Iran, a cautious opening

The election of a reformist president in Iran realigns the geopolitical stars, and brings the possibility of diplomatic progress on Syria.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
20 June 2013

During the summer of 1998, Taliban forces were slowly taking control of parts of northern Afghanistan as the civil war against the Northern Alliance warlords stretched further into the latter's territory. In early August the Taliban succeeded in capturing the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, close to the border with Uzbekistan. Although well away from the main areas of Iranian influence in the west of Afghanistan, the city was significant for the Iranians: it had a substantial consulate staffed by ten diplomats, as well as a journalist from the national news agency.

On 8 August the consulate was attacked and nine of the Iranians were later found murdered. Taliban sources blamed a renegade group, an account Tehran found wholly unacceptable as it continued to blame the core Taliban (see Douglas Jehl, “Iran holds Taliban responsible for 9 diplomats' deaths”. New York Times, 11 September 1998). There was considerable public anger across Iran, reflected in the reinforcing of the 70,000-strong Iranian army presence on the Afghan border. Some analysts anticipated an Iranian military response to the murders. In the event this was avoided, though the incident exacerbated Iran's already poor relations with the Taliban and left a legacy of severe strain.

These Iran-Taliban tensions offer a retrospective guide to the role of Iran immediately after 9/11, as United States special forces and CIA operatives moved into Afghanistan to terminate the Taliban regime and kill or capture the leaders of the al-Qaida movement.  During that key period in October-November 2001, Iran could have caused difficulties for the US operation but chose not to do so. Indeed, there are indications that Iranian actions at the time were actually helpful to the American forces.

By late January 2002, the Taliban had gone and al-Qaida been dispersed. George W Bush's state-of-the-union address to an ebullient Congress was both was delivered and received as a victory address, interspersed with repeated standing ovations. This was the speech that articulated the idea of a "war on terror" against al-Qaida but also went well beyond it in proposing the concept of an “axis of evil” composed of states that backed terror and sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The US president cited three states - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - as global threats, and singled out Iran as a state that “aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hopes for freedom.”  Bush characterised the gruesome threesome as whole by saying that "(states) like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”

The Iranian ruling class, not least the relatively moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, was shocked and annoyed by this rhetorical assault. Iran, after all, had denounced the 9/11 attacks. The reformist Khatami, elected in 1997, went on to win a second term and served until 2005, but relations with Washington remained tense. Many Iranian opinion-formers argued around this time that the country should pursue the nuclear option as a deterrent to potential regime termination.

A green ray

Now, after eight years of disjointed rule under Khatami's mercurial successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranians have elected another moderate president. Hassan Rowhani actually worked under Khatami and has a pragmatic approach while retaining his religious conservatism. His power over foreign and security issues may be limited by the final authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Khamenei is himself constrained by one aspect of the election outcome - the standoff between pragmatists and hardline conservatives.

Rowhani obtained just over 50% of the votes, consigning another pragmatist - Tehran's mayor Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf - to second place on 16%. The four strongly conservative presidential candidates thus could muster only 32% of the votes; among them was Saeed Jalili, favoured choice of the regime's core theocrats. Rowhani's control may be limited in extent, but his influence goes far wider and is enhanced by both the margin of his first-round victory and the sidelining of the anointed conservative. 

The significance of Iran's post-election dynamics may become acute in relation to Barack Obama's stance on the country. The US president has been exposed to sharp criticism by many former allies in recent months, mainly over domestic issues but also on foreign-policy ones such as Iran. Now, though, there is a possibility - certainly far stronger than in the wake of 9/11 - that Washington will be prepared to engage with Iran. Direct negotiations on the nuclear question may be far off, but indirect and modest confidence-building measures are available to both sides if they so choose (as well as to intermediaries such as Turkey and Britain).

There is even a small chance of progress over Syria. That deeply proxy conflict, with Iran and Saudi Arabia on bitterly opposed sides, could be amenable to a softening thanks to another of Rowhani's attributes. For the new president was not only a nuclear negotiator under Khatami but a figure who maintained relatively good relations with senior figures in and around the House of Saud even when close to the centre of power in Iran.

The latter is no small achievement given the mutual suspicions between Tehran and Riyadh. It contributes to the intriguing if still faint possibility of diplomatic progress, which could be brought closer if Washington does not baulk at Iranian participation in the proposed Geneva peace conference on Syria. In the same spirit of cautious optimism, it can be noted that - Vladimir Putin's bluntness at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on 17-18 June 2013 - Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov enjoys surprisingly good relations with his US counterpart John Kerry. After many months of bleak assessments of the Syrian war, there is the merest  ray of hope. 

In any event, the geopolitical environment is very different to that of January 2002, with its official declaration that Iran was an "evil" state. There is some progress here, even if it may not be seen that way in Jerusalem.

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