Friday, May 15, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
This is the first in a series of "Road Sign" commentaries designed to bring under-noticed events that may turn out to be of global significance to public attention.
Road Signs: The Middle East
Recent largely unnoticed reports of what an Associated Press source labels an “unprecedented” public rebuke of Iranian President Ahmadinejad by the country’s supreme religious authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over a seemingly-minor domestic dispute, may, in fact, reflect a much more significant shift underway, not only in Iran’s political leadership but in its relations with the Western world.
With national elections scheduled for June 13, scarcely a month away, such public disapproval of one of Ahmadinejad’s actions by the ruling clerical authorities could well have a decisive effect in undermining the President’s remaining support within the Iranian power structure.
While the global economic downturn and consequent decrease in oil revenue have stirred public discontent, further tarnishing his public image, Ahmadinejad has, until this point, managed to retain the critical backing of Iran’s religious leadership. The current dispute over his dismissal of the chief official responsible for managing the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, important though it may be in an Iranian domestic context, potentially provides the ruling ayatollahs the opportunity to demonstrate a new flexibility in foreign relations—the area in which Ahmadinejad has played a particularly provocative and controversial role .
What has changed most notably in recent months is the foreign policy of the United States, with strong signals being sent by the Obama Administration that it is interested in pursuing a new relationship with Iran following more than a quarter-century of mutual hostility. In that context, Ahmadinejad, whatever his domestic virtues, is a definite liability, having positioned himself as an extreme hard-liner on relations not only with Israel—whose very legitimacy he has denied—but with the US and West whose values and policies he has repeatedly demeaned and attacked.
While the ayatollahs may share many of his opinions, and have clearly found it convenient to use him as a lightning-rod for international opprobrium, the diplomatic opening offered by the Obama Administration to initiate a new and less-rancorous relationship with the US and its Western allies may outweigh any lingering loyalty they may feel to Ahmadinejad himself. In short, he may have outlived his usefulness. And the upcoming election may provide the perfect opportunity to bring in new and less polarizing leadership.
Reading Iranian tea leaves is a notoriously difficult art, but in addition to this largely unreported public scolding of Ahmadinejad, two other recent events: the announcement by Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, that the organization had stopped firing rockets at Israel for the time being; and the sudden release of Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, should be taken as serious signs that Iran is rethinking its options on multiple fronts, and carefully testing the temperature of the international waters.
In contrast to the previous events, however, Saberi’s case did capture public, media and diplomatic attention with both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama denouncing the obviously trumped-up nature of the charges against her. While important, and a likely further signal of Iranian interest in pursuing better relations with the United States, the Saberi case should not be seen in isolation. Taken as one more step in the delicate diplomatic dance occurring between Iran and the United States, it is part of a much larger drama, which, if successful, may help defuse one of the world’s potentially most explosive situations.
Les Adler for The Institute