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Vulnerable Iran in Restive Mideast

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 15, 2011

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Iran will likely stay immune for now from the protests roiling the region, though it cannot remain an "island of autocratic stability," says CFR Iran expert Ray Takeyh.  President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has alienated supporters, Takeyh says, as well as his former champion, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, who wants a president "who will acquiesce to his powers without complaint or protest." Takeyh also notes that because Iran is trying hard to ensure the survival of the regime in Syria, it has "earned the enmity" of the Syrian people. If "the House of Assad goes, [Iran] will likely have an antagonistic power" next door, he says. The United States can exploit Iran's political vulnerabilities, says Takeyh. "Iran finds itself as an autocracy in a region whose political gravity is changing toward representation -- that is a leverage that the Western powers potentially have," he points out.

It's been two years since the Green Revolution. What's happening now with the 'Arab Spring' turning into the Arab Summer, and protests going on throughout most of the Middle East? How's that affecting Iran?

The leadership of the Green Movement, such as it was, made a decision in 2009 that they were going to hollow out the system -- as opposed to confronting it with daily demonstrations -- through defections and pressure on the system. And gradually through such delegitimization, they believed the Islamic Republic would weaken. That's a decision they've made, and to some extent that has been successful. Iran has a presidency that is hobbled and the regime is isolated from its constituents. Nonetheless, the regime remains in power. I can't believe, at the end of the day, that Iran can remain an oasis of autocratic stability in a changing region where the population is becoming much more aware of their rights and are trying to reclaim their rights.

I think you can trace the origins of the 'Arab Spring' to June 2009 in Iran, where you had a protest movement with nebulous leadership, that relied on social media to mobilize support. Therefore, what began in Iran, I suspect, will come back to Iran at some point. I don't think the idea of popular protest has been left behind in the Islamic Republic. What will trigger that, I don't know. What triggered it in Tunisia was an individual who was fed up and made a spectacular act of protest. It could be that some event that we don't foresee could trigger that. Where is it on the horizon? It's impossible to predict.

There's a lot of talk about tensions (al-Jazeera) between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei. Is there really a split between these leaders? After all, Khamenei put his reputation on the line to announce that Ahmadinejad (TIME) had won the election legitimately two years ago, right?

Given the fact that Ahmadinejad had alienated much of the conservative bloc after he had obviously alienated the reformers, and given his fraudulent election, he has no popular support.

There is a split, and it is real. Ahmadinejad is a politician of limitless ambitions. He was in the process of trying to assume greater control over Iran's institutions. You saw that in his attempt to fire the minister of intelligence, Heydar Mosleh [a move thwarted by Khamenei], which is always a critical ministry in a police state like Iran. He increasingly wanted to incorporate the Islamic Republic and the Ahmadinejad cult of personality dictatorship by taking over key institutions and putting his people in there. Except in the Islamic Republic, the office of presidency is weak and subordinate. Institutional power lies with the Supreme Leader. And given the fact that Ahmadinejad had alienated much of the conservative bloc after he had obviously alienated the reformers, and given his fraudulent election, he has no popular support. The only thing he had to confront the Supreme Leader with was the force of his personality. Except when personality meets institutional power, institutional power usually wins out.

Crisis Guide: Iran

What's happening now?

Ahmadinejad is likely to recognize the limitations of his position -- he is marginalized, isolated, and weakened. And he's likely to finish his term the same way that the previous other two presidents, Mahmoud Khatami, and Akbar Rafsanjani, did -- in a marginalized, insignificant position. Ahmadinejad is a fairly ambitious person, so he might try to make a comeback. But I think absent the Supreme Leader's backing, he will become another effective lame duck.

Do we have any idea who the next president might be, when the next elections are held in the summer of 2013?

Iran is heavily invested in the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime. And it's been rumored to be involved in advising the Syrian regime how to repress the demonstrations.

