Monday, December 9, 2013

Exclusive: Iran's Foreign Minister Says New Sanctions Would Kill Nuclear Deal

TIME  December 9, 2013
In a wide-ranging interview with TIME in Tehran on Dec. 7, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke to writer and Iran expert Robin Wright about how the Geneva nuclear deal came together, how the government has to appeal to Iran’s own parliament not to undermine the interim pact, and how any new sanctions passed by the United  States Congress would kill the deal. The agreement, reached between Iran and six world powers in November, calls for a freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of sanctions. It is meant to pave the way for a final settlement between Iran and the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes only; world powers fear that it has a military component. Speaking in the ornate Foreign Ministry building, Zarif also indicated that Iran might not be wedded to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, a long-time ally, and he said that Iran hoped for a “duly monitored” democratic election in Syria. Iran’s most high-profile cabinet official warned that the deepening sectarianism playing out in Syria does not recognize borders and has implications “on the streets of Europe and America.”
Q: What are biggest differences between Iran and the six major powers in making a permanent agreement? The biggest issues and obstacles?
There are a number of issues. One is the removal of all sanctions – both U.N. Security Council sanctions as well as national and multilateral sanctions outside the U.N. – and second is the issue of Iran having an enrichment program.
These are the two elements of the final deal that are going to be there. How we shape the final deal to include all these elements will be a matter for discussion. The two other members, Russia and China, may also have concerns but they are more confident about the peaceful nature of our nuclear program.
Q: But what are the obstacles then?
A: Why do we even need Arak? Because we need to produce radio isotopes for medical purposes and even Arak alone is not enough for us. This was the technology that was available to us. Some people believe that we chose this technology because it provided other options. They’re badly mistaken.
You see you have to look at Iran’s nuclear program from the perspective of denial, the fact that Iran was denied access to technology. And we used or we tried to get access to whatever was available to us and this technology was available to us. Other technologies were not. And we made a lot investment both in terms of human capital as well as in terms of material resources and we have reached almost the end game of getting this research reactor into actual operation. So it’s too late in the game for somebody to come and tell us that we have concerns that cannot be addressed. We have to find solutions. We believe there are scientific solutions for this and we are open to discussing them but that will be one of the more difficult issues.
Q: Are you willing to accept a level of enrichment that is only for facilities that Iran has constructed?
A:.We are going to accept measures that would ensure that our program will remain exclusively peaceful but the rest will have to be decided in the negotiations in good faith. We have no intention of producing weapons or fissile material programs. We do not consider that to be in our interests or within our security doctrine.
Q: What are the prospects that Iran will be part of the Geneva talks on Syria?
A: If Iran is invited without preconditions Iran will be a part of the talks. I think people will decide to invite Iran if they are interested in having a helpful hand in finding a resolution to the Syrian tragedy and they will decide not to invite Iran to their own detriment. Iran believes that what is happening in Syria can have a huge impact on the future of our region and the future beyond the region. Because we believe that if the sectarian divide that some people are trying to fan in Syria becomes a major issue it will not recognize any boundaries. It will go beyond the boundaries of Syria. It will go beyond the boundaries of this region. You will find implications of this on the streets of Europe and America.
Q: Did you or any other Iranian diplomats discuss Iran’s position on Syria with American diplomats?
A: No, we didn’t except for a very, very brief sort of reference en passé in my first meeting with John Kerry.
Q: Do you think it’s possible that the many different sides of the Syrian conflict and the outside parties to that conflict can find common ground?
A: It’s up to the Syrians to decide; we can only help. We can only facilitate. And I think Iran will not be an impediment to a political settlement in Syria. We have every interest in helping the process in a peaceful direction. We are satisfied, totally satisfied, convinced that there is no military solution in Syria and that there is a need to find a political solution in Syria. If you want to prevent a void, the types of consequences that we are talking about, I mean if you want to avoid extremism in this region, if you want to prevent a Syria becoming a breeding ground for extremists who will use Syria basically as a staging ground to attack other countries – be it Lebanon, be it Iraq, be it Jordan,  Saudi Arabia, even Turkey – these countries are going to be susceptible to a wave of extremism that will find its origins in Syria and the continuation of this tragedy in Syria can only provide the best breeding ground for extremists who use this basically as a justification, as a recruiting climate in order to wage the same type of activity in other parts of this region.
Q: Is Iran going to stick at the side of Bashar Assad?
A: We will stick to the side of stability and resolution to Syria. But at the end of the day, we are not going to decide who will rule Syria. It should be the Syrian people to decide. We’re proposing that we should not give ourselves the role that the Syrian people should play.
Q: We’re hearing that you’re still facing tough opposition in the Gulf and that Saudi Arabia doesn’t even want to see you yet.
A: I was well received by every country in the Persian Gulf that I visited [on a recent trip]. I had extremely positive discussions both on regional issues, the fact that all of them welcomed the  Geneva agreement, the fact that all of them considered that as a positive development for security and cooperation in our region, the fact that everyone expected a new chapter in relations between Iran and countries on the southern shore of the Persian Gulf. And that was very encouraging for me.
