By Nadav Eyal
I can't believe I'm writing this, but we're still going to miss him. Strategically, of course.
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
11 January 2013
The Iranian economy is on its knees, but the coming elections are precisely what can save the Republic from total destruction. It seems that we're still going to miss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The passionate battle for the appointment of Chuck Hagel as the U.S. secretary of defense is quite unnecessary; the one to determine whether the United States would attack Tehran is President Obama.
Anyone who reads the press in Israel might have gotten the impression that the all of Washington, perhaps except for the isolated White House, stood up this week in protest and in shock about the nomination of some weird noble guy from Nebraska for the post of defense secretary. A position to which he is being appointed – so it's claimed in a very widespread [Israeli] newspaper – only in order to take revenge on Benjamin Netanyahu.
This is far from the reality. Chuck Hagel is a renowned and widely accepted Washington figure. He is a senior member of the most respected forums in the U.S. capital, from the Atlantic Council he heads, through the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, and down to Georgetown University. He visited Israel numerous times. Except for the Republicans, who oppose the nomination just as they opposed the nomination of Susan Rice, just as they oppose most of President Obama's moves – the American capital is still silent with regard to Hagel. A well known official in Washington told me this week that the AIPAC "didn't decide yet that they are working against Hagel. There is no ADL statement against him. Only parts of the GOP, which are the minority, in the Jewish community came out against him. At the moment, he is not facing a formidable opposition at all."
Hagel's stand on Iran may sound familiar: "All options are on the table... War with Iran is not inevitable, but U.S. national security will be seriously threatened by a nuclear Iran."1 That is President Obama's stand. That is also President Bush's stand.
Hagel's position apropos Iran, with all due respect, does not matter much. The one to decide is the President. The most serious among the opponents of the nomination don't make the nonsensical claims of anti-Semitism, but rather note – with some justification – that his moderate standpoints on the use of American force might damage the dimensions of deterrence against Iran and other adversaries. This is a claim that deserves to be taken into account, considering that the Iranians follow the appointment with a certain excitement. The Iranian foreign minister conveyed this week that he hopes Hagel nomination 'will improve relations between the countries.'2 This signal to Tehran – the objectors say – whether intentional or not, may be read as the U.S. giving up the option of using force. A miscalculation that will lead the Iranians to avoid compromising and surrendering to the sanctions. This argument is serious, and should be heard. We'll probably hear from Hagel clear things on Iran at the Senate hearings; it would be very surprising if he doesn't repeat the position of President Obama: containment of an Iranian nuclear bomb is not on the table. This won't reassure the Republicans; on the other hand, it is doubtful whether they want to calm down.
The Iranians themselves are less busy these days with military maneuvers and threats against the Satans of all kinds, those great and those small. Like over here [in Israel], the war option has been off the agenda in the recent months, and there is time for domestic issues. For example, the fairly hysterical announcements of Iran's new oil minister, Rostam Qassemi, who admitted this week for the first time that the sanctions deeply hurt Iranian exports. He pointed out: "There has been a 40 percent decrease in oil sales and a 45 percent decrease in repatriating oil money."3
These data are dramatic, and the esteemed minister was compelled to bring them to light after they were exposed on the global energy market. Earlier in 2012, Iran exported 2.4 million barrels of oil per day, and at the end of the year, the amount has dropped to about one million barrels per day. These changes indicate a constant and severe tightening of the sanctions regime, and that the American administration has apparently enhanced its behind the scenes pressure on the largest consumers of Iranian oil, mainly in Asia.
The economic effects are tremendous. The Iranian economic system is obsolete and afflicted by deep structural failures. Among other things, it is built on a regimen of subsidies for everything – starting from bread and finishing with fuel for heating – a critical issue in the country suffering from a tough and snowy winter. The combination of a non-competitive economic system, generous government subsidies and a closed economy of political entities within the state – supposedly is well-known to the Israelis. It's just that the Iranian case is far worse than what Israel has experienced in its most difficult and lagging economic times.
Choosing the Successor
And of course, we are in an election campaign. Iran's presidential election will be held on June 14, 2013, in another five months and a few days. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cannot run after his two terms and, therefore, this is going to be a particularly fascinating election; one that will lead, in any event, to a new style in Tehran – and perhaps, a new policy, too. This is a critical election because one number echoes there: 2009.
The 2009 election was a defining and black moment in the history of the Islamic Republic. Contrary to its image, Iran was until 2009 a country with certain dimensions of political freedom. There were vibrant opposition newspapers. Expansion of private satellite and cellular communications increased the freedom of expression. The human rights violations were very grave, of course, and the Iranian theocracy was (and has remained) very far from Western democracy – but in 2009, an average Iranian could voice a proud claim to the ears of his fellow Middle Easterner. He could have said to an Egyptian that in Iran, the election results are not known in advance.
