The summit meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Washington on 2 September 2010 testifies to the serious attention the Barack Obama administration is devoting to this enduring middle-east conflict. But even these vital negotiations are overshadowed by an issue with a potentially greater destructive capacity: the future of Iran, and the calculations of the United States and the wider international community in relation to the country's nuclear programs and plans.
These calculations are being made against the background of complex shifts and varying signals in Iranian domestic politics. An example of the latter came with the remark of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 18 August 2010, that if Washington were to drop its mix of "threats and sanctions" towards Iran, then Tehran might be prepared to negotiate. At the same time he emphasized that the country will continue to pursue its nuclear project, a pledge symbolised by the opening of the Bushehr nuclear plant on 21 August 2010.
Khamenei's scornful description of the economic and political pressure being exerted on Iran highlights the way that western (especially American, but also European) policies and attitudes also become part of Iran's own political calculations. The question then arises: how do sanctions, and the possibility of military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, play into current Iranian politics; will international pressure on Iran of this kind help Iran's opposition and even moderate conservatives to push towards democratic change, or rather contribute to strengthening the radical government in power?
The international community's policy towards Iran is designed to contain its nuclear ambitions, specifically to prevent the transformation of a civil-nuclear program into a military one (an intention that Iran has repeatedly denied). There is also great concern on the United Nations Security Council that Iran's nuclear path, and the regional fears raised by the language and attitudes of its leaders, will lead to a nuclear race in the middle east and the end of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
True, Iran's leaders are used to living with foreign pressure in the form of sanctions and military threats. These have even (as an Iranian official told me) "pumped blood" into the Islamic Republic. Its three decades of life has seen war (with Iraq, 1980-88), regular sanctions, conflict on its borders (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan), the encouragement of "regime change", and waves of internal opposition -- yet the Islamic Republic survives, wields strong regional influence, and is led by a radical government that feels confident in its own power.
However, the current situation does present new difficulties for the government, in that the latest phase of external challenge coincides with major changes in Iranian domestic politics. The turning-point here was the presidential elections of June 2009 -- of which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quickly declared the winner -- and the ensuing systematic, pre-planned repression of the opposition.
The domestic struggle
The effort to impose a rigorous one-party style of governance on an Iran whose leadership had always been balanced between various factions met huge popular resistance and street-protest in the second half of 2009. It also opened cracks within the clerical establishment, among moderate conservatives, and with groups (such as the bazaaris) traditional loyal to the Islamic Republic. A key faultline is between (on one side) radical conservatives led by Ahmadinejad, the security establishment and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and (on the other) reformist politicians, moderate conservatives, independent clergy in the holy city of Qom, and Iran's civil society.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive consolidation of power in 2009 was enabled by securing absolute control over the electoral system, from the interior ministry to the Guardian Council (which is in charge of approving candidates); the force of the basij militias and the IRGC secured his nationwide hegemony. But this centralization of power is creating tensions even with the president's fellow-conservatives, especially in the context of the parliamentary and city-council elections due in 2011.
Ahmadinejad's own tone has fueled discontent. When in 2009, for example, members of the majlis (parliament) questioned the qualifications of some of the president's cabinet nominees, he asked the parliament to "trust" him on the grounds that he had more than 20 million votes against the few thousand gained by many in the majlis. In addition, the president's failure to implement laws passed by parliament led to vocal criticism from influential conservatives such as Ahmad Tavakoli, Ali Motahari and the speaker of the majlis, Ali Larijani (albeit Larijani and Ahmadinejad appeared at a joint press conference on 22 August 2010 to emphasize their readiness to cooperate).
Ahmadinejad's absence since the 2009 election from meetings of the Expediency Council has also drawn criticism. This is the legal body that mediates between the majlis and and the Guardian Council, all of whose members are appointed by the supreme leader; it is led by the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad has criticized the Expediency Council for acting "beyond the constitution and sharia", a comment that Ali Motahari called "a sign of dictatorship". The president's statement that there is no political party but the party of velayate faqih (the rule of the jurist) is a further sign of his inclinations.
