspicuous, but ordinary people are not really benefiting from it.
To what extent has President Ahmadinejad been able to enact his domestic policy?
None at all. At least in terms of creating employment and cutting back corruption, he’s been completely unsuccessful. The parliament rejected the budget because it really relied on projected increases in oil revenue while the country has been trying to wean itself from oil revenues for the past 8 to 10 years. If Ahmadinejad wanted to actually improve the economy, it’s very clear what he had to do. Iran’s economy is being controlled by a lot of mafias, which really benefit from the embargo that’s been imposed on the country for the past 20 years by the United States. These mafias are rooted in the military and security apparatus. Importantly, they have monopolies over the importation, often illegally, of a lot of commodity goods. What Ahmadinejad needed to do was really go after these monopolies and make the economy transparent. He did not do this because these monopolies are really the people that support him, members of the military and security apparatus who essentially assured his ascendance to power in the first place.
The president is portrayed as a very conservative figure. Has there been a change in the lives of average Iranians under his tenure?
One of the things that really appealed to the public in the election process was his major election film, in which he is asked, “if you come to power are you going to try and restrict women and impose even stricter public dress code on them?” His reply was “do you seriously think that we are stupid enough to believe that a couple of strands of hair showing under a woman’s scarf is really what is wrong with the society? That is not our problem. Our problem is corruption and unemployment.” What the culture ministry has been doing is tightening the reins on publishers, on the press, on the film industry and the cultural sphere in general. So yes, we do see increased social restrictions, but Ahmadinejad himself is not necessarily in favor of this. It’s just that his supporters are and he needs them, so he’s going to pay lip service.
There’s been a lot of debate surrounding President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust. Do his comments serve some internal or external political purpose?
Yes, they do, I think. This is a little bit speculative on my part, but I think if you look at the history of the post-revolution period, at every juncture where there have been talks or even hints of serious rapprochement between Iran and the United States, segments of the security apparatus and the power structure, (especially Iran’s military power structure) sabotaged this rapprochement quite blatantly. This has happened numerous times, and I think what Ahmadinejad did with his comments about the Holocaust were along the same lines. He probably sensed that there was a rapprochement taking place at the time in the Fall between Ali Larijani, who was the chief negotiator of the Iranian atomic negotiation team, and the Americans and Europeans. That’s when the first idea of Iran negotiating directly with the United States over Iraq was floated by Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. In some ways it can be speculated that Ahmadinejad was really voicing the concerns of the arch-conservative elements within the Iranian power structure to scuttle these talks unless it was on their terms.
You’ve written that prominent voices in Tehran that are outside of the power structure are calling for negotiations with Washington and that, discreetly, even hardliners like Ayatollah Ali Khomeini are signaling that they are open to negotiations. Why haven’t we seen more progress towards talks?
Because Washington refuses to do this. Point blank. Iran has sent a very clear signal in 2002 and then in 2003. The Financial Times has written extensively about this. It’s well documented and it’s now public knowledge that Iranians have even sent negotiation teams to talk with the United States. The hardliners in Iran feel they are not going to gain anything by negotiating with the United States because the United States basically wants capitulation. The Bush administration is not interested in negotiating with Iran as equals and that’s what the Iranian leadership wants.
One-sided capitulation by the Iranian regime is never going to happen. The Iranians have sent numerous and unmistakable signals that what they want is to begin normalizing relations, but on equal terms. They don’t want the United States interrogating Iran about its bad behavior in the past. What they want is to have everything on the table and to get security assurances and to normalize relations.
How are deteriorating conditions in Iraq affecting negotiations, or lack thereof?
The main thing that’s preventing Iraq from descending into absolute chaos has been Iranian support, self-interested support, for urging the Shia to stay the course and not retaliate against primarily Sunni provocations. I think the agendas of the United States and Iran, ironically, are quite similar in Iraq: They both want some stability. At the same time the United States is quite uneasy about Iran’s influence, and does not want to recognize it. Part of United States flexing its muscles is to show the Iraqi Shia that they can’t count on Iranian support because the United States is going to bloody Iran’s nose and cut it down to size. So therefore, [the United States is sending the message that] the Shia in Iraq should really reduce their demands, and rely on the United States rather than playing this game of partial reliance on Iran. I don’t think the geopolitics of the region will allow this. This is the Middle East, so everybody is aware that they don’t have absolute power, that they need allies. So they will go on playing this game of cat and mouse.