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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 06:37 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 06:37 | SYDNEY

Iran: Obama's choices



16 June 2009 17:42

So far, the Obama Administration has reacted cautiously to the Iranian election result. In this statement, Obama shows the imperatives he is trying to balance: not intervening too directly in what is happening, which would allow regime hardliners to condemn protestors and dissenters as stooges of the West; not ruling out ‘hard headed’ negotiations with the Iranian leadership; but also condemning violence against the protestors and signaling to them ‘that the world is watching’. 

For the US, low key is probably the only key at the moment. In part, because it is still unclear how things will play out.

Overnight, Supreme Leader Khamenei announced an investigation into charges of election fraud (but also publicly reaffirmed the result). The Guardian Council said it had received two official complaints from defeated candidates (Musavi and Rezai) which it would review, announcing its decision in ten days. Through these measures the Supreme Leader may be hoping to take the heat out of public protests and bring regime dissenters, including Musavi, back into line.

Former President Rafsanjani is a bit of a wild card at the moment. Nothing has been heard from him publicly since the election result was announced. Some report he is in Qom, Iran’s most religiously important city and home to the theological establishment, trying to assess whether he has the votes in the Assembly of Experts to remove Supreme Leader Khamenei. But Rafsanjani may simply lying low until he works out which way the political wind is blowing and what he can salvage from the current situation.

Which leaves the protests. These are continuing and have gotten bloody, with reports and images of protestors being shot dead or wounded. A number of blogs are carrying or translating Twitter feeds (finally, a useful purpose for Twitter?), emails and images from the demonstrations, which provide some interesting insights from those on the ground, though they obviously need to be read and viewed very cautiously.

If the death toll increases, there is the potential for the protests to continue off the back of funerals. Musavi’s role will be key. He appeared to call off, but then attended, one large demonstration at Tehran’s Azadi Square on Monday that observers conservatively estimate was attended by 1-200,000 people. But Musavi is now squeezed between popular protests for which he is in large measure responsible and a regime of which he remains a member. At some point he will have to choose between them.

Any dramatic increase in the death toll from these protests will place even greater pressure on the Obama Administration to reconsider its plan to engage the regime diplomatically. Indeed, the evidence that the election was stolen, while still circumstantial, is already doing that. Even if we never know conclusively what happened, Obama’s prospective policy on Iran now faces three major challenges:

  • First, there will be a lot more ammunition for critics of Obama’s desire to reach out to the Iranian leadership diplomatically. 
  • Second, regardless how he got there, another four years of Ahmadinejad as president is likely to mean that any attempted diplomatic outreach will have to fly through a lot of rhetorical turbulence from the Iranian president on issues like the Holocaust and Israel, before the Administration even gets to the difficult substantive issues that separate the two countries.
  • Third, if there really has been a hardliner coup, then the prospect of successful diplomatic engagement has been reduced. It is true that, to some degree, the outcome of the presidential election (or selection) was irrelevant, as decision-making on foreign and strategic issues is largely in the hands of Supreme Leader Khamenei. But if there is now a purge of the regime’s more pragmatic members there will be fewer people left in the regime to make the already difficult case in favour of real as opposed to tactical engagement with the US. 

The US needs to pause to see how events play out on the ground. But if in weeks to come Ahmadinejad is still president, the Obama Administration will have little choice but to proceed, more or less, with its original plan.

As I argued in this Sydney Morning Herald op-ed before the election, offering to settle issues diplomatically with Iran should be seen as one element in a prudent strategy for the US. Such a strategy should involve a willingness to discuss issues where the two countries have or might find common ground, combined with separate diplomatic and military arrangements on other fronts to ensure that the interests of the US and its allies are protected in areas where differences with Iran are unlikely to be bridged.

Nevertheless, we have to recognize that the situation has changed. The prospect of common ground (and maybe even the desire for it on either side) has probably narrowed and the differences between Iran and the US are likely to prove greater now. There should also be some cost toTehran for what has occurred on the ground in these last few days. 

The US should still, in a hard-headed way, offer to engage with a regime that may well today be a lot more like North Korea than it once was. But as with North Korea, to move Tehran on urgent issues like the nuclear question, Washington will need an even greater reliance on key countries with closer ties to Tehran, such as Russia and even China.

Photo by Flickr user megabn, used under a Creative Commons license.

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