In an autumn ritual, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once more arrives in New York this week. The Iranian president’s usual media tours and bombastic speeches are likely to be sprinkled with hints of moderation on Iran’s contested nuclear program. On his sixth trip to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad is likely to find an international community more confident that its forceful economic sanctions have finally made Tehran appreciate the cost of its belligerence. A closer look, however, reveals that the calculations of Iran’s principal protagonists — Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — are largely unaffected by mounting financial penalties imposed by the West. After three decades of wrestling with the Islamic Republic, Washington and its allies still fail to realize that they are not dealing with a conventional nation-state making subtle estimates of national interests.
The essence of Washington’s approach is that confronted with a choice of debilitating isolation or rejoining the community of nations, Iran will eventually make the “right” decision. The Islamic Republic, however, is too wedded to its ideological verities and too subsumed by its rivalries to engage in such judicious determinations.
In a speech in August, Khamenei once again confirmed his opposition to reconciliation with the United States. His reasons were neither illogical nor irrational: “The change of behavior they want — and which they don’t always emphasize on — is in fact a negation of our identity,” he said. Iran’s supreme leader appreciates that engagement with the United States is subversive and could undermine the pillars of the Islamic state. Dialogue, trade and cultural exchanges could, he understands, expose Iran to the unrelenting pressures of modernization and transform the revolutionary republic into another state that sacrificed its ideological heritage for the sake of profits and commerce. The politics of resistance and nuclear empowerment, on the other hand, affirm Iran’s identity as a Muslim nation struggling against American encroachment. Economic sanctions can hardly disabuse Khamenei of such well-entrenched animosities.
The tragedy of U.S.-Iran relations is that the most persistent advocate of dialogue with America is Iran’s firebrand president. Yet Ahmadinejad’s calls for engagement stem from his delusions, not from clever cost-benefit assessments. Ahmadinejad has convinced himself that Iran is the leading power of the developing world and has earned the right to negotiate directly with America on important global issues. So he seeks summits with U.S. presidents in which the representative of the industrial West would, presumably, listen and concede to his mandates. After years of calling for such dialogue and writing meandering letters to Presidents Bush and Obama, Ahmadinejad perceives that through modest nuclear concessions, he could perhaps secure that cherished audience. Put simply, an egocentric president surrounded by deranged aides such as Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, his chief of staff, and Saeed Jalili, secretary to the Supreme National Security Council, is guided by misapprehensions that are largely impervious to economic pressures.
Western advocates of sanctions comfort themselves by believing that even if Khamenei’s calculus is unaffected by punitive economic measures, such efforts could still lead the conservative elite to defect from the party-line mentality. The merchant class, stressed by the loss of business opportunities, and conservative politicians uneasy about Iran’s growing isolation could press the supreme leader to embark on a realistic engagement policy, this thinking holds. But the problem with this perspective is that in today’s Iran, parochial politics takes precedent over national interest. Conservative Iranian leaders such as Ali Larijani and Hashemi Rafsanjani are so concerned about Ahmadinejad’s self-aggrandizement and attempts to impose his political hegemony on the system that they are unwilling to buttress his diplomatic gambits. Given that engagement with the United States would redound to Ahmadinejad’s advantage, the conservatives are unlikely to support it, even if they agree with its overall merit.
For the near future, Iran’s international relations will be conditioned by the vagaries of the complex relationship between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which means its policies are likely to be characterized by contradiction and inconsistency. Given the force of his personality and the scope of his ambitions, Ahmadinejad may be able to force some concessions out of a reluctant Khamenei. But the compromises or agreements that Ahmadinejad may make with the West can still be reversed or violated. A political order overseen by a suspicious supreme leader and featuring actors all focused on their narrow political fortunes is unlikely to be tempered by Western blandishments of engagement or threats of sanctions.
In the end, the only path out of this paradox is to invest in an Iranian political class that is inclined to displace dogma with pragmatism. And that still remains the indomitable Green movement.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.