Thursday, March 26, 2009

Iran - no end to stand-off with US

Tehran will not and cannot accept US demands, writes Yassamine Mather

Obama’s message to Iranians to mark Norooz, the Iranian new year, was hailed by sections of the media as “unprecedented” and “historic”, offering a new beginning in Iran-US relations. It was therefore inevitable that when ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, dismissed the message as consisting of meaningless slogans, Middle East and Iran ‘analysts’ expended a lot of effort trying to put a positive spin on a very unambiguous negative response.

So what was implicit in Obama’s message and why can Iran not accept it? There is no doubt that its tone differed from George Bush’s pronouncements on similar occasions - it accepted the existence of the Islamic Republic, to start with. However, for the most part it was very similar to what Bush had said before. He too used Norooz to appeal to Iran’s innate sense of cultural superiority as an ancient civilisation. One wonders how this went down in other Middle East capitals and amongst ordinary people in the area, not to mention the other minority nationalities living inside Iran’s borders (Arabs, Baluchis, Turks).

Demanding the impossible
As far as details are concerned, Obama repeated Bush’s conditions for normal relations, albeit in a slightly more diplomatic tone. Referring to Iran’s right to its place in the “community of nations”, he said: “You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms.”1

In other words, Iran should give up uranium enrichment, should stop arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, should abandon its threats against Israel, should continue supporting the occupation government in Iraq and should help the ‘peace’ conference in Afghanistan. Of course, Iran has done all in its power to help the US and its Nato allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and secret negotiations regarding US-Iran cooperation over the ‘war on terror’ are well documented.2

However, the government in Tehran will not and cannot accept the other three demands, because it has built its reputation on taking a tough political stance and cannot afford to lose face without risking losing power. For over three decades the Iranian leadership has thrived through maintaining a state of crisis. Conflict with the US and sanctions, many of them going back to the early 80s, provide the regime with a convenient excuse for its economic failures, the growing gap between rich and poor, political repression and endemic corruption. In fact the regime’s survival depends on the continuation of the sanctions and a form of ‘cold war’.

Khamenei’s response to all this was both predictable and clear: “They chant the slogan of change, but no change is seen in practice.” Khamenei asked how Obama could congratulate Iranians on the new year yet in the same message accuse them of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons: “Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up mudslinging and making accusations against the great Iranian nation and its officials? Have you given up your unconditional support for the Zionist regime?”

It is quite clear that the Obama administration has no intention of lifting sanctions against Iran - in fact earlier this month US sanctions were renewed. According to an Israeli newspaper, “Senior US officials are preparing to present Obama with a plan for dialogue with Iran on its nuclear programme, including increased international sanctions against Tehran.”3

Ayatollah Khamenei is well aware that his first demand - an end to ‘sanctions’ - will not happen unless Iran gives up its nuclear programme. His second demand - an end to US support for Israel - is even more unlikely. Israel acts in effect as a US military base in the Middle East and to call on the US administration to withdraw support is the equivalent of suggesting it abandons a key strategic outpost.

At a time of serious economic difficulties it is in fact in the interest of both governments to continue the state of conflict. So, contrary to the euphoria expressed by sections of the media (including supporters of the ‘reformist’ faction of the Islamic Republic inside and outside Iran), it will take more than quoting a couple of lines of Saadi, the 13th century Persian poet, to resolve this conflict.

However, there is no doubt that Obama’s message will encourage further (open or covert) Iranian cooperation with US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where both countries are natural allies against the common ‘enemy’: al Qa’eda, and Sunni and secular opponents of the Iraqi occupation government.

Iran elections and the US
There is a vague reference to Iran’s June 12 presidential elections in Obama’s message and, despite the new year public holiday, the ‘reformist’ faction repeated the popular call for ‘an end to isolation’, hoping to use the speech to its own electoral advantage.