As for Saudi Arabia, I indicated to them that I was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia. Meetings were arranged. But there was a problem with the meetings. We could not arrange all of the meetings that should have been arranged. We decided to go at a time that was more convenient. It doesn’t mean a political problem between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now we have differences. In every family you have differences of views, even between brothers and sisters. And we all have our differences. There are issues on which we have different opinions, different approaches, different strategies, different tactics. It wasn’t that they were not prepared to see me.                 
Q: But you did mention the deepening sectarian gap in the region personified by the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A: We both have members of both sects among our population and it’s in our interest to avoid this, to have a cordial and brotherly relations between various Islamic sects. So for Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important and very significant to reach a common understanding on how to avoid this and not to personify such a sectarian difference.
Q: What opposition are you facing at home to the Geneva deal? And what are you doing about it?
A: The most opposition here emanates from the lack of trust because we do not have a past on which we can build. It’s a psychological barrier to interaction that we need to overcome. The fundamental reason for opposition: they believe the West and particularly the United States are not sincere, are not interested about reaching an agreement. They believe that they will try to use the mechanism of negotiations in order to derail the process, in order to find new excuses. And some of the statements out of Washington give them every reason to be concerned. Now we know that Washington is catering to various constituencies and is trying to address these various constituencies. We read their statements in the light of their domestic constituency process. But not everybody in Iran does that. We believe that the U.S. government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.
Q: After all these negotiations, do you see the prospect for working together with the United States on other subjects, including Afghanistan.
A: We have to wait and see whether the behavior that will be exhibited in the course of negotiations and implementation of our agreements on the nuclear issue creates the necessary confidence for us to move to other areas.
Q: Is there anything different now between Iran and the United States after the talks in Geneva after the process that’s been launched?
A: In terms of using these talks to foster confidence, I don’t think we have been very successful in that process. Because the talks have been followed by public statements that have not differed that significantly from statements that used to be made before the talks.  Basically in this day and age, you don’t have secret negotiations, everything is done is out in the open. You cannot pick and choose your audience. And that is one of the beauties of globalization and one of the hazards of globalization whichever way you want to say it. When Secretary Kerry talks to the U.S. Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him andinterpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.
Q: What happens if Congress imposes new sanctions, even if they don’t go into effect for six months?
A: The entire deal is dead. We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States. I know the domestic complications and various issues inside the United States, but for me that is no justification. I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will be getting anywhere. Now we have tried to ask our members of parliament to avoid that. We may not succeed. The U.S. government may not succeed. If we don’t try, then we can’t expect the other side to accept that we are serious about the process. 
Q: What can you tell us about the back channel that began last March?
A: I can tell you that we started discussing this issue on the sidelines of the P5+1 with various countries but with all the countries that were involved we have normal diplomatic relations. It may become more interesting when it involves the United States. That started a long time ago – probably three years ago. Our nuclear negotiator at that time, Dr. [Saeed] Jalili, met with [Undersecretary of State] Bill Burns on the sidelines of Geneva. And since then, there have been back and forth discussions between Iran and the U.S. inside and on the sidelines of P5+1. So that has taken place and I think with some positive outcome.
Q: Did it make possible, did it facilitate Geneva?
A: I think had it not been for bilateral discussions between Iran and various members of P5+1 we would not have had a positive outcome. Formal meetings of Iran plus six countries and [Senior E.U. foreign policy official] Cathy Ashton usually remain very formal. If you want to reach agreement you need to talk to all of these individually as well as collectively. So we did talk to all members of the P5+1 individually. But as it was not a big deal for us to talk to France or Russia or even the U.K. For the U.S., it was a different issue. And our discussions with the U.S. on the sidelines of P5+1 became a story in themselves.
Q: How alive is that channel now?
A:When my colleagues go to Vienna, probably they’ll have side discussions with the U.S. and that’s a very important channel. The U.S. is probably the most important player because it has the largest amount of sanctions against Iran, most of them or all of them illegal in our view. But nevertheless it has a lot of sanctions. It imposes a lot of sanctions on various countries that do business with Iran and that is why it has to do the most. In the resolution, it had a lot to do in the creation of the trouble so it has a lot to do in the resolution of the trouble. So that requires Iran and the U.S. to have a lot of discussions on the sides.
Q: Would you have had Geneva without that back channel with the United States?
A: Well, hypothetical questions: we would not have been able to reach an agreement without having discussed all various issues on the sidelines of P5+1 with various members, particularly the United States.

