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Iran: A New Deal?

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Jason DeCrow/AP Images
Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) at a meeting about Iran’s nuclear activities, United Nations headquarters, New York City, September 2013

On a recent trip to Tehran I visited a friend I hadn’t seen since June 11, 2009. We had met on the eve of that year’s presidential election, and my friend, a prominent campaigner against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had alluded somewhat unnervingly to the possibility of vote-rigging and violence.

Ahmadinejad’s landslide “victory” was indeed denounced as fraudulent by his moderate and relatively pro-Western challengers, Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi—along with millions of their supporters who took to the streets in demonstrations over the following week. On June 20, after a sermon the previous day in which the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned of “blood, violence, and chaos” if the demonstrations didn’t stop, the security forces intervened with live ammunition, beatings, and waves of arrests.

My friend was among those who were jailed during the systematic crackdown that began that day, and that continued for the following two years or so, throttling the protest movement. Unlike many others who had been detained, he had not buckled under pressure to recant. Nor, he told me, did he feel ill-will toward the man, another high-profile detainee, whose denunciation had given the authorities a pretext to arrest him. My friend had spent a year in jail, including several months in solitary confinement. He was grayer than I remembered, as he talked to me while sitting in the same chair he had occupied that evening in 2009.

What is the significance of that thwarted election and its excruciating aftermath? The question seems almost academic now, for many of the goals of the opposition movement have ostensibly been achieved. Ahmadinejad is out of power—his second and final term ended last summer—and the country’s current president is a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged to improve relations with the West, and whose current nuclear diplomacy with the United States and other world powers is a means to that end. Outside the country, and particularly in the US, there is little talk of 2009; the Obama administration’s approach to Iran was defined not then but in 2012 and 2013, when sanctions against the country were tightened considerably and the Iranians were brought reluctantly to the negotiating table.

And yet, if you want to understand the current diplomatic process and its prospects of success, the 2009 election has to be your starting point. It allowed Iran’s hard-liners to undertake a ruthless purge of reformists whom they regarded as traitorous, and to demonstrate to ordinary Iranians their unbreakable determination to retain power. These ordinary Iranians got the message, and it is one of the ironies of the 2009 protest movement that although several million people demonstrated in the streets, their movement disintegrated rapidly under pressure from the authorities and was ultimately suppressed with almost embarrassing ease. Still, two or three hundred people died.

Only from a position of unassailable domestic mastery could Ayatollah Khamenei countenance what for many Iranians was the extremely risky step of launching negotiations with the United States, the Islamic Republic’s unchanging enemy ever since the take-over of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. The purge of reformists that followed the disputed election gave him that mastery, and the freedom to undertake a diplomatic initiative that he still regards with great distaste.

In the summer of 2009 I stood just a few feet away from the supreme leader during his sermon of June 19, as he denounced the “diabolical” British for allegedly instigating the disturbances, and his eyes bored—or so it seemed to me, the only Brit in the place—into mine. Until that sermon, friends and acquaintances who had voted for Moussavi or Karroubi had hoped that Khamenei, as undisputed arbiter of Iranian politics, would accomodate the demands they had made in the huge demonstrations of the previous few days, and order a new election. (It was taken for granted that Moussavi, the most popular of the two moderate candidates, would win the rerun.) In his sermon of June 19, the supreme leader scotched these hopes, endorsing the official results and effectively anointing President Ahmadinejad for a further four years.

In fact, as a sense of injustice prevented many of us from seeing at the time, the supreme leader could not have accepted Moussavi’s election without severely damaging his own position. Although Moussavi insisted that he was a loyal supporter of the velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, the theocratic principle that confers absolute authority on the supreme leader at the top of Iran’s hybrid political system, it was no secret that many of Moussavi’s supporters were not. These men and women had been close to the reformist government of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor as president, Mohammad Khatami, and they had only been partially dispersed after Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005. Many worked in the private sector and the universities, holding out for a return to power.

Some prominent reformists had been forced out of the country by pressure from the hard-liners. From the West, dissidents such as Abdulkarim Soroush, a forceful proponent of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and Shirin Ebadi, a feminist lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, cast doubts on the regime’s claims to Islamic virtue. Ataollah Mohajerani, a Khatami-era minister whose liberal cultural policies of the late 1990s had made him a hate figure for hard-liners, bided his time in London. Shortly before the election, Mohajerani had taken part in a debate on Iran at the British Museum; his circumspection on the podium suggested a man trying not to jeopardize his chances of going home. In the days before polling, the streets of Tehran and other cities were thronged with Moussavi supporters celebrating a victory they regarded as a foregone conclusion.

