The Iranian nuclear crisis has been on the international agenda for nearly eight years now. At the heart of the matter is Iran’s insistence on its right under the IAEA protocols to uranium enrichment, and international concern lest the Islamic regime acquire the capability to develop nuclear weapons should it decide to embark on such a course. Of course, Tehran has maintained categorically that it has no intention to develop nuclear weapons. But western powers, notably the United States, the European Union, and of course Israel, fear that once the Iranians master the enrichment process they will have the capability to develop atomic weapons if they decide to do so.
Despite years of negotiations, threats of a military strike against Iran during the previous US administration, and the passing of three sanctions measures against Iran by the Security Council, the dispute appears to be as unresolved as when it first emerged eight years ago. But during the past 12 months there has been an important development in two countries that are at the heart of the conflict. In both the US and Iran, presidential elections have produced surprising results.
The new US president has maintained that he wants to negotiate directly with the Iranian leaders. This, against the backdrop of 30 years of hostility between Tehran and Washington. Relations between the countries were broken after the Islamic revolution in 1979. There have been many attempts during the past 30 years to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, but all have failed. US leaders always cited preconditions for negotiating with the Islamic leaders. From the Iranian perspective, any rapprochement with the “Great Satan”, never mind actual negotiations, was tantamount to a betrayal of the revolution and capitulation to the Islamic regime’s biggest enemy.
The pragmatist Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, at his heyday and with the tacit approval of the late Imam Khomeini, failed in the 1980s to break that taboo even though Iran was desperate for American weapons in the war against Iraq. Nor for that matter was reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami any more successful in 1997 despite the fact that he had won an amazing landslide election with 20 million undisputed votes. Even though many Iranian leaders have become convinced the time has come for detente with the US, the taboo of regarding the Americans as the enemy of Islam and of Islamic Iran is still so powerful that none dare speak out publically against it.
It is against this historical background that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in June has created a new horizon. True, Ahmadinejad is a hardliner who won the election with the backing of all the hardline elements within the country’s political centers. But the victory hasn’t been easy for the hardliners. The crisis that erupted after Ahmadinezhad declared his victory hasn’t subsided. As he is well aware, the country’s intelligentsia is broadly against him. When at the beginning of October his minister of science and higher education came to Tehran University to inaugurate the new academic year, thousands of students demonstrated against Ahmadinejad, forcing the minister to flee out the back door.
Ahmadinejad knows that these students have no quarrel with the US. He knows that gone are the days when Iranian students would climb up the US embassy walls to occupy it and take American diplomats hostage with the support of the people. The students have changed and they demand new changes. If he can reach some degree of rapprochement with the US, it would be welcomed not only by the students but by many articulate Iranians as well.
Of course, the hardliners would in principle oppose such a move. But here Ahmadinejad differs from both Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami. They were not prepared to face the hardliners, while Ahmadinejad is himself a hardliner and in the past challenged them. Moreover, he has proved to be far more courageous than both his predecessors. In 2005, during the first month of his presidency, he removed the ban on women attending football matches in stadiums. While eventually he had to back down against fierce opposition from the senior clergy in Qom, he neither apologized nor showed any remorse for this step. Several times he has visited Qom without paying a visit to the leading ulama.
The appointment of a female cabinet minister is another example. He nominated a woman as minister in his newly formed cabinet. He made the appointment against strong opposition from many clerical leaders as well as some of his pious supporters. Ironically, it was not the reformist Khatami who went ahead to appoint a woman minister for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history but the hardline Ahmadinejad. In response to this bold decision, Khatami stated that he too had wanted to make that decision but feared the clerical opposition.
Ahmadinejad is far from being a reformist and even farther from being a liberal. But he has the courage to make bold decisions. This doesn’t mean he would be able to end completely the deep-rooted 30 year-old hostility between Iran and the US. But it does mean that if one day a president appears in Iran with enough power and courage to make such a drastic u-turn, it will be someone like Ahmadinejad who enjoys the trust and confidence of the hardliners. That being the case, it is also possible that Ahmadinejad will prove capable of ending the eight-year long nuclear dispute with the P5+1.
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of Iranian studies at Tehran University. This article was first published by Bitterlemons-international.org on 5 November 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.