Monday, November 25, 2013


The significance of the accord goes far beyond the nuclear issue.
In 1981, I stood at the foot of the plane that flew the 52 Americans held hostage 444 days in Iran to freedom in Algiers. They were all pasty-faced and captive-weary as they disembarked into the cold January night. It was after midnight. Tehran had delayed their departure until after Jimmy Carter was out of office, one final slap at the president who had propped up the last shah until the end and later welcomed him into the United States.
Weeks of tough negotiations in Algiers to free the hostages had been complicated because Iranians and Americans did not meet face-to-face. They mediated (in three languages) through the Algerians.
So the recent talks in Geneva between Iran and the world’s six major powers produced far more than a long-elusive deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. The new diplomacy also produced real human contact. U.S. and Iranian diplomats have spent more time together over the past three months than in the entire three decades since the American Embassy takeover. They are learning how to talk to each other all over again—often in the same language. Geneva laid the cornerstone to defuse 34 years of both overt and covert confrontation over a host of other issues too. The interaction may even help end the Iran jinx that has tainted or tormented all six American presidents since the 1979 revolution.
The hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term. The Reagan administration was shamed by clumsy secret diplomacy during the Iran-Contra scandal, which was initiated to free a new set of American hostages in Beirut but which ended up with the indictment or dismissal of top White House officials. The first Bush administration’s stab at Arab-Israeli diplomacy, centered on the 1991 Madrid peace conference, was matched by deepening ties between Iran and Palestinian rejectionists.
The Clinton administration considered military retaliation against Iran after the 1996 attack on a U.S. Air Force facility in Khobar, Saudi Arabia killed 19 Americans and injured another 350. A Shiite group with Iran ties was suspected. The second Bush administration’s “axis of evil” language sabotaged collaboration in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, while the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions inadvertently strengthened Tehran’s hand by toppling its two biggest regional rivals.
In contrast, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were photographed laughing together across the negotiating table in Geneva. In the wee hours of November 24, they shook hands—more than just politely—after signing an agreement opening the way for six months of even more intensive contact. No one noted that Kerry wore a (bright red) tie, but Zarif didn’t, in deference to the revolutionary dress code banning ties as symbols of Western influence—the kind of colorful anecdote once trotted out to underscore deep differences.
Debate will rage from Capitol Hill to the Persian Gulf over specifics of the interim deal. Many both at home and abroad are dissatisfied. Some may try to scuttle it. The volume will almost certainly go up as diplomacy intensifies.
But the reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is now too advanced to either bomb or sanction totally out of business. A deal should have happened a decade ago when Iran had less than 200 centrifuges to enrich uranium, the fuel for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world’s deadliest weapon. Now it has near 19,000. Both sides were too stubborn back then.
The conventional wisdom claims Iran came to the negotiating table under pressure from unparalleled economic sanctions. True. But the unacknowledged truth is that the outside world also went into diplomacy under pressure from Iran’s growing capabilities. Otherwise, the world’s six major powers could have just kept squeezing the Islamic Republic. Tehran also now has nuclear knowledge that can’t be bombed out of existence.
So, ultimately, even a military strike would require diplomacy to prevent Tehran from rebuilding. The core issue is as much Iran’s long-term calculations as its capabilities.
Diplomacy is not only about preventing war. It’s also about healing. President Nixon’s diplomacy ended 30 years of deadly tensions with China, which included Beijing’s arming, aiding and sending troops to North Vietnam. President Clinton resumed relations with a reunited Vietnam 20 years after the United States lost more than 58,000 lives in a war to keep the Communists from consuming the south.
The sprawling American Embassy compound in Tehran is not likely to reopen anytime soon. But in pushing for a nuclear deal, Geneva started the long and painful healing that could eventually alter Tehran’s calculations—not only about its nuclear program.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Charlie Rose Show

