Turmoil offers Obama a chance to move on Iran

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am

The hijacking of the Iranian election by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hard on the heels of US President Barack Obama's Cairo speech to the world's Muslims is a disappointment to those looking for change in the Islamic Republic.

But it is also a reminder of the dangers of confusing religious belief with political affiliation. The reality is that 30 years after the revolution against the shah, from which religious hierarchy emerged victorious, the idealism of those days is gone as factions within the elite are at each others' throats. Heroes of the bitter 10-year struggle against a western-armed Iraq were the losers from the Ayatollah Khamenei-directed coup - Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during those years, and Mohsen Rezaee, the then-commander of the Revolutionary Guard, which bore the brunt of the fighting. What is happening in Iran now has parallels with Mao Zedong's moves against former comrades.

In the short term, it is very unpleasant for Iran's citizens wanting change, social liberalisation and some real democracy. But, in the longer run, this division of the elite exposed by the election is a pre-condition for the sort of radical changes that will eventually come. Now, the supreme leader and president are publicly at odds with the former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as the recent aspirants.

Real change may have to wait until Ayatollah Khamenei's demise but, in the meantime, the democratic gloss on Iranian politics has been stripped away, further undermining the legitimacy of the system. Whether Mr Mousavi eventually triumphs as a Deng Xiaoping figure remains to be seen. Mr Khatami was seen as such a decade ago but his efforts at liberalisation and d?tente with the west were thwarted both by the supreme leader's powers, and by the words and actions of president George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, Mr Obama must deal with two realities. First, that Mr Ahmadinejad will need more than ever to enhance his nationalistic credentials by pressing ahead with a nuclear programme. Almost all Iranians agree it is the nation's right even if they are deeply unhappy with Mr Ahmadinejad's crudeness.

Second, that Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah will not diminish. This is partly ideological but partly realpolitik. As long as the US underwrites Israel's expansion and attempts to build an informal conservative Arab alliance against Iran, its national interest will be to support these movements. In the process, it will continue to win many friends in a region where US peacemaking has long been viewed as a sham.

Most immediately, Mr Obama will have to fight off the attempts of Israel's virulently nationalist government to use the Iran situation to again hijack US interests in pursuit of its expansionist goals.

So, under these circumstances, can Mr Obama develop the dialogue he wants with Iran? It will certainly be more difficult than ever. But just as US president Richard Nixon negotiated with Mao when China's domestic politics were at their most radical, so the US must negotiate, albeit warily, with Tehran in pursuit of US national interests. The problem for Mr Obama is prioritising those interests: Iraq? Israel? Afghanistan? Non-proliferation? Arabs? Russia?

For the US, and the west in general, it underlines the dangers of seeing global Islam through the perspective of Middle East, and particularly Arab, politics. The error is encouraged by the Arab world, especially by Osama bin Laden, who see themselves as the centre of Islam. That is natural given the religion's Arab origins but ignores the sheer diversity of Islamic practices and interpretations.

Mr Ahmadinejad's bluster cannot hide the very serious economic problems Iran faces, nor the further decline in his reputation in the eyes of foreigners, Muslim and non-Muslim, as well as many Iranians.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator