Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dilemma of Iran's Next President

Dilemma of Iran’s Next President

Ali Asghar Kazemi

February 16, 2009


Three decades after the downfall the Pahlavi regime and the ascendance into power of a clergy rule in Iran, the Islamic leaders still insist on the revolutionary nature of their institutions. While each revolution has its own follies and romantic slogans common to all at the beginning, the persistence of religious leaders on its continuity until the reappearance of the hidden Shiite Imam, is a peculiar phenomenon with important consequences on the national and international scene.

Despite widespread publicity about the miraculous achievement of the incumbent hard-line president, it seems rather obvious that Iran’s overall international standing has terribly diminished during the arch-conservative rule. With respect to domestic affaires the situation is much worse. An economy in shamble, a galloping inflation, and a general discontent of the accomplishment of Mr. Ahmadinejad who’s various promises simply did not materialize.

Ahmadinejad was the product of a period of eight years of controversies between two conflicting views: that expressed by a moderate soft-spoken clergy, Mr. Khatami who was considered as “reformist” by Western political standards; and the opposite represented by the conservative religious-revolutionary groups who pretended to be the legitimate guardian of the Islamic regime. During his two terms in office, president Khatami failed to accomplish much due to obstacles on his way created by his opponents in the legislative body and judiciary. Feeling betrayed, young and enthusiastic people who had voted for Khatami turned back to him and reformist movement and supporters gradually disintegrated and vanished from political scene, leaving the ground to hard-line conservatives with new attractive promises.

Now, almost four years after the conservative grip of absolute power, with a nation at the brink of social and economic crises, the reformists are embarking for a new comeback. Upon several months of speculations, finally former president Khatami has decided to run for president with the slogan of saving the country from total collapse and insolvency.

What are the chances of the opposing groups to win the presidential elections next spring? How far Mr. Khatami or his reformist comrades are able to restore the lost confidence of the populace to the competence and capacity of the Islamic government to respond to their widespread expectations? What are the prospects of normalizing relations with the United States under the new president?


In order to pass judgment on the performance of a high position office-holder such as the president in Iran, one must consider the facts against the religious-revolutionary natures of the Islamic regime and its worldwide objectives reflected in its constitutional structure and ideological aspirations. In present Iran, no one individual can trespass the redlines predetermined either by Shari’a, as interpreted by the appropriate body instituted for that purpose, or by the “supreme leader of the revolution”. Even the supreme leader who has the final say in matters of “high politics” or “strategic decisions” is bound to follow those rules. Of course, he has the prerogative to assess the situation and decide according to his evaluation of a particular issue. This is to say that the chief executive and other legislative and judiciary bodies are subordinate to the “supreme leader.” This means that nothing substantive can take place in the country without the consent of the leader.

With that assumption in mind, one of the major impediments of the Islamic regime overall conduct in running the business of the state seems to be the continuing persistence on its revolutionary nature. In fact, this feature has created a strong barrier before Iran’s national objectives and aspirations in setting clear criteria for determining friends and foes. This does not suggest however that the same quandary is settled in domestic sphere. Perhaps many unfortunate events and vicissitudes during the lifespan of the Islamic regime so far are geared to this very important dimension of the revolutionary Iran.

Nevertheless, when states choose to engage in interactions with their peers, they must have a lucid definition of their ends and means, a realistic assessment of their partners and above all a faithful commitment to certain primordial standards (rules of the game) in international relations. Indeed revolutions have their own peculiarities and manners and do not necessarily follow conventional norms and expected behavior. They usually have a tendency to challenge the status quo and even alter those rules. Thus, many states prefer not to be in love with revolutionary regimes which by nature have a propensity to be repelling rather than receptive.

The problem of not being able to distinguish between its ideological concerns and vital national interests has impeded the revolutionary Iran to identify its friends and foes and this has almost paralyzed Iran’s diplomacy especially during recent nuclear crisis. While international pressure was gradually increasing in order to push it to stop all nuclear activities, Iran was helplessly looking for friends here and there in order to get some support for its intransigent position. To this end, a number of lucrative deals were offered to some potential partners,[1] but, at the critical moment when Iran needed their help, they turned to its opponents in the UN Security Council.

Iranian leaders should not be surprised by this unfortunate experience. Indeed, this is the golden rule of the game in international relations; states only have permanent interests and no permanent friends or foes. Yet, an intelligent and rational foreign policy should put the right emphasis at any particular moment on the means and leverages it has on its potential friends in order to neutralize or bypass the negative impacts of its presumed foes’ actions and decisions. When a state puts all of its eggs in one basket, it may soon end up with unpredictable situations in which it should sacrifice all at once. No diplomacy that would stake everything on mere rhetoric and intimidation or concessions deserves to be called intelligent.

While the conservative government and policy makers in Iran persist on a return to revolutionary slogans of the regime and do everything to show this feature, the international community seems quite alarmed with the development. Thus, most states are reluctant to engage in deep interaction with a nation defying the prevailing norms. This is not to suggest that those norms and rules of the game are necessarily ethical, just or fair.

Recent American offer by President Barack Obama to open direct talks with Iran may simply be regarded as a calculated move in order to disarm the conservative groups from their revolutionary slogans and push Iran to the corner to comply with accepted norms in international relations. While Obama is pursuing his strategy through soft power and diplomacy[2], the Bush administration pursued the same objectives by threatening Iran by hard power. However, for the Islamic leaders, compromising on principles means giving bitter unnecessary concessions which would devoid the Islamic regime from its fundamental ideological drives and values.

While reformists have better chances to win next presidential elections, it is faire to suggest that neither Ahmadinejad nor Khatami or any other person in that capacity is powerful enough to make substantive changes in the structure or religious-revolutionary nature of the Islamic regime. They are both pursuing the same goals with different styles. They can merely act within a limited boundary determined to them either by law or by the authority of the leader. The difference is purely that of approach reflecting individual character, social background and philosophical outlook.

In the typology of political leaders, as classified by Harold Lasswell, Ahmadinejad represents the “agitator” type with extreme intransigence who sacrifices immediate gains for abstract principles and always seeks to instigate the emotional response of the public. While Khatami is a “negotiator” who is more concerned with acceptable solution to a conflict than a just or perfect resolution. Thus, he does not mind to compromise with his opponents. Nonetheless, important issues such as: relations with the United States, the nuclear project, the Middle East problems and the likes are only dependent variables geared to the very nature of the Islamic regime in Iran. /


* Ali Asghar Kazemi is Professor of Law and International Relations in Tehran, Iran. For detail see:

[1]The deal on liquefied gas with China, which amounts to an overall value of $100 billion, is one such undertaking which would tie Iran’s political fate to China’s growing needs for energy over the next 25 years. Russians on the other hand, are very happy about the current nuclear plant in Bushehr and the prospective other nuclear plant deals with Iran and seemed not to be ready to forego this lucrative business just for the sake of giving a hand to American plan to contain Iran’s ambition to use nuclear technology, which in their view, is not harmful. But, as we have seen, both of them voted against Iran at the IAEA. India was also supposed to support Iran for promoting its interests in the prospective gas line project, but this did not happen either.

[2]See: Ali Asghar Kazemi, “US Democrats are Pushing Iran to the Corner”: Strategic Discourse February 3, 2009.

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