       A conversation on how the Syrian and Iraq wars are merging, how alliances are fraying, and what it means for both the Middle East and the outside world. Appearing with Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker, David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Foud Ajami of Stanford University.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Iran's Man on Wire: Javad Zarif
When Mohammed Javad Zarif left the U.N. in 2007, I asked what he had achieved in five years as Tehran's ambassador. "Not much," he said with a sigh. "A stupid idealist who has not achieved anything in his diplomatic life after giving one-sided concessions--this is what I'm called in Iran." He flew home depressed, faded into academia and vowed not to return to diplomacy.
Over the past two months, however, Zarif has re-emerged to lead Tehran's boldest overture to the West since the 1979 revolution. Iran's charismatic new President Hassan Rouhani clearly commissioned the initiative, but his new Foreign Minister is the plan's architect.
It's the comeback of a diplomatic lifetime. "A second chance," Zarif told me last month. And a huge risk. If he fails to make a deal limiting Tehran's nuclear capabilities--on Oct. 15, Zarif sat down in Geneva with the world's six major powers for a fresh round of negotiations--Iran could face punishing military strikes.
The talks went well, Zarif and top E.U. diplomat Catherine Ashton agreed. The negotiators will reconvene on Nov. 7.
Skeptics claim Zarif is merely buying time with all this talking so Tehran can work on developing nuclear weapons. "We know that deception is part of the [Iranian] DNA," State Department Under Secretary Wendy Sherman, chief U.S. negotiator in Geneva, warned a Senate committee on Oct. 3.
But Zarif has also built a following in Washington. "He doesn't play games," says Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Dianne Feinstein, who met Zarif in 2006 and was among a number of members of Congress who talked to him at the U.N. in September. "I think a deal is doable."
Zarif has the ear of Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and was approached by three of the six candidates in June's presidential election to be their prospective Foreign Minister. But he has also been lauded by the likes of Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Chuck Hagel when they were in the Senate. And he earned a University of Denver doctorate under the same professors who taught Condoleezza Rice.
Zarif is not just the man of the moment, however. He helped create the moment by being at the heart of virtually every key deal Tehran struck with the U.S. for two decades, beginning in the late 1980s. He was the "invaluable" liaison in talks that freed dozens of foreign hostages seized by pro-Iranian militias in Lebanon in the 1980s, former U.N. official and hostage negotiator Giandomenico Picco says. And after the 2001 U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, U.S. diplomats credited the Iranian envoy with persuading the Afghan opposition to accept the U.S. formula for a new government in Kabul.
The danger--to Zarif and to the chances of a deal--may be that Zarif actually has too many American contacts. He was fiercely grilled by hard-liners during his parliamentary confirmation. Just days before the Geneva talks, a conservative newspaper claimed Zarif had deemed "inappropriate" the phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani at the end of the U.N. General Assembly. Zarif said he'd been misquoted, but the stress triggered nervous spasms that sent him to the hospital. Winning over the powerful hard-liners in Iran's complex power structure will continue to pose a huge challenge to Zarif--and Rouhani.
The real question," says Ryan Crocker, a veteran of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East who has dealt with Zarif since 2003, "is whether hard-liners in both Tehran and Washington sabotage whatever comes out of this effort to resolve the nuclear issue and improve U.S.-Iran relations."
A host of issues will divide the two nations for years to come. But for the first time in 34 years, Zarif's frenetic diplomacy has spurred talk of détente between Tehran and Washington. When asked in New York City last month about the potential shape of future ties between Iran and the U.S., Zarif invoked the relationship between the U.S. and Russia, in which deep differences remain but communication and occasional collaboration continue nonetheless. It's a model far preferable to the military alternative. "This time," Zarif told me, "I can't afford to fail."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The New York Times

Imagining a Remapped Middle East 
THE map of the modern Middle East, a political and economic pivot in the international order, is in tatters. Syria’s ruinous war is the turning point. But the centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities — empowered by unintended consequences of the Arab Spring — are also pulling apart a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.
A different map would be a strategic game changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.

