Ray Takeyh, a leading expert on Iran, says the recent elections show a growing loss of confidence in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by the Iranian middle class. He says the Iranian president has garnered increased standing in Muslim countries by his tough remarks on Israel, Jews, and the United States. But like previous Iranian presidents, Takeyh says, Ahmadinejad’s public support has begun to wane after a year or so in office.
“It is the middle class that seems disenchanted,” says Takeyh, who is CFR senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. “And also, not his conservatism per se, but his radicalism is beginning to rub people the wrong way. Some of the things, the confrontational rhetoric, the anti-Semitism and the opprobrium that that he brings internationally to Iran is not something that’s appreciated by the public.”
Iran has just held two elections, one election for local councils around the country and the other for the Assembly of Experts. Some reports say President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered some standing as a result. How do you interpret it?
There was a sort of a message to the president that the public is dissatisfied with the direction that the country is going in. Now, I should say that going into the elections, the conservatives were divided in the sense that there was no single conservative list of candidates but instead, two or three. So the divisions and dissensions within the conservative movement led to the conservative votes being scattered around. Now if you step back and you look at this election in its totality, the conservatives didn’t do that badly. They still have control of most city councils, the Assembly of Experts is still a conservative body, so what the public is interestingly doing is they’re opting for less belligerent conservatives, as Ahmadinejad is proving to be more of a radical.
These “less belligerent” conservatives are not endorsed by Ahmadinejad?
Yes, that’s right. Ahmadinejad ran his own list of candidates.
And it’s that list which suffered apparently.
That’s the list that has suffered, and some of his conservative competitors have done well, and in some cases some reformers have done reasonably okay. I think overall, the reformers vote will top, 30 to 35 [percentage] points.
There has been a high turnout in cities like Tehran, I take it.
Well, the figures are still coming in. I see figures that suggest 60 percent and other figures that suggest 47 percent, 45 percent. These two bodies traditionally have a low turnout, so if it’s 45 percent in Tehran then that’s a fairly large turnout for these two particular institutions that don’t command that much public enthusiasm. The Assembly of Experts is an elderly conservative body and it doesn’t excite anyone. The city councils and the local municipalities don’t have a whole lot of power to affect the direction of state policy, so for that reason they haven’t generated that level of public acclaim. But the fact that it is a high turnout for elections such as these reflects a degree of dissatisfaction with the incumbent regime.
I gather former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who lost in the presidential election to Ahmadinejad last year, did very well in the voting for the Assembly of Experts.
Well, even that vote has to be placed in context, because Rafsanjani was on everybody’s list. He was on the reformers’ list, and the reformers and the more moderate Rafsanjani supporters have come together. They are much more united than the conservatives. And he was even on some conservative lists, so there was that aspect of it that allowed him to do well. Second of all, Rafsanjani was already a member of the Assembly of Experts, he was a deputy of the Assembly of Experts, so the notion that he’s been elected to this institution is not entirely accurate. He’s been reelected.
OK, so let’s put all the numbers aside. Is there any message here to the president of Iran?
The president of Iran is running into the same problem that previous presidents of Iran have run into. They come into the office with promises and pledges. In his case it was economic justice and economic equality. And in former President Mohammed Khatami’s case it was political reform. And in Rafsanjani’s case in the early 1990s it was economic reconstruction. And after one or two years in office, you see the pendulum switch and swing from enthusiasm to disillusionment when the promises prove hollow.
He came into office pledging economic equality, economic justice, an end to corruption, a sort of chicken in every pot. And that has not come about, so there’s a degree of disillusionment from the public that he’s confronting today. Now, I should note some of his core supporters in the lower-middle class and the working class are not that dissatisfied with him. It is the middle class that seems disenchanted. And also, not his conservatism per se, but his radicalism is beginning to rub people the wrong way. The confrontational rhetoric, the anti-Semitism and the opprobrium that he brings internationally to Iran is not something that’s appreciated by the public.
Some people outside of Iran think of him as a kind of a wild man, even though when we met him—you and I were at the meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations that met him in September—he’s rather a gentle speaker, but he certainly has infuriated a lot of people. Are people unhappy with his nuclear policy, which is the number one issue with the U.S. government?
