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A Candid Discussion with Muhammad Sahimi

A Candid Discussion with Muhammad Sahimi

In 2012 Iran was one of the key topics in American presidential debates. Its nuclear program and foreign policy subjected the country to harsh U.S.-led international sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy, so far impacting mostly the lives of ordinary Iranians without a change in Iran’s strategic calculus. In March, the country held Majles (parliamentary) elections that led to the erosion of Ahmadinejad’s base in the legislative assembly. Heading to 2013, Iran is preparing for an important presidential election that has already energized its factions to jockey for influence to prop up their respective candidates. Regionally, as the U.S. and Iran continue to slug it out over dominance, the overarching issue for Iran in 2013 will be whether or not it can reach a comprehensive understanding with the Western powers over its nuclear program and subsequently extricate itself from the backbreaking sanctions. Other key issues include Tehran’s ability to make changes to the direction of its foreign policy and open the country’s economy to much-needed foreign investment.

To discuss these key issues including next year’s presidential election, Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, an authority in Iranian political affairs and nuclear program, sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association and shared his views in the last segment of ‘Candid Discussion Series’ in 2012.

Dr. Muhammad Sahimi is Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In addition to his scientific work, Dr. Sahimi has been analyzing Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program for over 15 years. His analyses and commentaries have been published by leading media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, International Herald Tribune and The Guardian, as well as leading websites such as Foreign Policy, Truthdig, Antiwar, and Huffingtonpost. From 2008 to 2012 Dr. Sahimi was the lead political columnist for the online publication PBS: Frontline/Tehran Bureau. He recently co-founded the website Iran News & Middle East East Reports.


What do you believe to be the most important developments in Iran’s political scene in 2012?

Internally, two developments were of utmost importance. One was the fact that the fissures in the ruling elite became so glaringly public that the so-called Principlists (Osoolgarayaan) could no longer deny or hide them. The elections for the 9th Majles in early 2012 were an excellent manifestation of the fissures. The reactionary hardliners around Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who are referred to as the Durability Front of the Islamic Revolution (Jebheh Paaydaari Enghelab Eslami or JPEE), refused to form a coalition with the traditional conservatives and Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran, led by the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, and former judiciary chief Mohammad Yazdi, which is called the United Front of the Principlists (Jebheh Mottahed Osoolgaraayaan or JMO). The elections – which, by the way, were not free and fair – were won by the JMO, which also succeeded in preventing the JPEE’s candidate for the Speaker of the Majles, namely, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, who is also father-in-law of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, to take the position.

The second development was the complete failure of the economic policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and program of eliminating state subsidies to major food and energy items, and providing cash handouts instead. The program has led to almost run-away inflation, doubled and tripled the price of many essential items, and created chaos. That, together with rampant corruption and the back-breaking economic sanctions imposed onIranby theUnited Statesand its allies, has created a bleak economic outlook forIran, at least for the near future.

Externally, the Islamic Republic has been under tremendous pressure. Hamas, its traditional Palestinian ally, has distanced itself fromIran.Syria, the only Arab ally ofIran, is in the midst of a civil/sectarian war, worsened by the intervention ofSaudi Arabia and its allies in the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, as well asTurkey and Western powers. Nuclear negotiations have been a failure so far, leading to tough economic sanctions, and the Arab Spring thatTehran thought would change the political map of theMiddle East in its favor, has not panned out that way.

Do you think Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, emerged in 2012 as a stronger leader, or a figure with declining political fortunes?

As far as the authority of Mr. Khamenei is concerned, if 2012 showed anything to us it was that, (i) his strategy of suppressing the dissidents and the Green Movement has not worked. Arresting and jailing of the political activists, journalists, defenders of human rights, etc. have continued unabated. His policies, both internal and external, are being questioned increasingly even by the conservatives and the right wing. (ii) His refusal for reaching a compromise with the Western powers over Iran’s nuclear program has also failed. While I do believe that much exaggeration, and many half-truths and even lies about the program are propagated by the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby, and that the West has unfairly targeted Iran’s nuclear program that, at least so far, has remained peaceful. I also believe that Mr. Khamenei shares a major part of the blame for the failure of the negotiations. (iii) Mr. Khamenei has proven unable to control the different factions within the ruling group. As a result, his authority has been eroded, so he ended 2012 as a leader weaker than what he was at the end of 2011.

One of the hallmarks of Iranian politics in 2012 was the Majles (parliament) elections that took place in March. What do you make of changes in the makeup of Majles in relation to its functional effectiveness?

The most important feature of the new Majles is that the faction that supported Ahmadinejad in the last Majles is no longer as strong. The 8th Majles was elected in 2008 at the height of Ahmadinejad’s power. But, given the fraudulent 2009 elections, failure of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, and the tough economic sanctions for which the Ahmadinejad administration was totally unprepared, coupled with his struggles with Mr. Khamenei over firing of the Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi and its aftermath, the more traditional conservatives, as well as those loyal to Mr. Khamenei, are no longer supporting him. Whereas in the last Majles the independents and the Reformists constituted a faction with about 90 members, there are very few of them in the current Majles, simply because most of them refused to run again. As a result, today’s Majles is closer to what Tehran’s maverick deputy Ali Motahhari has called “a branch of the office of the Supreme Leader.”

