Takeyh: Iran’s New President ‘Largely Indifferent’ to What Outside World Thinks

November 10, 2005

Interview
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.

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Ray Takeyh, the Council’s top expert on Iranian politics, says the new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is "largely indifferent to the opinion of the international community and its perceptions of him and his loyalists and his ideology." This has caused some concern, he says, in Iran that "some of his actions have gone too far, in a sense that he has put Iran under an unnecessary degree of scrutiny and examination and perhaps his rhetoric is ill-serving some of the regime’s more practical, rational needs."

On the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the European Union on Iran’s nuclear program, Takeyh notes a new proposal being floated by Russia and backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to have the actual reprocessing done in Russia. He says "it remains to be seen what Iran will do, but I would suspect that what Iranians will do is negotiate but not necessarily acquiesce."

Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 10, 2005.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now been in office since August. He was relatively unknown to most people before his election. What can we say about him after three months in office?

Well, several things. No. 1: he’s actually quite serious and committed to his ideological assumptions. No. 2: he’s very committed to his loyalists, and political supporters who elected him, particularly within the Revolutionary Guards and so forth. No. 3: he’s largely indifferent to the opinion of the international community and its perceptions of him and his loyalists and his ideology.

How has he gotten along within the various power centers in Iran itself?

That’s a little more difficult to tell. There does seem to be a degree of concern among the many political tendencies of Iran that some of his actions have gone too far, in a sense that he has put Iran under an unnecessary degree of scrutiny and examination and perhaps his rhetoric is ill-serving some of the regime’s more practical, rational needs.

We’re talking here in particular about his statement at the, the Anti-Zionist conference?

Yes. That’s an interesting speech because everyone focuses on the "Israel must be wiped off the map" comment, but he also called for destruction of America which nobody actually mentions. That’s one thing. The speech that he gave when he arrived in New York at the United Nations was also detrimental to Iran’s nuclear negotiating position. Again, some of the things he has said have gone too far and the system is trying to rebalance itself, in a sense maybe even trying to restrain some of his actions.

Is he also taking on the clergy? Is he taking on the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei...

Not so much directly taking on the Supreme Leader, because throughout the campaign and even during the period subsequent to his inauguration, he has demonstrated loyalty. He certainly has a very strident ideological position, which is not consistent with some of the clerical power brokers’ pragmatism and sense of moderation. In terms of actually taking on the clerical state and assumptions behind the theocracy, no I don’t think so. I think he’s very much aligned. He believes that religion should be part of the society, not just inform politics and social arrangements, but govern them. In that sense, the clerical assumption of power, is not something he contests.

On the other hand, when he was elected I think there was an assumption he was running on an anti-corruption campaign and would really try to get the best people in the jobs and yet he has had real trouble getting his ministers approved. Most recently, his candidate for the oil ministry, someone named Sadeq Mahsuli, was held back because he had no oil experience. How do these things come about?

Sure. The basis of selection to his cabinet seems to be not so much practical competence but ideological commitment and political loyalty. As such, he’s drawing on many people within the Revolutionary Guards and within the younger generation of conservatives that are rather unknown to many people within the political power centers of Iran.

That has created some degree of tension between Ahmadinejad and even the very hardcore parliament in a sense that many of his candidates are unknown. I think the average age of the cabinet is forty-six, so these are a younger category of hard-liners without much practical experience for the portfolios they’ve been assigned, but they have achieved those positions, most of them have been confirmed, because they’re ideological and they are loyal to Ahmadinejad and his very narrowly defined vision of what the Islamic republic should be like.

Let’s switch gears a bit. Let’s talk a little more on the details of the big international issue that has been dragging on for months, which is Iran’s problems on its nuclear program and the efforts by the Europeans and the United States to get Iran to stop work on nuclear processing in return for help on peaceful uses on nuclear energy. Where does that stand right now?

The latest idea is a Russian-originated proposal, where Iran would maintain some aspect of its nuclear infrastructure and nuclear program, but the actual reprocessing of uranium would be conducted in Russia. In a sense, Russians would supply Iran with the fuel and then take it back. Some essential part of the enrichment conversion process would take place outside Iran, while Iran would also maintain some aspect of its nuclear program, which is a compromise position being floated. I don’t know if that will be acceptable to the Iranians, much less the Europeans. In the past, Iranians have been very consistent and disciplined in suggesting that under the Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] they have a right to master nuclear technology and have indigenous uranium conversion capability.

