By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 07/07/08):
Iran refused again at the weekend to give a straight answer to the west’s offer of incentives in return for halting its uranium enrichment programme. But its call for a swift resumption of negotiations, and its assertion that a “new environment” conducive to progress now exists, will make it all the more difficult for Israeli and US hawks to press the alternative case for tougher sanctions or military action.
Tehran’s apparent attempt to divide western counsels while counting on Russian and Chinese sympathy at the UN looks familiar. The question of how to maintain a united front and a coherent policy is becoming a hardy perennial as the nuclear dispute drags on. The west’s next move will be discussed at this week’s G8 summit in Japan.
Sceptical western diplomats, convinced Tehran wants to build a nuclear bomb, suggest it is trying to “run out the clock” on George Bush, who leaves office next January and without whose (at least tacit) support Israel is unlikely to act. Foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki‘s welcoming of “new voices in America”, a reference to the less bellicose Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, points in that direction. Meanwhile, diplomats believe, the nuclear programme continues apace.
Yet as often in the past, unfavourable estimations of Iranian intent fail to take into account the fierce, contradictory political forces at work in one of the world’s least reported, least understood major countries. As Iran’s domestic problems including high unemployment, inflation and corruption intensify, and as next year’s presidential election comes into contentious focus, battles for control and influence are raging on several fronts.
How the stand-off with the west is handled is integral to much of this internal jockeying for power. One recent example is a bid to reduce the responsibility for the nuclear issue of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his “principalist” (fundamentalist) appointees, in whom many Iranians appear to have lost confidence, and give a bigger say to the Majlis (parliament). A driving force behind this development is Ali Larijani, the former chief nuclear negotiator who fell out with Ahmadinejad and is now parliamentary speaker.
In a recent debate MPs argued that only parliament could truly speak for the nation since it was “in touch with the people”. Reformist Mustafa Kavakebian suggested nuclear policy needed a full public airing. “The deputies must be given the opportunity to express their views without circumspection or subterfuge,” he said in calling for a conference, or “loya jirga”, to review the position.
Speaking at Friday prayers in Tehran on July 4, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the archly conservative Guardian Council and an Ahmadinejad ally, offered an unwitting insight into the economic troubles that are also roiling the political scene. Admitting the seriousness of water and electricity shortages and “the need to fight against financial corruption”, Jannati pleaded for understanding.
“Almighty God tests his servants by putting hurdles in their way,” he preached. “People should be patient in the face of problems. Officials are doing their best. They should not be criticised.”
Whatever God may say, Ahmadinjejad cannot escape controversy over his belated efforts to introduce what he calls “major reform in the economic structure”. He is widely seen as having failed to deliver on his 2005 election promises to raise living standards. In a meeting with 100 economists last week, his plan was attacked for ignoring orthodox market economics and risking “devastation” through changes to highly sensitive fuel subsidies.
The drumbeat of Israeli threats against Iran, a reported US decision to raise to $400m the funds available for anti-regime activities and covert operations, and moves in Britain and elsewhere to legitimise the “Hypocrites Grouplet” (Iran’s name for the Mojahedin-e Khalq resistance organisation) are all additional elements influencing, positively and negatively, these internal political battles and thus the way Iran’s leaders approach the nuclear issue.
In seeking a second term next year, meanwhile, Ahmadinejad looks likely to face personal attacks that may make the McCain-Obama contest look tame by comparison. Whether he overcomes or succumbs to these pressures also has an obvious bearing on whether Iran moves towards confrontation or conciliation.
Even in the Islamic Republic, Ahmadinejad’s eclectic religious belief raises eyebrows in some quarters. His frequent references to the imminent coming of the so-called Hidden Imam, Shia Islam’s Messiah-like Lord of the Age, was cruelly mocked in the Etemad Melli newspaper last week.
“Recently there has been numerous instances of the president … saying that the government is run by the Lord of the Age,” reformist Rasul Montajabnia claimed. He went on: “There is even a rumour among intimate circles that sometimes there is an extra dish, knife and fork on the dining table. Ahmadinejad says they are for the Lord of the Age.”