Iran’s Political ’Gridlock’

As Iran marks the thirty-first anniversary of the Khomeini revolution, it faces a grim political standoff between the regime and its opponents, says analyst Farideh Farhi.

February 11, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Analyst Farideh Farhi says Iran is in a state of "stalemate" as the country marks the thirty-first anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution. This will remain true, she says, regardless of the type of street demonstrations that unfold or the government response to them. The problems of the Islamic Republic, highlighted by ongoing protests since flawed June 2009 presidential elections, remain unsolved, she says. "The government has to find a way to get rid of or overcome the gridlock," Farhi says, but the supreme leader so far has resisted pressure to change the country’s course and "separate himself from the radical forces that have surrounded him."

How do you see the situation in Iran today? Are you surprised that the Green protest movement that came out of the disputed June 12 elections is still alive?

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The situation today is one of gridlock, or stalemate. The fundamental cleavages that created the mess in Iran in the past eight months continue to exist. No matter what happens in coming days--whether there is a violent confrontation or a silent protest--these fundamental cleavages continue to exist. Am I surprised that the protests have continued? Initially there was surprise that the protests continued, despite the violence dished out against the people. But once it was clear that the anger that was created as a result of the elections was extraordinarily deep, it is no longer a surprise that there is persistence in the continuation of demands for some sort of change in the direction of the country.

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I don’t think anyone doubts that there will be a large presence of people in the streets, and that should be attributed to the fact that people’s anger at the direction of the country is not something transient. That’s why I say that even if there is a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, or if there is a silent protest and the government manages to portray that silent protest not as a protest but as actually support for the ideals of the Islamic Republic, the reality is that the problems of the Islamic Republic are not solved. The government has to find a way to get rid of or overcome the gridlock.

Are you surprised that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not made any overt effort at compromise? Is he afraid, as some people say, of repeating the Shah’s "mistakes" and being seen as too lenient?

There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for the unyielding approach taken after the June elections to the protests was based on the argument that one has to deal with these kind of protests harshly and in a determined fashion, because if you don’t they will get out of control and ultimately will lead to a situation where the protesters will question the foundations of the Islamic Republic. If you listen to Ayatollah Khamenei, this is one of the themes that he repeats in his speeches. He has said several times that immediately after the elections he sent a message to the leaders of the protest--or the people who thought they had won the elections: Please do not continue this situation, because if you do it will get out of your control. There are elements of that kind of thinking certainly in the people who surround Ayatollah Khamenei at this time.

I don’t think that anyone doubts that there will be a large presence of people in the streets, and that should be attributed to the fact that people’s anger at the direction of the country is not something transient.

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People have also talked about his personality and his inability to back down when he is under pressure. At this time the inability to think in creative ways to overcome the gridlock has become itself the problem. That is why from a variety of corners--whether from the leaders of the protests themselves or former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, or even some pragmatic conservatives who see the country in a state of standstill--there is increasing pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei to change the direction of the country. [They want him] at least to release the political prisoners, separate himself from the radical forces that have surrounded him, and, as Khatami said openly, "become the leader of all Iranians" instead of the leader of one section of the Iranian population. But obviously, for a variety of reasons that are not quite clear, he has not done any of this.

The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany worked out a deal in October in which Iran would export its low enriched uranium to Russia and France and get back radioactive isotope bars for use in a medical laboratory in Tehran. Now Iran says it will increase its enriched uranium to 20 percent and make its own isotopes. Is this a deliberate provocation?

I’m not sure if it’s arrogance in this context. It may be true that there is an attempt to redirect attention away from domestic problems toward the nuclear issue. But the reality of the political dynamics in Iran at this point is that as far as the domestic problems of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or Mr. Khamenei are concerned, this kind of redirection of public opinion no longer works. Iran is so consumed by domestic problems that in many ways the announcement that was made regarding the increase in the enrichment of uranium did not get much coverage in the country.

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Crisis Guide: IranThe constraint on the Iranian side is the reality that the Iranian domestic scene was not ready for any accommodation to the outside world before there was a domestic accommodation. In other words, it appeared to its domestic critics that the Ahmadinejad government sought a compromise with the outside world as a means of overcoming its injured legitimacy at home. That kind of thinking, in effect, assured that any attempt at compromise on the nuclear issue would be undercut or contested by Iran’s domestic political dynamics.

But Iran’s interlocutors, particularly the United States, were also faced with a dilemma, given what has happened in the past eight months and the violence unleashed against the Iranian people. They also could not be seen as giving the Ahmadinejad government something that they had been unwilling to give in the past. These domestic pressures in the United States were quite manifest in the passage of sanctions in the U.S. Congress punishing companies that sold gasoline to Iran. Almost everyone agrees that the implementation of these sanctions would be harmful to the livelihood of the people of Iran or would be quite ineffective in changing the government of Iran.

[T]here is increasing pressure on Ayatollah Khamenei to change the direction of the country.

From the Iranian [regime’s] point of view, what has happened in Iran in the past week is an attempt to remind the United States that in the negotiations that never led to fruition the Iranians were offering something quite important, which was the decision--if there was a compromise--not to enrich uranium beyond 5 percent. They were willing to buy or receive uranium that is enriched beyond 5 percent from the outside and at the same time accept intrusive inspection. The United States’ position in these negotiations was quite "take it or leave it" in terms of the procedures that should follow for the transfer of this uranium. So I see this latest move on the part of Iran not as part and parcel of a way to distract attention from domestic problems inside the country but as a logical outcome of a failed negotiation between the United States and Iran.

How bad is the Iranian economy?

The Iranian economy, like other economies in the world, is facing serious issues. In the last couple of years, the Iranian economy had become used to higher export oil prices; therefore it has to adjust to lower prices. But then there is this other reality that for several years Iranian decision makers have been trying to come to terms with a huge subsidy system which has become a tremendous burden on Iranian government outlays. In the past two months, the parliament finally put into law a subsidy reform legislation that is expected to go into law by April. That in itself is a difficult dynamic for Iran to go through because this subsidy reform is expected to have an inflationary kick and add to the already high inflation rate that Iran has. The subsidies concern fuel prices, utilities like electricity, bread, flour, sugar, and other items and they are to be put into effect over five years.

Do the political divisions affect the economy?

The Islamic Republic has always had to deal with this dual challenge related to the economy: How to generate or revitalize an economy battered by revolution, war, as well as the challenge of international pressure. The Islamic Republic has always been used to these dual challenges. What has been added now to this dual challenge is that of the internal divisions. These internal divisions are the result of the June 12 elections. The Islamic Republic has always made the point that its standing in the world--its moral power in the world--and its ability to project its power in the world depends on unity at home and on the way it has conducted its domestic affairs. That has in effect been undermined by the June 12 election, and in fact for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic you have a triple challenge. That’s the part that has become extremely difficult for the leaders to handle. The leaders of the protest movement are trying to persuade Mr. Khamenei that the path that has been taken is a dangerous one.

The protest leaders have told Mr. Khamenei that his inability to manage this situation is caused by the fact that he has been convinced by people who are radical to pursue policies which have actually aggravated internal divisions rather than guide Iran in a direction of resolving these conflicts. We will have to see if he is open to those arguments in the next few months. So far he has not been.


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