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Talks on Nuclear Issue Unlikely with 'Unsettled' Iran

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 8, 2009

CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, who served this year as a senior adviser on Iran policy in the State Department, says the split in Iran's political system is widening. In the aftermath of June's "fraudulent election," Takeyh says Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along with the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, is trying "to purge the political system of all their ideological and political rivals." He says even though President Barack Obama and others still hope for a negotiated outcome of the issues surrounding Iran's nuclear program, he is not optimistic right now because of the internal upheavals in Iran.

It has been nearly three months since the presidential elections in Iran were held, and the announcement that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been reelected by an extraordinary majority. There was a considerable amount of dire predictions at the time about the future of the Iranian regime. How do you see the situation in Iran now?

It still is an unsettled situation in many ways. On the one hand, the street demonstrations seem to have been suppressed, although Iran remains a volatile country and the situation could potentially reignite. And the divisions within the regime have yet to be healed. It will be very difficult for them to be healed when there are figures in the right-wing community such as President Ahmadinejad and Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, who are interested in using the elections and their aftermath to purge the political system of all their ideological and political rivals. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is trying to put some restraint on them. But they have not given up the hope of further crackdowns on at least the political elite they disagree with.

So long as those sentiments are out there, it will be difficult for the politics of the system to be stabilized once again; the rupture may actually not be healed at all. We may be seeing a new recalibration of the Islamic Republic's institutions where certain members of the political elite are increasingly separating themselves from the system--a system that seems vengeful toward them.

Like whom?

Certainly, former President Mohammad Khatami, who served as the Iranian leader before Ahmadinejad and had been elected then on a reform platform. He is beginning to distance himself from the system and is becoming a very strong critic of it. I don't think Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president, is in that opposition yet since he is trying somehow to put himself in a position to conciliate the various factions. But I don't think the right-wing community is interested in being accommodating.

Do you think the Revolutionary Guards see this as an opportunity to widen their power?

Yes. The speech given by General Jafari the other day was actually quite chilling.

The problem with [a U.S.-Iran] dialogue is that there is no Iranian interlocutor that is sincere and serious about solving the issues at this point.

It was reminiscent of the speeches and declarations heard in the early 1980s when the regime would accuse its political opposition of sedition.

In his speech, Jafari called for Khatami's arrest?

That was why it was a remarkable event. It does reflect the extent to which the Revolutionary Guards are running the show, not only the trials, but also the Guards' efforts to expand not only their security and economic influence, but also their political influence in all sectors of society. That's why it is going to be hard for any reconciliation.

At the end of last year, you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing some guarded optimism about the chances for a real dialogue between the United States and Iran, which would include the crucial issue of Iran's nuclear program. Where do we stand on the possibility of a U.S.-Iran dialogue?

The problem with the dialogue is that there is no Iranian interlocutor that is sincere and serious about solving the issues at this point. The Iranian domestic situation is very much unsettled and probably domestic problems are the primary preoccupation with many in the Iranian political establishment. The election has demonstrated the degree to which members of the political elite within the right-wing community anguish about a nonexistent Western plot to undermine the Islamic Republic. This makes Iran a very difficult negotiating partner. Second of all, the Iranian regime's behavior during the election and its aftermath limits the political space that one would need to have a dialogue. Everything that has happened makes the policy of engagement much more arduous.

In recent days, we've had EU members--the latest being the foreign minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU presidency--saying, in effect, "All right Iran, it's now or never; produce a proposal to resolve the issues surrounding your nuclear program, or we'll have tougher sanctions."

That's been the refrain from much of the international community. Everyone has communicated that message to Iran, namely that it is time for Iran to come back to the table and earnestly talk about nuclear infractions and so forth. But the door will not remain open forever. It is up to Iran to take advantage of such opportunities. That message is almost an international consensus at this point.

Do the Russians and Chinese also agree?

They are hoping that the Iranians come back to the table with a serious proposal because that might obviate further tension and the difficulties that discussion of sanctions among the Russians, Chinese, and Americans sometimes causes. So everyone is hoping that this problem has some kind of diplomatic settlement. But at this time, Iran is in the throes of remarkable domestic political changes, the outcome of which is almost impossible to predict with accuracy. Because it can't put its house in order, that leads to a very difficult situation. The regime has become quite strident and less inclined to accept compromise solutions.

Ahmadinejad will be in New York later this month for the United Nations General Assembly. Recently, his nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said they would have some proposals. But George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment told me that Jalili talks without any substance. Do you agree?

The previous Iranian proposal that Jalili delivered in 2008 was quite absurd. It was essentially a proposal in which Iran agreed to talk about global justice. It wanted to have a discussion about Latin America, Africa, and the Balkans. I don't know what the 2009 proposal will be, but if it follows that line of thinking, I don't think it would be very helpful. In his recent remarks, Jalili hinted that Iran was once again interested in discussing a whole range of issues, such as global justice and so forth. It leads me to believe that perhaps it is less than a serious offer, but we have to wait and see what it is.

When Ahmadinejad comes back to New York for his latest visit to the UN, what do you think his approach will be? Do you think he will take his usual confrontational posture?

Iran is in the throes of remarkable domestic political changes, the outcome of which is almost impossible to predict with accuracy.

It is hard to predict. Unlike his previous trips, he is likely to meet with a substantial level of demonstrations and protest, given the fraudulent election Iran had and its aftermath of suppression of political dissent. In that sense, this is a different visit. He can no longer claim to be legitimately elected. In 2005, at least he did win the election without fraud, but in this election, the fraud was so obvious and manifest, he is likely to meet with a greater degree of public protest from Iranian-Americans and other concerned citizens. Whether he will be as flamboyant and belligerent as he has been in the past, I would think so, since that is part of his character. He tends to be defiant in the face of protest.

What do you think of Ahmadinejad's comment carried in the Iranian press Monday [September 7] that Iran will not negotiate about its nuclear program, but is ready for talks on "global challenges"?

It doesn't strike me as unusual. There was a low expectation that Iran's proposal would carry some constructive suggestions.

I am still curious as to why the election was handled as it was. Do you think it was because the leadership realized at the last hour that Ahmadinejad would lose, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi had the votes to beat him, so they took the extreme measure to announce that not only had Ahmadinejad won, but by a preposterously large majority?

I'm not sure what went into their mind. Before the election, you began to see commentary from various leadership members of the Revolutionary Guard that they were increasingly viewing the "Green Wave" movement [Mousavi's supporters] as part of a color revolution akin to Ukraine and Georgia designed to overthrow the Islamic Republic. They probably set in motion the manipulation of the votes. I don't know if they ever counted the ballots. They might have just come up with the number 63 percent, which Ahmadinejad got in 2005. It didn't seem to be a process whereby every vote was counted. It didn't seem to be a diligent process. It seemed to be a rushed process to declare a victory and a victor. Some of that had to do with their unfounded concerns that somehow the Iranian regime was about to be overthrown. The Mousavi movement actually was trying to reform the system and not overthrow it.

What do you think will happen with the show trials where more than one hundred people--many of them prominent Iranians--are on trial, under pressure to publicly confess?

I suspect that if it is up to Ahmadinejad and his cohorts they will continue. You will see that those who have refused public recantation will remain some time in incarceration while those who have made confessions may be released. There may be further arrests and show trials if it is up to them. It certainly doesn't make the Iranian government look very good.

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