Ahmadinejad apparently tried to ensure the succession of one of his allies, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who was his chief of staff. That's no longer possible. Who is going to step up and assume the presidency? It's hard to know. But the Supreme Leader wants a president who is compliant, who is docile, and who will acquiesce to his powers without complaint or protest. So the next president of Iran, whoever he may be, has to fit those criteria -- as an individual who accepts his insignificance and insubordination with a degree of humility.

When the Iranian leadership looks at the situation in the Middle East today, does it come away feeling that things are moving in their direction or are they worried?

I suspect they operate at two levels. The Middle East is unsettled, and its alliance systems are in flux. The Iranians are quite comfortable when the region is unsettled and preoccupied with internal affairs -- and not necessarily mobilizing against Iran. However, the emergence of people power is not something they can look at with optimism and comfort. If the Middle East's political gravity changes from autocracy to democratic representation, that's not necessarily to their advantage.

Syria in particular is a close Iran ally, and Alawites, who have run Syria for years, are an offshoot of Shiism in a country where Sunnis predominate. And through Syria, Iran was able to arm Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization in Lebanon, and become a force in the Middle East.

Increasingly, Iran finds itself as an autocracy in a region whose political gravity is changing toward representation -- that is a leverage that the Western powers potentially have.

Syria is the reason Iran is a Mediterranean power. And what happens in Syria could have a pronounced impact on Iran's foreign policy -- if not domestic stability. Iran is heavily invested in the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime. And it's been rumored to be involved in advising the Syrian regime how to repress the demonstrations. Iran itself has invested a great deal in trying to repress social media networks that are used to mobilize political dissent -- and they're lending that expertise to the Syrians. These reports seem credible and sound. However, the Islamic Republic has ensured the enmity of the Syrian population -- as well as the enmity of the successor regime that is bound to reflect public opinion inside Syria. So it's a gamble on the survival of the House of Assad. If the House of Assad goes, they're likely to have an antagonistic power to their immediate right.

If Assad goes, the likelihood is that you'll get some sort of Sunni leadership, and the Sunni leadership would be heavily backed by Saudi Arabia, right?

Yes, although Assad might enjoy some amount of Saudi support now -- simply because the Saudis want at this point some degree of stability. And Assad for them represents stability, while the post-Assad regime remains difficult to forecast. I suspect a successor-regime to Assad is likely to have a different relationship with Iran. The more Iranians are wedded to Assad, the more antagonistic or cool that relationship will be.

The nuclear issue is the big, divisive issue between the United States and Iran. Is there any movement on this? The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report is apparently still concerned about Iran (AP) not being forthcoming with information about its past research into developing nuclear weapons.

Iran has a nuclear program that is steady, stable, and growing. And IAEA remains concerned about surreptitious activity that may be going on and previous activities that Iran has not reported or is ambiguous about. All of these concerns are concerns that the IAEA and the international community have had for a long time. What has become even more difficult is that all those concerns remain as the program grows larger and more sophisticated -- which means potentially that Iran at some point will introduce a new generation of centrifuges, which means it can radically expedite its process of enrichment.

If you were still in the U.S. government, what would you be advising right now?

I would say that Iran is a country of great vulnerabilities. We have focused a great deal on its economic vulnerabilities with a sanctions policy that has been more successful than people thought originally. But I would add that Iran is also vulnerable in terms of the fact that it is a government distrusted and disdained by its population -- so it has political vulnerabilities that one can try to exploit as a means of stressing the system. Increasingly, Iran finds itself as an autocracy in a region whose political gravity is changing toward representation -- that is a leverage that the Western powers potentially have. There are opportunities out there we can try to explore.

President Obama has already launched his re-election campaign. It's highly unlikely anything dramatic will happen in the next year or so.

Iranians see the region changing, and in the middle of this change, they're not going to be the power that concedes to the United States. They think that politics of defiance will allow them to influence public opinion, as opposed to actually giving in on the nuclear issue to the United States. So the prospects of diplomatic mediation have lessened. Iranian perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the best benefit in terms of having an impact on public opinion in the region, the so-called Arab Street, is being defiant on the nuclear issue, instead of compromising it away with the international community.

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