Mr. Ahmadinejad Comes to New York

As he has every year since becoming President of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to New York this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly.  Several important U.S. media outlets have either already conducted (MSNBC, ABC) or will conduct (PBS’ Charlie Rose and CNN’s Larry King) interviews with Ahmadinejad in connection with his visit to New York.  That is, all in all, a good thing.  Unfortunately, the various “scene-setter” pieces on Ahamdinejad’s visit published by mainstream U.S. media organizations — e.g., Ray Takeyh’s Op Ed in the Washington Post — have been analytically sloppy and, in some instances, seemingly detached from reality.

In this context, we were favorably struck by an article that Juan Cole published on his blog, Informed Comment.  We have disagreed with Juan at times, especially regarding the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election and the significance of the Green Movement.  Nonetheless, we think that Juan has been one of the most important voices arguing for more sensible U.S. policies in the Middle East in recent years, a contribution for which we have enormous respect.  We found his reflections on Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York to be, in many ways, a refreshing antidote to the conventional “wisdom” about Iran that dominates America’s Op Ed and editorial pages right now.

Revisiting his earlier assessment of the political currents surrounding the June 2009 presidential election while also acknowledging current realities, Juan frames his article with an important observation: “Although his fate seemed up in the air only a little over a year ago, Ahmadinejad comes to New York with a substantially strengthened position.”  Then, Juan describes with commendable clarity some key aspects of that “substantially strengthened position,” in terms that American political and foreign policy elites need to hear:

While Ahmadinejad’s enemies in the US Congress, especially those closest to the Israel lobbies, had hoped to pressure Iran by cutting off its gasoline imports, it turns out that the regime is not in fact vulnerable on that score.  The government imported no gasoline last month, having simply used its petrochemical facilities as refineries and imposed some rationing.  While some observers exulted that this move by Iran was a sign that sanctions were working, that sentiment seems ridiculous to me.  If gasoline sanctions were supposed to hurt Iran, and Tehran showed that they could not, how is that a victory?  It is like a boxer boasting he can knock out the heavy weight champion, and then when the champ just puts up his gloves and consistently blocks the feeble blows, boasts that he put the fighter on his guard.

In fact, Iran is building up refinery capacity over the next five years, with an expectation of doubling gasoline production.  It has a huge cushion domestically, since at the moment gasoline is heavily subsidized and just costs pennies up to a certain amount per month.  But prices are being raised on consumption beyond the ration, which limits growth in consumption.  It is not sure that raising prices further would even hurt the regime with the public, since it can so obviously be blamed on the United States and so borne as a price of national independence.

While he mistakenly describes Iran as the world’s second-largest oil exporter, Juan rightly notes that “one source of regime strength has been continued strong pricing for petroleum”:

As a result of the global economic near-depression, prices fell to as low as $33 a barrel at some points early in 2009, and as late as July 2009 they were $56/b.  But in late 2009 and through 2010, demand soared again, as China and India turned in impressive growth.  Asian demand has sent the price back up to around $70 a barrel.  The price of Iran’s heavy crude was $74 a barrel in the first two quarters of 2010, but had only been about $54 a barrel in the same period in 2009.

At anything over $50 a barrel, the regime is sitting pretty.  $70 is a great cushion for the Islamic Republic, and if Germany’s recent growth spurt is a harbinger for Europe this coming year, prices could firm further.  Any US or Israeli military action toward Iran would only cause prices to skyrocket, ironically strengthening Iran further.

Hopes that global economic sanctions would harm Iranian banking and so make it harder for Iran to export petroleum seem to me completely forlorn. . . .  Iran’s exports to Japan jumped in August, and it has also increased exports to China.  So those two countries are finding ways of paying for the oil despite US pressure on banks.  Even supposed US allies such as Afghanistan and Iraq are doing a booming business with Iran (and ironically, the US sort of needs them to, if they are to be stabilized). . . .