Outside Iran the pro-‘reformist’ and anti-war National Iranian American Council led the praise: “President Barack Obama’s historic Norooz message recognised the greatness of Iranian civilisation, the contributions of Iranian Americans to America and that threats cannot resolve the differences between Iran and the US.”4 The central committee of Fedayeen Majority wrote to Obama to assure him that Khamenei does not speak for the Iranian people! (As if the supreme cleric in a religious theocracy was likely to do so).5

Clearly Obama’s speech is already playing a role in what passes for the presidential election campaign in Iran. It represents the main issue over which one can detect small differences between the two main factions of the Islamic Republic party. Both are united on the nuclear programme, on support for Hezbollah, on maintaining Iran’s ambivalent position regarding Hamas and on keeping up the propaganda against Israel. However, the ‘reformists’ argue that a positive response to the new US administration will bring prosperity (for the rich) and an end to isolation, while the ‘conservatives’ prefer maintaining the current state of affairs.

Currently the main preoccupation of the ‘reformists’ is selecting a presidential candidate. On March 17, former president Mohammad Khatami pulled out in favour of Mir Hossein Moussavi, prime minister for most of the 1980s. Given the slump in Ahmadinejad’s popularity resulting from Iran’s dire economic situation (high unemployment, 25%-29 % inflation, etc), the ‘reformists’ see a chance of winning, yet Moussavi, the only viable candidate they are left with, is more of a centrist - probably closer to Khamenei than Ahmadinejad is. Opposition papers have rightly labelled Moussavi the ‘official candidate of the current order’. He is a member of the National Confidence (Etemad-e-Melli) Party and only stopped being prime minister when the post was abolished.

‘Reformists’ are now pinning their hopes on a Moussavi victory, but the statement he produced announcing his candidature reads more like a something from the hard-line ‘principlists’ (the so-called Ossulgara, who advocate a return to the basic Islamic ‘principles’ of the first years of the revolution), who are the main backers of Ahmadinejad. In addition it is now clear that Moussavi was never keen to be closely associated with Khatami and resented his original proposal that only one of them should stand.

Although Khatami himself had not seemed very enthusiastic in his bid for the nomination, the timing of his decision to withdraw, a week after Moussavi’s announcement, exposes the disarray in the ‘reformist’ camp whose ‘grand strategy’ was to keep both Moussavi and Khatami, along with 2005 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, as runners. This was in case one or two of the candidates were disqualified by the Council of Guardians, and was said to be a tactic that would confuse the ‘conservatives’. So the ‘grand strategy’ was not as coordinated as some had claimed.

But the ‘conservatives’ are not doing much better. Many in the principlist camp do not consider Ahmadinejad a suitable candidate and they are considering a number of alternatives, including Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and major-general Mohsen Rezai, former commander of Pasdaran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

Elections and the economy
In some ways, the election debate about relations with the US will only matter as part of the debate about Iran’s economy.

The economic chaos is symbolised by oil. The budget for last year, which ended on March 21, was based on oil selling at $150 a barrel, but for many months during this period, the price was below $45. As a result Iran is looking at a deficit of $25 to $30 billion and Ahmadinejad’s government has lost a number of crucial votes regarding the budget in parliament. And yet a few months ago Iranian leaders made the bold prediction that the world economic crisis would not affect Iran! By the end of the Iranian year, however, all Iran’s ills were being blamed on the crisis.

In addition to the dramatic drop in the price of oil, Iran has faced a major drought, with severe consequences for generating hydroelectricity. This forced the government to impose rationing on both water and electricity supplies to homes and businesses. The extent of the drought is so bad that the level of lake Urmia in Azarbaijan province is said to be falling by 2cms a day. It has also had a drastic effect on agriculture, resulting in the import of 6 million tons of grain.

Sanctions are beginning to hit ordinary Iranians hard and the poverty line now stands at 8,500,000 rials ($860) a month. A 10% increase: “With a possible 35% inflation rate next year, a family of five would be in absolute poverty with an income of under 8,500,000 rials.”6

Unless there is breakthrough over the nuclear saga the situation will get much worse in the new Iranian year and, of course, none of the reactionary candidates presented by various factions/parties of the Islamic Republic regime will address the problems faced by the majority of Iran’s population. Whoever wins the presidential election, it will make little difference to the lives of workers and their struggle to survive in Islamic Iran.

1. The message can be viewed at
2. See for example, M Rubin, ‘Iranian politicians discuss secret US-Iran talks’: 3. ‘US plan for Iran: talks alongside sanctions’ Ha’aretz:
4. ‘Thank president Obama for his wonderful Norooz message’: 373&Itemid=2
5. Fedayeen Majority -

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