In the past year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found himself target of open criticism from multiple factions. What do you attribute this level of open criticism to?

The criticism has been coming from various directions. There was always a faction among the pragmatic conservatives around former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that was opposed to Ahmadinejad. After the 2009 elections, this faction made its criticism of Ahmadinejad louder. As I said earlier, Ahmadinejad’s economic policies have been a total failure, while corruption and nepotism reached unprecedented levels. The economic failure gave a stronger hand to some who wanted to get rid of Ahmadinejad through the 2009 elections, but were blocked by Mr. Khamenei. Finally, Ahmadinejad’s confrontation with Mr. Khamenei deepened the fissures between him and some of the top hardliners, such as the high command of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), which brought more criticisms of Ahmadinejad by former IRGC commanders who are now in the Majles, such as Alireza Zakani, Elyas Naderan, Esmail Kosari, and others.

What will be the key dynamics of next year’s presidential elections? Which factions will key presidential contenders come from? 

At this point, it appears that no major figure from the Green Movement/Reformists is willing to run in the election. Even if a relatively well-known figure does step forward, the hardliners could see him as having the potential for attracting a large number of votes and bringing people out on street, they would prevent him from running. The ruling elite do not want any election that can re-ignite the Green Movement, and bring its tremendous potential to the surface again.

That leaves various factions among the traditional conservatives and the Principlists. There are several potential candidates. The hardline JPEE will definitely field a candidate, likely to beSaeed Jalili,Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former IRGC Brigadier General, is another strong possibility. If he runs, he will probably be supported by the pragmatic conservatives. Haddad Adel is another potential candidate. Well-informed sources inTehranhave told me that former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, currently senior foreign policy adviser to Mr. Khamenei, is likely to run.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad and his supporters are working hard to have a viable candidate. Ahmadinejad’s main preference is his former chief of staff, close relative, and father-in-law of his son, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. It is not clear whether the Guardian Council, which vets the candidates, will allow Rahim-Mashaei to run, and if it did not, how Ahmadinejad will react (he recently mentioned the possibility of “postponing the elections”). But, if Rahim-Mashaei or a well-known candidate supported by Ahmadinejad is allowed to run, it is likely that the Khamenei camp may close ranks behind a single candidate.

In next year’s presidential election, which direction Iran’s state ideology has the most potential to be tilted toward; more of the same religious-based ideology or one with strong components of Iranian nationalism?

In principle, the ruling clergy and their supporters are opposed to nationalism and nationalists, and want everything in the name of Islam (regardless of whether everything they do is truly Islamic). But when the country faces external threats, they resort to nationalist slogans, in order to incite people’s patriotism and fierce Iranian nationalism. One such period is now, when tough economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran, and Israel has been threatening to attack Iran. But, there is also a difference between running as a candidate, and staying loyal to your nationalist slogans, if elected. So, although it is likely that some of the more pragmatic candidates may invoke Iranian nationalism during their campaign, it is not likely that they can govern with an overtly Iranian nationalism-driven ideology, because it would be considered a deviation from the Islamic path, and a move toward a more secular state. But, at the same time, failure of the Islamic Republic in addressing the needs of the nation has surely given rise to the thinking that the nation must free itself of the role of religion in governance. We may not see the effect of this thinking in the state over the next 2-3 years, but it is surely gaining strength.

To what extent Iranian reformists will have an impact on the political dynamics of next year’s presidential elections?

The hardliners are fully aware that if any well-respected Reformist is willing and allowed to run, he will most likely win the elections, and this terrifies the hardliners more than anything else. Thus, their first order of business is to prevent the development of such a scenario. If that happens, any claim for the elections to be free and fair will lose even its negligible credibility. At the same time, some major figures among the Reformists have advocated using the election period to inform people about, (i) the dangers that the country faces as a result of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad/IRGC rule, not only in economic arena (which they are already experiencing it), but also in the foreign policy arena; (ii) the fact that their problems are also the problems that the Green Movement and the Reformists care about, and (iii) without truly free and fair elections no major problem the country faces will be solved. So, I believe that, one way or another, the Reformists will influence the upcoming elections.

Do you believe the role of Shiite clergy in Iran’s political life is undergoing a transformation? Why?

Given the failure of the Islamic Republic in addressing the hopes and aspirations of the people of Iran – a nation with two-third of its population under the age of 35, literacy rate of almost 90% and well-connected to the outside world through the internet and social media – given the vast corruption and nepotism in the Islamic Republic that are by far worse than whatever Iran experienced in the pre-1979 Revolution era, and given the suffocating social conditions, it is not surprising that some major Shiite clergy are rethinking and reconsidering their role in the political life of the nation. There are already calls for such reconsideration. It will take some time, but there is no question that the nation is slowly moving toward a more secular state, as a result of which the role of the Shiite clergy will gradually but surely lessen.