Syria’s prime location and muscle make it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile. After independence, Syria reeled from more than a half-dozen coups between 1949 and 1970, when the Assad dynasty seized full control. Now, after 30 months of bloodletting, diversity has turned deadly, killing both people and country. Syria has crumbled into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces. A different future is taking shape: a narrow statelet along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads’ minority Alawite sect. In the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012. The biggest chunk is the Sunni-dominated heartland.
Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning next door. Until now, Iraq resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But Syria is now sucking Iraq into its maelstrom.
The battlefields are merging,” the United Nations envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council in July. “Iraq is the fault line between the Shia and the Sunni world and everything which happens in Syria, of course, has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq.”
Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority — notably in western Anbar Province, site of anti-government protests — may feel more commonality with eastern Syria’s Sunni majority. Tribal ties and smuggling span the border. Together, they could form a de facto or formal Sunnistan. Iraq’s south would effectively become Shiitestan, although separation is not likely to be that neat.
The dominant political parties in the two Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have longstanding differences, but when the border opened in August, more than 50,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, creating new cross-border communities. Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has also announced plans for the first summit meeting of 600 Kurds from some 40 parties in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran this fall.
“We feel that conditions are now appropriate,” said Kamal Kirkuki, the former speaker of Iraq’s Kurdish Parliament, about trying to mobilize disparate Kurds to discuss their future.
Outsiders have long gamed the Middle East: What if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t been divvied up by outsiders after World War I? Or the map reflected geographic realities or identities? Reconfigured maps infuriated Arabs who suspected foreign plots to divide and weaken them all over again.
I had never been a map gamer. I lived in Lebanon during the 15-year civil war and thought it could survive splits among 18 sects. I also didn’t think Iraq would splinter during its nastiest fighting in 2006-7. But twin triggers changed my thinking.
The Arab Spring was the kindling. Arabs not only wanted to oust dictators, they wanted power decentralized to reflect local identity or rights to resources. Syria then set the match to itself and conventional wisdom about geography.
New borders may be drawn in disparate, and potentially chaotic, ways. Countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.
Libya’s uprising was partly against the rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. But it also reflected Benghazi’s quest to separate from domineering Tripoli. Tribes differ. Tripolitanians look to the Maghreb, or western Islamic world, while Cyrenaicans look to the Mashriq, or eastern Islamic world. Plus, the capital hogs oil revenues, even though the east supplies 80 percent of it.
So Libya could devolve into two or even three pieces. The Cyrenaica National Council in eastern Libya declared autonomy in June. Southern Fezzan also has separate tribal and geographic identities. More Sahelian than North African in culture, tribes and identity, it could split off too.
Other states lacking a sense of common good or identity, the political glue, are vulnerable, particularly budding democracies straining to accommodate disparate constituencies with new expectations.
After ousting its longtime dictator, Yemen launched a fitful National Dialogue in March to hash out a new order. But in a country long rived by a northern rebellion and southern separatists, enduring success may depend on embracing the idea of federation — and promises to let the south vote on secession.
A new map might get even more intriguing. Arabs are abuzz about part of South Yemen’s eventually merging with Saudi Arabia. Most southerners are Sunni, as is most of Saudi Arabia; many have family in the kingdom. The poorest Arabs, Yemenis could benefit from Saudi riches. In turn, Saudis would gain access to the Arabian Sea for trade, diminishing dependence on the Persian Gulf and fear of Iran’s virtual control over the Strait of Hormuz.
The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia, already in the third iteration of a country that merged rival tribes by force under rigid Wahhabi Islam. The kingdom seems physically secured in glass high-rises and eight-lane highways, but it still has disparate cultures, distinct tribal identities and tensions between a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority, notably in the oil-rich east.
Social strains are deepening from rampant corruption and about 30 percent youth unemployment in a self-indulgent country that may have to import oil in two decades. As the monarchy moves to a new generation, the House of Saud will almost have to create a new ruling family from thousands of princes, a contentious process.
Other changes may be de facto. City-states — oases of multiple identities like Baghdad, well-armed enclaves like Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, or homogeneous zones like Jabal al-Druze in southern Syria — might make a comeback, even if technically inside countries.
A century after the British adventurer-cum-diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the French envoy François Georges-Picot carved up the region, nationalism is rooted in varying degrees in countries initially defined by imperial tastes and trade rather than logic. The question now is whether nationalism is stronger than older sources of identity during conflict or tough transitions.
Syrians like to claim that nationalism will prevail whenever the war ends. The problem is that Syria now has multiple nationalisms. “Cleansing” is a growing problem. And guns exacerbate differences. Sectarian strife generally is now territorializing the split between Sunnis and Shiites in ways not seen in the modern Middle East.  
But other factors could keep the Middle East from fraying — good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources, or even a common enemy. Countries are effectively mini-alliances. But those factors seem far off in the Arab world. And the longer Syria’s war rages on, the greater the instability and dangers for the whole region.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Los Angeles Times

