The Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a luncheon forum on Wednesday, July 11, 2007 with Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center, and Karim Sadjapour, Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The panelists analyzed the dynamics of Iranian internal politics, the role of President Ahmadinejad, the impact of regional events on Iranian policy, and the threats the Iranian regime perceives itself to be facing.
Maloney noted that the current crackdown on internal politics and civil society organizations in Iran is the harshest it has been since the spring of 2000. The present crackdown has included punitive measures against small groups of women’s rights activists, as well as on the press. She explained that, when President Ahmadinejad first came to office, the Iranian elite experienced the most pressure and restrictions. Now, she indicated, the regime shows no tolerance for any type of popular dissent, even from small movements that pose no credible threat.
Maloney said that President Ahmadinejad is a bold, audacious, and authoritarian politician for whom security concerns trump all others. She said that Ahmadinejad presides over a “royal presidency” in which he travels across the country distributing his largess, although the office of the president is not institutionally powerful as defined by the Iranian constitution. Maloney said that the current regional context provides Ahmadinejad with greater significance, as events in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine allow him to claim that revolutionary Islam, championed by the regime, is ascendant in the region.
Maloney said that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appears very supportive of Ahmadinejad. She said that both men share a similar commitment to the significance of Islamic values, as well as a commitment to the government’s role in supporting these values.
Maloney said that the threats to Ahmadinejad’s power and influence would likely come from some of the disastrous economic policies he has pursued, as these have produced unhappiness and hardship on the same Iranian population that voted him into office on a platform of increased economic prosperity. She added that the reformist camp in Iran poses little threat to the current regime, though they performed reasonably well in the last parliamentary elections. The continued success of the reformists in future elections is largely determined by whether or not they will pass the vetting process, controlled by councils whose interests tend to lie with less reform-minded candidates.
Maloney cautioned against viewing the Iranian regime as somehow on the verge of collapse. She said that the recent move to induce gas rationing in the country is a perfect example of the lack of domestic vulnerability felt by either Khamenei or Ahmadinejad. Though the rationing is highly unpopular, Ahmadinejad still carried it out.
Regarding the actions of the United States, Maloney said that, despite the fact that US rhetoric threatening the Iranian regime with economic sanctions and other punitive measures is justified, it plays into the regime’s worldview and exacerbates Iranian paranoia, thereby reinforcing the regime’s obsession with security.
Karim Sadjapour noted that many elements within the Iranian regime are not keen on seeing Iran join the international fold, let alone negotiate with the US. He said that even among those who are amenable to a dialogue with the US, the type of relationship they envision is far from the amicable expansion of relations between the two countries. He said that while the regime is aware of past missed opportunities, it is also aware of its strong hand vis-à-vis Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Sadjapour explained that the dictum “it is better to be feared than to be loved” serves as the foundation of the regime’s mode of rule. He said the regime thinks instilling fear in the population is the best way to maintain security.
Sadjapour identified three important factors to consider when thinking about the future of the Iranian regime. The first is the divide between Tehran and the rest of the country. He noted that the spread of media technology has meant that Iranians in Tehran have more exposure to international news and views, which may alter their voting decisions in the next elections, whereas the majority of the country’s voters do not have access to alternative news sources other than those outlets influenced by the government. The second factor to consider is with whom the Revolutionary Guard will align itself in the upcoming election. Sadjapour noted that, thus far, Ahmadinejad has had to pander to the Guard, and that their commitment to him is hardly assured. Lastly, Sadjapour raised the question of Khamenei’s health, saying that a joust for power in post-Khamenei Iran will produce unknown results.
A participant asked the panel how increased pressure on Iran from economic sanctions might affect internal politics. Maloney said that such sanctions would hurt elements within the regime, but that intensifying pressure on it in this way ultimately reinforces the regime’s paranoia about its own security.
Sadjapour said that giving any concessions to Iran under Ahmadinejad that were not offered to former president Khatami would be a mistake, as it would reinforce the Iranian view that the West only responds to hard-line positions. He added that the key to getting Iran to change is not linked to the severity of the sanctions imposed on it, but by the wide scope of the international coalition behind any sanctions, no matter how severe or lenient.
A participant asked whether or not the panel saw any evidence that Iranian conservatives sought to squeeze Ahmadinejad out of office. The participant suggested that conservative support for the hugely unpopular gas rationing could be a bid to force him out of office. Maloney said that many conservatives actually opposed the rationing, though she added that it was too early to determine if the results of the rationing might sway popular opinion more strongly against Ahmadinejad. Sadjapour added that Khameini remains supportive of Ahmadinejad, and that the current president makes the supreme leader look moderate by comparison.
A participant asked how much Shi’ism influences Iranian policy. Maloney said that most Iranians view themselves primarily as Iranians and then as Muslims. Sadjapour added that Iran likes to assume the mantle of leader of the world’s Muslims, and that promoting sectarian Muslim divisions works against its interests.
A participant asked who might replace Khameini in the future. Maloney speculated that Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani could rise to the position, and that he would be a less polarizing figure. Sadjapour noted that, with the passing of Khamenei, a shura council might take his place, which would consist of 3-6 leaders, as opposed to a single one.
A participant asked how much ideology plays into the creation of Iranian foreign policy. Maloney said that Iranian foreign policy is primarily interest-oriented but that ideology often plays a significant role, particularly vis-à-vis the U.S. and Israel. Sadjapour said that Iran’s security concerns are a product of its ideology, which envisions Iran as a lonely cultural outsider in the region.
A participant asked how a US troop withdrawal from Iraq might affect Iranian politics. Maloney noted that the nature and the timing of the withdrawal would largely determine its effects on Iran, but that the regime may choose to strike back at the US initially.
A participant asked if a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq would pose any threats to Iran. Maloney said that such a withdrawal would force the Iranian regime to recalculate its policies, and that it would put the onus for stability back on Iran. Sadjapour added that many in the regime do not want a rapid withdrawal, as they are fearful of its consequences.
A participant asked about the recent meetings between Iranian officials and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker. Maloney said that the meetings centered around how to better integrate Iran into the coalition managing Iraq in its transition, and that the proposals discussed were consistent with those already extant.