Iran: The Brewing Crisis

The inauguration of Mr.

The inauguration of Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad as Iran's new president marks the consolidation by Iran's hard-line conservatives of the main instruments of government. During Iran's June presidential campaign, Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad, a blacksmith's son, cultivated an image of modesty and piety, while his opponent, former President Rafsanjani, was portrayed as an affluent, cunning political insider who contributed to and profited from systemic corruption. While the new president appealed primarily to the economically disadvantaged, left destitute by the Islamic republic's prevailing corruption, apathy and disillusionment dominated the ranks of Iran's reformists. After eight years as president, the reformist President Khatami made very limited progress largely due to continuous interference and constant obstruction by the clerical establishment, Iran's ultimate decision-makers.

As the mayor of the Iranian capital, Tehran, Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad earned a reputation as a capable administrator but a hard-line conservative and Iranians are expecting a more restrictive environment. The revolution's committed ideologues hope that the like-minded 49 year-old, still imbued by the spirit of the Iranian revolution, will signal a return to the revolution's ideals and restore its original principles. Although he emerged from within Iran's revolutionary ranks, the new president will challenge the status quo, specifically the well-entrenched elements of the conservative establishment that reap significant economic interests from the current system of graft.

His promises of greater transparency and accountability, primarily in the state oil company, during the election campaign resonated with the masses and created high expectations. While the success of Ahmedi-Nejad's presidency remains uncertain, it will be ultimately determined by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and his inner circle, the high price of oil and a ruthlessly effective security apparatus.

Although the international community remains ambivalent and cautiously pessimistic about the new president's intentions, it can rest assured that he will speak on behalf, and under direct orders, of the clerical establishment, unlike his predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, a reformist who was appreciated by many officials internationally but not taken seriously since his word did not have clerical support.

For many in the West, Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad's victory complicates negotiations with the EU-3 (France, UK and Germany) over Iran's nuclear program and may put US support for the process in further doubt. Although the issues of human rights and terrorism are central to Iran's relations with the West, the nuclear issue will clearly continue to dominate the agenda.

Over the past year, delaying tactics were employed by both sides due in part to electoral realities, that is, uncertainty as to who would win the US elections in 2004 and the recent elections in Iran. Iran's theocrats hoped for a Kerry victory, likely to have led to direct negotiations (as Kerry clearly advocated during the presidential debates), automatically conferring the recognition from the US sought by Iran over the past 25 years, and potentially securing a more favorable deal for Iran. The Bush administration clearly preferred a Rafsanjani victory in Iran's election as a lesser of two evils. Although a tough negotiator, Rafsanjani was an experienced, pragmatic former president for eight years possessing the seasoned diplomatic skills, and significant credibility with the religious authorities, to reach as an enduring a deal as possible within limited confines. During the campaign, Rafsanjani clearly expressed his intentions to work with the West on a negotiated solution. In the end, neither the Bush administration nor Iran's theocrats realized its desired outcome.

The current situation between Iran and the West may be compared to a slow-moving Cuban missile crisis. Estimates as to when Iran will acquire a nuclear capability range from less than a year to the end of the current decade. Whether Iran is willing to permanently renounce such capacity remains the key issue. The challenges and dangers increase as more time passes. The outcome will not only determine Iran's relations with the West, but the future course of transatlantic relations. A united transatlantic position remains essential to a favorable outcome to the brewing crisis. Iran will be in a very strong negotiating position if it can astutely execute a "divide and rule" policy that exploits US-EU differences and cause a rift to emerge in the transatlantic alliance.

The prospect of a nuclear Iran may also further destabilize the region and trigger a regional nuclear arms race. Although not emphasized publicly, Iran's neighbors remain fearful, principally the Gulf States, which rely on the US for protection, and Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as the greatest threat to its national security, due also to Iran's support for the Shia community in the eastern Arabian peninsula. As Iran's regional arch-nemesis and unofficial regional nuclear power, Israel remains most concerned, particularly since Iran is publicly committed to Israel's destruction and not vice-versa. In addition, many Europeans finally woke up to the fact that they are within, or at least closely within, the striking range of Iranian missiles which may in part explain Europe's more aggressive stance in recent times.