All this suggests that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to engineer the 2011 election as he and his allies did the 2009 one - and that this time, since leading reformists such as Mir-Hossein Moussavi have already been banished from the political arena, it is the moderate conservatives who will be marginalized. The path to the next presidential election in 2013, and the conversion of Iran into a populist dictatorship in perpetuity, will then be clear. It seems that Ahmadinejad feels confident that he has all the major tools to complete this job - strong support from Ayatollah Khamenei's office, control of Iran's state broadcaster, command of the basij militias and the IRGC, domination of the Guardian Council, and reliable backing from influential pro-government clerics such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
Such political calculations raise questions over the role of Iran's traditional and independent clergy, and whether they might challenge the supreme leader's (to date) unconditional support for President Ahmadinejad and the growing departure of the country's leadership from the constitution of the Islamic Republic.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is formally accountable to the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of eighty-six high-ranking clerics charged with that role. Some of its members, such as Ayatollah Ali Mohammad Dastgheib, have been openly critical of the supreme leader. But in reality, the assembly is incapable of seriously endangering Khamenei's position.
In fact, the radical faction in power has used all the great resources of propaganda at its disposal to project the idea that Khamanei is beyond the constitution and any form of democratic accountability. In July 2010, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council, even said that Ayatollah Khamenei had been delivered by God to his position as leader.
There is a pattern here, whereby Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies are attempting to put the legitimacy of power beyond the people's vote; to put their own thoughts and beliefs beyond Iran's constitution and political institutions; and to form a new discourse in Iran's politics. All this may be part of a political project that echoes developments in Russia, with Ahmadinejad playing the role of Vladimir Putin by putting in place mechanisms that entrench his and his allies' rule.
It is likely now that new, reliable members of parliament will be handpicked, more than ever, in the 2011 election and that the choice of the next president will be made in the same way. Such a transformation in Iran's politics will end the political life of many leading conservative figures, creating a homogeneous political world that reflects the will of Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The danger of a return of reformists, or of a threat to the monopoly of the IRGC over politics and the economy, will be ended. In this sense, the severe post-election crackdown on reformist politicians and human-rights activists was the first stage of the show -- 2011 will be the the final episode.
Thus, the coming year in Iran's domestic politics is crucial. The moderate conservatives know that they have just over a year to reverse the current course. They have resources: one of their number, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, is a popular mayor of Tehran; the city-council there is relatively moderate and diverse (including four reformist members); and moderates still have a voice within the parliament, bazaar, and media. It is an unequal struggle, but the moderate conservatives have no choice but to wage it.
This is also true of the opposition, both the outright anti-regime forces and "inside-opposition" figures such as the reformist presidential candidates of 2009, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi -- both of whom are still capable of affecting the political equation.
The danger of war
This domestic picture helps to clarify the impact of external pressure on Iranian politics. A former high official in Tehran told me recently that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomes this pressure and uses it as a means to isolate his opponents even more. "When the country is in danger, everybody has to support the government and criticizing the government would be equal to helping Iran's enemies", he said.
Iranian leaders are masters at turning foreign threats to their advantage. This includes the international concern with Iran's nuclear program, which (contrary to the image of rule by fanatics) the radicals in Tehran are rational in seeking to use for bargain and leverage.
The Iranian leadership has managed to reach a situation where negotiation with Washington -- and even a limited military attack -- could serve its domestic goals and guarantee its survival. If it chooses to compromise, Iran could in principle offer measures that would lift international sanctions in exchange for less foreign pressure over its internal politics and human-rights situation. And even if negotiations fail or prove abortive, leading to a United States or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, the government -- fueled by a strong wave of nationalist sentiment -- can use this as an opportunity to establish total control.
A military assault on Iran will have other disastrous effects: it would lead to more human-rights violations, worsen the situation for Iran's middle class, push Iran further towards dictatorship, and end any prospect of a more democratic country in the near future. For the Iranian leadership, there are many positives in this scenario; the elite has prepared for it for a long time and knows how to make the best of it. In this sense those who support the option of military attack against Iran in Washington and Tel Aviv are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hidden allies.
The United States has fewer options. But by removing the threat of a military attack, Washington would make the job of Tehran's hardliners more difficult, and encourage fragmentation among the top layers of the political elite. In the present circumstances, the end of the military option would create space for those in Iran seeking to hold the hardliners in check, and offer an opening to Iranian democracy and the Iranian people.
This piece first was published on OpenDemocracy.net