Iran’s domestic woes dictate outcome of nuclear talks

Geneive Abdo

      Iran’s leaders face a host of problems at home and abroad that deeply impact international diplomatic efforts. The outcome of current talks between Tehran and the world’s six major powers—as well as any future initiatives—is likely to be heavily influenced by the regime’s perception of its own position at home.
      Historically, Tehran has been more willing to strike compromises with the West when it has felt weak or vulnerable at home—and stood to gain wider domestic support.
      Iran begins 2011 facing several domestic conflicts that reflect the increasing fragmentation within the state. Internal divisions between hardline loyalists of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate traditional conservatives are widening, as Ahmadinejad is forced to defend a controversial vice president from political attack.
      Ahmadinejad is simultaneously under fire for his own aggressive attempt to assume powers previously delegated to the legislative and judicial branches.

      Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad after his disputed reelection in 2009, which sparked mass protests throughout Iran, is also taking a toll on the ayatollah’s ability to maintain the government’s cohesion. Khamenei faces a major dilemma: He has invested too much in Ahmadinejad to de-legitimize him, but he also needs the support of Ahmadinejad's foes--the moderate conservatives who threaten to impeach the president.
      To create more balance between Iran’s rival factions, Khamenei has taken away powers from Ahmadinejad and delegated them to other institutions. In January 2011, Khamenei announced that the Expediency Council will work to resolve a dispute over the president’s power to select the chief of Iran’s Central Bank. The Expediency Council is an advisory body empowered to adjudicate disputes between the parliament and Iran’s twelve-man Guardian Council, which vets legislation and political candidates for compliance with Islam. The supreme leader appoints its members, who are prominent religious, social and political figures. The current head is former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a bitter Ahmadinejad foe who lost his own bid to return to the presidency in 2005 to Ahmadinejad.

      As the infighting continues, the Islamic Republic is also renewing efforts to neutralize political dissent. Tehran's Chief Prosecutor called for the arrest of former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Moussavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, two presidential candidates who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election. They helped spawn the Green Movement protests. The Supreme Leader so far appears to have opted for simply stifling the opposition leaders—and trying to make them irrelevant by keeping them under quasi-house arrest--rather than charging them. The regime’s schisms are becoming more pronounced even in dealing with its opposition.

      The Islamic Republic is also intensifying the scope and severity of its campaign against women's rights activists. For their unprecedented activities in the post-election protests, women and women's rights campaigners are being targeted on an unprecedented scale.

       Widely exposed at home, the decisive factor in any diplomatic effort over Iran’s controversial nuclear program will be whether the theocrats believe they will gain anything at home by making any compromises with the international community.
Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation and the editor and creator of