It is those treaty rights that they’re unwilling to relinquish because of international pressure or European-American misgivings. Given the fact that this new proposal seems to have Russia and Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] behind it as well, it remains to be seen what Iran will do, but I would suspect that what Iranians will do is negotiate but not necessarily acquiesce.

Is it inevitable that eventually the United States and the Europeans are going to push to get this to the Security Council?

I wouldn’t say that there is anything inevitable in this nuclear stalemate. I do think that if Iranians rebuff this particular deal, the pressure for going to the United Nations will certainly intensify. That’s why I think it behooves them to at least negotiate, consider it, and at least get through the next cycle of the next IAEA meeting which is scheduled for November 24, I believe.

I see. Talk a little about Ali Larijani, who is the head of the National Security Council of Iran. What kind of guy is he? Is he a veteran diplomat?

No, but he’s actually had very important positions in the Islamic Republic since his late twenties, I would say. He’s been an important official in Iran since the revolution. He’s only in his late forties now. Mostly his portfolio was as head of the national radio and television. He imposed very strict cultural restrictions on them. He is a hard-liner, he’s an austere ideologue, certainly belongs in the conservative camp. He is not injudicious or immoderate, and is experienced, unlike many people that are today serving at the high echelons in Iran.

He comes from a very illustrious family in Iran, in terms of the clerical lineage of his family. He’s been an important power broker throughout the duration of the Islamic Republic’s existence for the past twenty-seven years. Even during the reformist years, he had a role in the nuclear deliberations as the representative of the Supreme Leader on the committee that evaluated this particular portfolio. He’s been a very central and active figure, but that in no way should diminish the fact that he’s an ideological hard-liner.

And he hasn’t had too much diplomatic experience, I guess, with foreign countries.

No, I wouldn’t say that he’s had much diplomatic experience but he’s been involved in some of the most important decisions that the Islamic Republic has reached throughout the past nearly three decades now. Although he hasn’t held a formal diplomatic portfolio, and he doesn’t have a formal diplomatic portfolio today—there is a foreign ministry—he has been present at the creation and present at some of the more important turning points in Iran’s international relations.

That’s interesting. Relations with the United States, I guess are absolutely frozen right now?

It seems to be that way, yes. I mean there are constantly proposals here and there but largely I would say that the idea of having better relations between the two countries at this particular point is not something that either the Iranians or the United States are entertaining.

For their part, the Europeans, at least privately, are not necessarily encouraging the United States to be involved in the negotiations and offer its own set of concessions. There is not the European pressure that many people assume, that Europeans constantly suggest to Americans that they can’t really move this file forward unless you offer more concessions and become more conciliatory. The United States actually talks to European diplomats who are involved in these nuclear negotiations. The Europeans tend to be much more aligned with the American perceptions than the Iranian ones particularly since the elections of Ahmadinejad.

Is it true that he has replaced almost all his senior diplomats?

There have been a lot of diplomatic replacements but that should be placed in its own context. First of all, some of those diplomats wanted to leave themselves, that they were no longer feeling comfortable representing a government that doesn’t necessarily share their ideals, or actively consults with them. So there was that sort of tension between the diplomatic core and a new government. Also, it does reflect Ahmadinejad’s tendency to place his own people in key positions and that is something that happens. As President Bush says with his Supreme Court nominations, elections matter. There is a change of Iran’s diplomatic representation and you’re likely to see individuals more in line with Ahmadinejad’s perspective.

This had been a very anomalous situation in a sense that Iran’s foreign ministry officials abroad were appointed during a previous regime and really had not much idea of what the government was doing. There wasn’t active consultation between the two. When one talks to Iranian diplomats, they sort of talk about "they" when they talk about their government. "They are going to do this, I’m not sure what they are going to do..." That was a very anomalous, sort of unusual situation, and at least that’s being changed in the sense that diplomatic representatives are likely to have more communication with the regime. That’s the positive part. The negative aspect is that they all tend to share the same sort of ideological world view.

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