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
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
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
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
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.