Imagine that Iran’s Interior Ministry had declared a different victor on June 12. It is hard to see how a triumphant President Moussavi could have resisted pressure from his supporters to welcome exiles, liberalize the universities and the media, which had been all but stifled after four years of Ahmadinejad, and endorse a pluralistic, integrated view of the world—all anathema to hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guard, the seminaries, and other organs of power. A Moussavi government would have allowed more criticism of the country’s pell-mell nuclear development and its recklessly hostile rhetoric toward Israel, exemplified by Ahmadinejad’s wish that Israel be “wiped off the map” and his suggestion that the Holocaust never happened.

In Washington, America’s new president, Barack Obama, had recently indicated his readiness to coexist with the Islamic Republic, but the signs were that he would only accept the Iranian regime if it ceased projecting power and influence beyond its borders. The American opening was regarded by Iranian hard-liners as an amicably presented continuation of the old Bush policy of regime change, and they did not welcome it. Moussavi, on the other hand, would probably have advocated a more favorable response to Obama’s overtures.

In sum, there was every reason for Iran’s hard-liners to regard the possibility of a Moussavi government with foreboding, and from their point of view the crisis of 2009 had the advantage of encouraging the reformists to show their radical colors. Although the protests dwindled in size following Khamenei’s sermon of June 19, thousands of Iranians continued to demonstrate and speak out, not only against Ahmadinejad, but also against the supreme leader. Many of these were duly punished.

Moussavi and Karroubi (as well as Moussavi’s popular and assertive wife, Zahra Rahnavard) were first subjected to intimidation and then placed under house arrest, a form of incarceration they endure even now; there were thousands of arrests and numerous reports of torture in the detention centers. Students who took part in illegal demonstrations were suspended from their courses and barred from careers in the public sector, by far the country’s biggest employer. Some of the country’s brightest journalists ended up going to London, where they were hired by the BBC’s Persian-language service—which the authorities had accused of stirring up the post-election protests. Even Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and Moussavi’s most powerful patron, was put under heavy pressure. Two of his children were arrested and his control over important public and private institutions was curtailed.

Perversely, the upheavals that happened in 2011 in the Arab world also had the effect of strengthening the Islamic Republic. Some of the Iranians who had taken to the streets in 2009 were envious when dictators fell easily in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad looked as though he would be next. But the Arab revolutions are now widely (if prematurely) considered to have failed, leading not to freedom but to violence and uncertainty, and I have often heard Iranians express relief that their country is not awash with arms, like Syria; that it enjoys a significant degree of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural homogeneity, unlike Libya; and that its people—in contrast to the Egyptians—are not so idiotic as to topple one military dictator, and then have second thoughts and accept another.

Notwithstanding some violent separatism in the peripheral regions of Iranian Baluchistan and Kurdistan, which have Sunni majorities, Iran is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. It is possible to drive the length of the country, a distance of some 1,400 miles, fearing only the lunacy of one’s fellow motorists. Recently, I was asked by a Western “security” contractor who had been active in Iraq and Afghanistan if there was a market in Iran for firms such as his. I told him I doubted it. The state takes care of personal security against everyday crime, and on the whole, the people—even bitter critics of the Islamic Republic—approve of its protection.

By the beginning of 2012, the opposition movement was dead and the reformists were scattered. But sanctions, which had intensified thanks to the efforts of the United States and the EU, were now hurting Iran badly. Oil revenues collapsed in 2012, with a calamitous effect on the national currency, the riyal, which halved in value; the economy went into recession, and inflation soared toward its mid-2013 peak of 42 percent. Unable to import parts or machinery, factories closed and unemployment rose to an estimated five million. Car production, for example, declined by about 40 percent between March 2012 and March 2013.

The misery of ordinary people was compounded by their knowledge that a small number of well-connected Iranians had made fortunes by helping the Islamic Republic evade sanctions. A series of high-profile corruption cases, one of them involving a businessman accused of owing the government more than $1 billion from oil sales he arranged, has revealed something of the private enrichment that has gone on while officials have been urging Iranians to build a spartan, self-sufficient “resistance economy.”

No one can be sure when the supreme leader decided to throw his weight behind serious diplomacy aimed at getting sanctions lifted. What is certain is that he did not want Ahmadinejad or anyone associated with him to be involved. Mercurial, noisy, and ultimately inconsequential, Ahmadinejad was despised not only by the reformists—for obvious reasons—but also by mainstream Iranian conservatives of the kind the supreme leader represents. The brand of Shia Islam that Ahmadinejad follows is anticlerical and chiliastic almost to the point of heresy; conservatives referred to his supporters as the “deviant current.”

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