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December 11, 2008

Iranian Leaders Debate Obama's Policy Freedom


by Gareth Porter

TEHRAN - Iranian national security officials and political leaders have been carrying out an internal debate over how much freedom President-elect Barack Obama will have to change US policy toward Iran, and those who have argued that he will not be able to do so have gained the upper hand since Obama's announcement of his national security team, interviews with Iranian officials and their advisers reveal.

The outcome of that debate, which is very sensitive to signals from Obama and his national security team, could be a key factor in how far Iran goes in indicating its own willingness to make concessions to Washington next year.

Two different views of Obama and his administration's likely policy toward Iran emerged within the regime in the first weeks after his election, according to the officials interviewed in Tehran. One interpretation was that Obama's election is the result of a fundamental shift in US politics and offers an opportunity for Iran to find a way out of its decades-long conflict with the United States.

The other view sees Obama as subject to the control of powerful forces – especially the pro-Israel lobby – that are inherently hostile to Iran. That interpretation implies that Iran should make no conciliatory move toward the Obama administration.

Both groups appear to agree that Obama's victory reflects political demands for change in the United States, and that his administration's policy will be subject to structural constraints. The difference between them lies in the emphasis placed on the two factors in US politics and policymaking toward Iran.

However, Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state has strengthened the conviction of pessimists and has raised doubts among those holding a more optimistic view, according to officials familiar with the debate.

Hamid Reza Dehghani, director for the Persian Gulf and the Middle East at the Institute for Political and International Studies, a think tank for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, described the two contrasting interpretations of Obama's election held by officials and analysts.

One explanation, according to Dehghani, was that Obama won the White House "because of his good campaigning", meaning that he was chosen because he was responsive to the demands of the electorate. The other explanation, said Dehghani, is that "those behind the scenes who make presidents and make policies – the puppeteers – decided, and only changed their puppet."

Dehghani suggested that each of these interpretations implies a distinct Iranian stance toward the Obama administration. "If he has made himself and was really elected by the people, we should wait and see about his changes," said Dehghani, "but if he is pushed by power centers, it is already clearly decided."

Ali Akbar Rezaei, the newly-appointed director-general of the Ministry's Department of North and Central American Affairs, confirmed the internal debate on Obama in an interview with IPS, observing, "There is no single view of Obama."

Rezaei said he believes Obama's election is the result of "a very serious demand of Americans for change". But he also acknowledged the "influence of interest groups, mainly the Zionist lobby", on US policies, calling it "a kind of systemic and structural influence on US policy through institutionalized channels".

Rezaei said he believes it would be premature to make a final judgment on Obama, in line with the "wait and see" orientation of the more hopeful interpretation. He made it clear, however, that Obama's national security team – and especially the choice of Clinton – has "disappointed" those who have held out hope for change in US policies.

Rezaei portrayed the optimists as beginning to tilt toward the more pessimistic view of Obama. The Clinton nomination suggests that the "lobbies are proving to be more powerful than Obama had imagined". That in turn means that Obama "would not have freedom of action," he said.

"One point of hope is that Obama will be the key person in foreign policy, and that [Clinton] will implement it," said Rezaei. But he added that this scenario was "very unlikely", and that in light of the appointments Obama had just announced, "We are very unlikely to see changes" in US policy toward Iran.

Reports of the debate have been picked up by political analysts and political party leaders. Amir Mohebbian, who has been political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper and a supporter of Ahmadinejad in the past, said he was aware of the split within the Iranian regime over Obama. Some think Obama's victory was a response to changes in the US electorate, he said, but after the election, such "optimistic ideas" were "dismissed".

Pessimists, said Mohebbian, considered Obama as "no different from [defeated Republican candidate John] McCain" and perhaps even "worse than McCain because at least McCain was frank about his policy."

Mohebbian offered his own variant of the pessimistic interpretation of Obama. "I think the difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush said carrot and stick, whereas Obama says bigger stick and bigger carrot," he said.

Hamidreza Taraghi, deputy director for international affairs for the Islamic Coalition party (Motalafeh), which represents interests of the merchants of Tehran's bazaar, voiced the pessimistic view of Obama in an interview with IPS. "In our view Obama is indebted to wealthy Jewish organizations in the US who financed his campaign," said Taraghi.

Obama was "willing to reduce tensions," he said, but can't do so, because "Zionist lobbies would prevent it."

The differences over Obama appear to coincide with a split within the Iranian regime over whether Iran should make any concessions in order to begin negotiations. The ultimate decisions on negotiations with the United States will be made by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seeks consensus among top Iranian officials and his own advisers on matters of natural security, according to Iranian officials and analysts.

There were indications of sharp disagreement among leading officials and advisers to Khamenei last summer over how Iran should respond to an initiative by EU foreign affairs commissioner Javier Solana for a freeze on further sanctions by the Security Council in return for an Iranian freeze on the level of uranium enrichment. The Solana proposal was aimed at facilitating a six-week period of substantive negotiations between Iran and five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1).

One of Khamenei's closest foreign policy advisers, Ali Akbar Velyati, who was foreign minister when Khamenei was president in the early 1980s, publicly supported the Solana initiative, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki also came out publicly for entering into negotiations with the P5+1.

But in the end, the decision was made not to support the proposal, evidently reflecting the views of some other senior national security officials and perhaps conservative clerics. Now the Obama administration's early signals appear to have tilted the post-election debate over negotiations in favor of those who doubt Obama's ability to deliver a change in US policy.

*Gareth Porter, an investigative journalist and historian specializing in US national security policy, has just completed a 12-day visit to Tehran to find out how Iranian officials, analysts and political figures view possible negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran. This is the first of a five-part series of articles.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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