Well, the nuclear policy has a degree of consensus within Iran, namely that Iran should have an advanced infrastructure, should have the right to complete the fuel cycle, and should not acquiesce to international pressures which are rather modest anyway. But the way he expresses that position, the rhetorical accompaniment of the position, has been excessively incendiary. You can make the same case, you can make the same arguments, but without being inordinately offensive as he has been.
Yes, he could have gotten into negotiations without giving away the store, I would have thought.
Well, even if the decision is that they’re not going to get to negotiations because of the precondition of suspension, even if that’s your decision, it’s a position that need not have been expressed with the degree of belligerence that he has expressed it. Second of all, all this Israeli business…
Yes, the Holocaust conference. That was a joke, right?
Well, it’s not funny. All this stuff was unnecessary at a time when the country is trying to forge ahead with a nuclear program that is contentious and controversial. They didn’t need superfluous controversy, it was unnecessary to have a conference where there are panels, so-called “scientific panels,” examining whether Nazi gas chambers could have operated at such a degree of efficiency. It was just not necessary. It further antagonizes and estranges the international community. I happen to think that, more than Iran’s nuclear activities, the anti-Semitic rhetoric that’s been coming out of that country has had an impact on the German government’s support for the international sanctions against Iran.
Yes, well certainly in Germany it’s the issue. What do you think was driving him on this? Was he known for this view before he took office?
Well, he wasn’t known a whole lot before he took office. There are several things. First, I think at some level there is an aspect of the Islamic republic that has always cast doubt on the Holocaust and on the core legitimacy of the Israeli state. So in that sense his position is consistent with some basic tenets of the Islamic republic’s ideology. Second of all I think he thought his vehement and persistent expressions of such views could have a larger presence and significance in the Middle East as a result of his combative approach to Israel. And he’s not wrong. It allows him popularity in the streets of Cairo and the streets of Riyadh, and as far away as Indonesia and Malaysia. The problem is, it had a detrimental effect on the position of his country as it was negotiating its nuclear portfolio with the UN Security Council. And that has an impact on his domestic position in the system.
On the whole, the Iranians certainly have done well, as you pointed out, in enhancing their international reputation in the Muslim world. And I guess the president’s statements have reduced their influence or their popularity in the non-Muslim world. But how well do you think they’ve done this past year?
Well, there are several fronts. In terms of the domestic economic front, the performance has been rather underwhelming, in the sense that the country continues to have problems in terms of generating investment and in terms of refurbishing its infrastructure. It has problems with inflation and it hasn’t overcome the underemployment problem. So the economic indicators haven’t measurably improved, despite the fact that oil prices have been high. In terms of its international posture, the country frankly has suffered in terms of being rebuked by the UN Security Council and so forth, but at the same time it has managed to advance its nuclear program with relative impunity.
It has managed to gain stature and influence in the region, partly because of the success of some of the surrogates, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon this summer, partly because of the lack of success of the United States in terms of stabilization and pacification of Iraq. So it has been a beneficiary of American failure and the success of its subsidiaries, but it didn’t do anything itself.
Is Iran eager to talk to the United States at this point? What is it looking for right now?
Well, the Iranian position at this particular point is that frankly they have a right to emerge as the preeminent power in the Persian Gulf. And to the extent that negotiations lead to an American exit, then that is something they’re prepared to do. It’s sort of like the Nixon administration’s wooing of China. The Chinese precondition for negotiations with the United States as you recall was confidence that America was going to leave Indo-China. And in the absence of that understanding, it’s unlikely that a Sino-American breakthrough would have taken place. In that same way, the Iranians want to have at least some sort of predominance in thePersian Gulf, and a condition for that predominance is the American departure. They’re willing to participate in facilitating that departure.
Now, everyone says that the Iranian price for negotiating with the United States is a quid pro quo on the nuclear issue. That is actually not a position that Iranians have taken. There is an Iranian precondition for negotiations, namely that there be an American timetable for withdrawal. Now you can dismiss that, you can say that’s laughable, but it is something that has to be considered, because it is after all the official position of the state.