It's true. Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 wasn't expected, and the election of Khatami in 1997 had been a surprise as well. Although the Iranian public was obliged to choose the candidates who were a part of the system, who agreed on the framework of the Islamic Republic (Khatami the reformer was, at the end of the bill, a cleric) – nevertheless, it had some degrees of freedom to decide. [Such as] Shia Islam opining that the Islamic Republic is a Western-style democracy (Khatami) or one believing that the Islamic Republic is primarily run by Sharia law (the religious conservatives).
The Iranian could have said to an Egyptian and a Syrian: Here [in our Iran], the presidents come and go, there are elections, there is opposition. In 2009, this modest achievement of the Islamic Revolution was erased. The falsification of the elections in favor of Ahmadinejad demonstrated the internal decay in the Republic. It became hollow. The legitimacy of the public, the power that gave Iran the ability to survive the global and regional opposition to the Islamic Revolution – this legitimacy was lost. Since 2009, Iran has opted to preserve the revolution with bayonets. The mixture of a republic and a theocracy vacated its place for an absolute theocratic and military (the IRGC) oligarchy.
Therefore the elections now are so important. First, because they'll make clear whether the Spiritual Leader Khamenei has cast a die for a dictatorship. The reasonable assumption is certainly yes. Second, because if the Supreme Leader determines a successor, from that choice, we'll be able to understand whether he's inclined to war or compromise regarding the nuclear program. And there are a series of other critical questions. Will people come to vote when they know that the [ultimate] decision will be possibly made at the top? And are they likely to revolt again, especially given the terrible economic decline? And how will all this affect the dialogue with the international community over the nuclear crisis? Of course, as far as we are concerned, the most important elections take place here. But the most fascinating and perhaps crucial elections in the Middle East are to happen only in a few months, in Iran.
These are very strange elections. Even in Iranian terms. We are a few months before the election – and as of the moment, there are only two candidates. One is obscure and unimportant, and the other is the ousted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. The names being flown are very important, from Ali Larijani, through the current Foreign Minister Ali Salehi, and to Esfandiar Mashaei (Ahmadinejad's chief of staff). None of them is in officially.
The reformist candidates themselves – Mousavi and Karroubi – are under house arrest. They won't take part in the elections, but their comrades are torn between the desire to contend and the feeling that the fight is a scam. The reformists' participation in the race may render the elections 'kosher' in the public eye and in the eyes of the international community – something that the Green Movement wants to avoid at any cost. The conservatives, for their part, don't know whether to let their rivals compete for exactly the same reasons. Who knows, maybe the Greens will win such a victory that it would be difficult to fake. However, their non-participation will harm the image of the elections as real ones. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – the man who ordered the brutal suppression of the demonstrations in 2009 – is very much aware of the internal debate among his supporters. "Everyone, even those who make general recommendations about the election through (expressing) concerns, should take care not to serve the purpose of the enemy,"4 Khamenei said in a rare remark this week. This was the way of the Spiritual Leader to say: Do not wash your dirty laundry in public. Don't say that the reformists should be left out because it will illustrate to the West the justice of its argument that Iran has ceased to be a republic.Who else is not in? Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the old fox of Iranian politics and the former president, a man who always knew how to play right between the extremes: the reformists and the conservatives. Rafsanjani is an eternal candidate, the Shimon Peres of Iranian politics – it's only that in contrast to Peres, he doesn't have broad legitimacy and does have a reputation of personal corruption. This election, said Rafsanjani, is able to restore "moderation" to Iran (a harsh criticism of Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader), if it is "free, transparent and legal"4 (a more resounding criticism of the repression of 2009).
For the Israeli interest, naturally, the elections are bad news anyway. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the poster boy of hatred of Israel. Dark, anti-Semitic and a Holocaust denier. Along with the development of nuclear weapons, this combination has created a very powerful argument against Iran in the international arena and mostly, in the American public. Ahmadinejad, in other words, has been a strategic asset for anyone wanting to promote a quick solution, if necessary – by force, for the Iranian nuclear crisis. I know this is a cynical statement, but it is also the reality: against Ahmadinejad and his dark views, it was easy to mobilize the world. His outrageous stances, by the way, had nothing to do with the nuclear program. The Iranian President promoted the project as other Iranian presidents did. The Iranian nuclear project is a consensus in Tehran, just like Dimona [nuclear reactor] is a consensus in Jerusalem. It's just harder to fight through publicity [hasbara] and diplomacy a relatively democratic president like Khatami, compared to Ahmadinejad – cracking down on the student demonstrations and denying the Holocaust.
In this sense, the upcoming elections in Iran, no matter what the outcome, are a net profit for Tehran. A new president, a new beginning, an international agreement that the leadership which "has been elected" should be given a chance. Removal of the hump that Ahmadinejad is will help the Iranians present themselves in a new light and make it difficult for Israel to push its agenda to thwart the Iranian nuke at all costs. I can't believe I'm writing this, but we're still going to miss him. Strategically, of course.
Original Hebrew article:
Photo credit: Reporters Without Borders