Regionally, Iran is sitting pretty.  Iran benefits from the good will generated for it in the Muslim world by its strong support for the Palestinians (especially Hamas in Gaza).  Reckless Israeli moves, including the Gaza War, the attack on the Mavi Marmara civilian aid ship, and continued colonization of Palestinian land, have increased Iran’s stature in the region.

Iran’s other client, Hizbullah of Lebanon, is part of that country’s national unity government.  The Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, moved closer to Syria in recent weeks after long years in which he blamed Damascus for the 2005 assassination of his father, a stance that split Lebanon into pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions.  Even if Hariri’s motives might be to facilitate a break between Syria and Iran, backed by Saudi Arabia, the step could backfire.  With Beirut making up with Damascus, Hizbullah may be strengthened, and a Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Ankara sphere of friendship and economic exchange emerge.

For our part, we believe this process is well under way.  Juan notes other important regional dynamics that strengthen Iran’s strategic position:

Iran has excellent relations with Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, in contrast to the security problems it had faced from the Taliban in the 1990s. . . .  The US has proved so far unable to unseat the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq in favor of ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi.  Pro-Iranian Shiites are likely to play an important role in any government that is formed.  Turkey has stood with Iran, declining to support increased sanctions and running interference for Tehran with regard to its civilian nuclear energy research program.  Iran is still close to Syria.  The Arab street has decided that it is not afraid of an Iranian nuclear warhead.

All of that is right on the money.  With regard to Turkey, we would add that, last week, Prime Minister Erdoğan told a gathering of Turkish and Iranian businessmen and high-ranking officials that Turkey should triple its trade volume with the Islamic Republic over the next five years, from the current level of $10 billion to $30 billion.  Both Turkish and Iranian officials say their governments are committed to reducing barriers to expanded trade and investment.  The head of the Iranian delegation, Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, said that the Islamic Republic had “no better friend than Turkey in today’s world.”

Juan concludes with some trenchant observations about the U.S. position in the region:

The US has been reduced to arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth, with a $60 billion arms deal, as its main way of responding to the powerful Iranian diplomatic position in the region.  That is, after a period of direct US intervention in the Gulf region during the past 20 years, the US appears to be moving back to the proxy strategy of Nixon-Kissinger in the 1970s — a sign of relative weakness in the region.

Ahmadinejad comes to New York, not as a wounded leader under internal and external siege, but as the confident representative of a fiercely independent Iran, the hydrocarbon treasures of which allow it to withstand Washington’s mere sanctions and opprobrium. . . .

We close by highlighting one of the other, relatively few “bright spots” in the American media’s anticipatory coverage of President Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York.  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has said a number of sensible things about America’s Iran policy in recent years, made the following observations on NBC’s Meet the Press this morning:

I don’t think the stars are lining up for an attack on Iran either by Israel alone, or Israel in concert with the United States, or the United States alone.  I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I’ve heard nothing to suggest that we would be interested in doing that or think it would be useful even though the option is always on the table.  I think eventually we will have to deal with the reality that sanctions may not change the views of the Iranians on these issues, and therefore, let’s see if we can find a way to see if Iran can have a nuclear program that is fixed on power production, low-level enrichment of their material, so that it’s not a track to become a weapon.

Now, people will say that’s naïve.  Once you know how to do that you can then enrich up to weapons capability.  But I think if you take them at their word, “trust, but verify,” Reagan’s old line, if you take them at their word, and they say they are not interested in a weapon, just power, then put in place an IAEA inspection regime . . . that will keep them below that, and get Russia and China and everybody else to agree to it, then you might . . . be able to live with an Iran that has a nuclear power capability, but rigid enforcement constraints have been put in so they can’t move up to a weapons grade program and the production of a nuclear weapon.

Though we are more concerned about the risk of a bad U.S. decision in this regard than Secretary Powell appears to be, we certainly hope he is right about the chances of an Israeli or U.S. attack against Iran.  And, of course, we strongly agree that acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium is an indispensable key to a serious and sustainable agreement on the nuclear issue.  We hope that the Obama Administration is listening.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 19 September 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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