Expect trouble from Iran’s Putin


After his une! xpected victory in the 1997 Iranian presidential election, Mohammed Khatemi surprised analysts by concentrating as much on foreign policy initiatives, especially the "dialogue of civilizations", as on the domestic policy front. The initiatives did much to shape perceptions of the new president, both at home and abroad. They had little practical effect, however, given that the key decision-making authority on foreign and defense policy lies with the supreme leader, not the president.

The initiatives raised Khatemi’s profile and, had Khatemi been a man with a stronger backbone, could have enabled him to insist on greater power relative to the shadowy revolutionary bodies that effectively control Iran. It will be interesting to see if Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad takes this same route after his unexpected victory in the 2005 presidential election, i.e., using foreign policy pronouncements as a way to define his image and to stake out a claim for a more powerful presidency.

Like Khatemi, Ahmadinezhad enters the presidency better known for his domestic policy activities than for his involvement in foreign policy. But in fact, while he may be new to international diplomacy, Ahmadinezhad has been active in foreign policy of a sort. He acknowledges having been a leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps special forces involved in operations across the border in Iraq’s Kurdish region. He also seems to have been active in terror against Kurdish dissidents. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) alleges he was "directly involved in the murder of Dr. Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou," the KDPI secretary-general killed in Vienna in 1989 in an operation the Austrian authorities say was conducted by the Iranian government. The KDPI says that "aside from being responsible for the coordination between the assassins group and the so-called negotiators [who lured Ghassemlou to the meeting by offering talks with Tehran], he was … also in charge of arms supply! required for the groups." So, whatever the accuracy of charges that he was involved in the interrogation of the US embassy hostages, Ahmadinezhad has a shady background.

His terror activities took place years ago; what has he said more recently about foreign policy? So far, Ahmadinezhad seems to prefer the traditional Middle Eastern style of different messages to different audiences. When he met with the foreign and local press after his election, his words were sweetness and light, meriting headlines about his moderation. But one of the few other times he has spoken since the election was at a memorial service for hardliners killed in the early days of the revolution, at which he said, "The Islamic Revolution of 1384 [2005 CE] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. . . . The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny, and injustice has reached its end. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world" (as reported by the official Islamic Republic News Agency). That is a pretty expansive agenda.

As such rhetoric indicates, Ahmadinezhad is convinced that Iran’s revolution is on the march, fueled by oil riches, unimpeded by an America mired in Iraq, and victorious over the reformers at home. This viewpoint is not just a personal idiosyncrasy, but instead the product of a powerful current of which Ahmadinezhad is only the public face. That is the current of increasing power by the Revolutionary Guards, in whose special forces Ahmadinezhad served for years. It was the Guards and their close allies in the basij paramilitaries who were accused of election fraud by the (Khatemi-controlled) Interior Ministry and the losing candidates.

Indeed, the Ahmadinezhad phenomenon looks and smells quite like the Putin story: a previously obscure figure from the security services rises to power, determined to reassert the old authoritarian ways. Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, writing in Survival in summer 2005, are right on the money when they warn, "The scope of the Guard’s influence in the political, economic, and foreign policy arenas is such that it is fair to speculate as to whether the clerical leadership is not fast becoming a captive of its Praetorian Guard."

Ahmadinezhad may well test the West’s resolve regarding Iran’s nuclear program and support for terrorism, including the Qaeda figures Iran acknowledges are on its soil (claiming they are in detention) and the support Iran proudly announces it offers those killing Israeli civilians. The signs so far are that the West may stand firm. As was agreed months ago, the next step in the nuclear negotiations will be a European proposal to Iran. For once, European diplomats are not floating trial balloons about rationales for giving in to Iran’s demands; instead, they are discussing how to solidify international support for pressing Iran in the event the talks collapse. Admittedly, they focus on how to get resolutions of diplomatic disapproval rather than more vigorous punitive measures, but at least that is a start.

Meanwhile, Washington has already begun to take stronger action. The June 29 declaration by the secretary of the US Treasury, declaring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) a company engaged in weapons proliferation, authorizes the US government to take action against any bank that deals with AEOI . While Washington may apply this power selectively so as to avoid disputes about extra-territorial sanctions, the Treasury designation is a good way to remind Iran that the US government has sticks it has not yet applied.