The story of Iran this year has been of a nation on the rise regionally, with clear influence in Lebanon and Iraq and a growing assertiveness about its right to develop nuclear energy. But there has been a break in the narrative at year’s end. Troubling signals for Tehran have suddenly sprouted up in many directions. Despite a continuing surge in revenues from its energy stocks, Iran’s oil minister acknowledged the country was having difficulty funding oil projects because of what the Financial Times calls “de facto financial sanctions.” At the same time, authorities were confirming gains by reformers in municipal elections and impressive vote totals for “moderate conservatives” like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the election for members of the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to select the country’s next Supreme Leader (RFE/RL). Other sour notes for the government include a rising student protest movement (NYT) against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a UN General Assembly vote censuring its human rights record.
But Tehran’s biggest source of concern, despite declarations to the contrary, is a UN resolution passed unanimously (WashPost) by the UN Security Council on December 23. The resolution sanctions the government for failing to heed its demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which a number of Western states believe is cover for a weapons program. It bans the import and export of materials and technology used in uranium enrichment, reprocessing, and ballistic missiles. Even though the European states that drafted the resolution have removed provisions related to a Russian-built light-water reactor and travel bans, there are overtones of the UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s that have already chilled international investment in Iran. In a new CFR.org Podcast, sanctions expert George A. Lopez of Notre Dame University says that Iran’s inadequate response to a wide range of carrots and sticks offered by negotiators over the past year has frustrated erstwhile backers such as Russia. Even a resolution that amounts to a “slap on the wrist” to Iran should raise worries in Tehran, he says, about Security Council unity. UN sanctions would only intensify concerns over the weak state of the economy, according to this CFR Backgrounder.
One cause for the shift in fortunes appears to be growing exasperation with the performance of Ahmadinejad, such as his recent hosting of a conference of deniers of the Nazi Holocaust. “His radicalism is beginning to rub people the wrong way,” says CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, pointing to results from the recent elections. He says the Iranian public does not appreciate “the confrontational rhetoric, the anti-Semitism, and the opprobrium that he brings internationally to Iran.” And analyst Kaveh L. Afrasiabi notes that a survey of Russian press signals that “Ahmadinejad's radical brand of politics has made it all but impossible for Russia to resist the combined US-European Union pressure to overcome its objections to sanctions on Iran” (Asia Times).
The Iranian president seems unruffled by the latest trends, again touting the country’s nuclear capabilities in an appearance on December 20 (IRNA), and vowing to continue its nuclear program “with full speed” (NYT) after the passage of UN sanctions. But even if he were to become moderate or marginalized, few experts expect dramatic changes in the country anytime soon, pointing to the considerable powers of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini and the country’s unelected Guardian Council. Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the International Crisis Group writes that Iranian public opinion, especially among its huge youth population, “has never appeared to figure prominently in Khamenei’s consensus-building process” (Washington Quarterly). But Khamenei is aging and said to be ailing, raising the newly elected Assembly of Experts to new prominence (Stratfor).