Author Hooman Majd, who’s much anticipated second book is due this month, writes today in Foreign Policy that the U.S. sanctions program on Iran isn’t exactly going to plan. This contradicts a central talking point of the Obama administration: that the recent political infighting in Tehran (which has not involved the reform or Green movements) is a sign that Iran is feeling the bite of recent sanctions. Majd says that “the latest squabbling is business as usual in the byzantine Iranian political system.”
That system, notes Majd, has “never quite been the absolute and monolithic totalitarian dictatorship we often imagine it to be (and it’s certainly not one with a dictator president).” Rather than the embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the focus of much Iranian discontent), the real power center of Iranian politics, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, remains very much in control. Though some infighting has persisted despite his orders to stop, Khamenei accepts a level of political dissent — especially if it comes from Ahmadinejad’s right and doesn’t challenge the Supreme Leader himself.
So why did Khamenei insist that the political wrangling be toned down, at least in public? And what does it mean for what Obama’s claims about his gains versus his actual prospects for progress on the nuclear issue? Majd writes:
Khamenei is no doubt aware that Iran’s enemies are keenly watching for signs of the regime’s weakness, the better to justify military attacks. By emphasizing unity — something former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has also done in recent weeks — Khamenei likely means to project an image of strength, internationally and domestically, at a crucial period in Iran’s history. The rallying together isn’t a flailing reaction to sanctions; it’s a concerted show of strength in the face of adversity.
The fact is, there is broad consensus on major foreign-policy issues across the political spectrum in Iran — particularly with respect to the nuclear issue. While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration claims that the latest and toughest sanctions seem to be working, forcing the Iranians to consider negotiations on the nuclear issue, the Iranian leadership was already in agreement on actual compromises before the sanctions were imposed. […]
The suggestion that tensions within the leadership have been aggravated by the sanctions, or that sanctions are responsible for Iran’s apparent willingness to talk, is a misreading of the political scene in Tehran.