On Iran, Obama's Speech Could Be a Game-Changer 
By Robin Wright
If the new diplomatic initiative now endorsed by both President Obama and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leads to diplomatic talks -- and potentially even a deal on Iran's nuclear program -- Obama's speech could well be his most important UN address and one of the most important foreign policy speeches of his presidency.

The speech represented the most serious US public outreach to resolve disputes with Iran since the 1979 revolution. It was a particularly stark contrast with the secret (and disastrous) arms-for-hostage swap under the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s.

Obama clearly sought balance. His overture acknowledged past American attempts to manipulate Iranian politics, notably the CIA-orchestrated coup against a democratially elected government in 1953. Now, he said, Washington is not out to change the regime in Tehran. But Obama also pointed out the many transgressions by the revolutionary regime, including seizing the American embassy in 1979 and backing extremist movements that have targeted Americans.

But by empower Secretary of State John Kerry to deal directly with Tehran - in collaboration with five other major powers - Obama took a vitally important step in testing whether new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani does have the will and ability to solve the crisis over Iran's nuclear program.

So it could be a game-changer -- if the words are converted into action by both countries.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Los Angles Times

Will U.S.-Russia deal change battlefield realities in Syria?

Here’s a scorecard on how the U.S.-Russia deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons may play out for some of the key players:
• A relief for the Obama administration and even more for the American public, which opposes the potential slippery slope of even a limited intervention.
• A setback for interventionists who favor greater U.S. involvement on Syria, where 99% of the deaths have been from conventional weapons.
• A boon for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s struggled to rebuild Moscow’s status on the world stage since the Soviet Union’s demise. Next stop: Tehran, to discuss terms for a deal on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
• A reprieve, at least in the short term, for Syrian President Bashar Assad, because he would be the guarantor of a process running well into next year and even beyond.
• A huge setback for Syrian opposition fighters, who were hoping to take advantage of the degradation of Assad’s arsenal that would have accompanied a U.S. military strike. They also hoped to take advantage of the battlefield psychology of U.S. intervention. 

But big, big questions remain:

• Will the wily Assad really comply? There are many reasons he now needs to cooperate, but his regime has a long record of being duplicitous and murderous. So beware and thoroughly verify, especially that he hands over everything. I repeat, everything.
• Is this the first step toward a broader ceasefire, as the U.S. hopes? The old issues remain: The Assad regime doesn’t want to cede power, either for itself or the Alawite minority. And the Syrian leader has Russian backing. The opposition has been so divided that it hasn’t been able to speak with one voice -- either in forming a shadow government that could operate from liberated areas, as in Libya, or even in agreeing on terms for peace. Prospects for peace anytime soon seem unrealistic, given the huge array of players and the growing role of extremists among the opposition fighters.
• Will the deal do anything to change the battlefield realities -- and continuing deaths? Even if a peace process is started, a lot of people may well die as it plays out. 

Bottom line? There's a glimmer of hope on one of the many, many issues in the complex Syrian crisis. But it’s still only a glimmer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Los Angeles Times

The risk of taking on Syria
Quick strikes rarely achieve enduring political goals — and often produce more costs or unintended consequences than benefits.
By Robin Wright  August 28, 2013

     So the U.S. launches a military strike. Then what?
     As the Obama administration and the U.S. military plot military action against Syria, they should be spending just as much time — and arguably more — considering what happens next. Once Washington crosses the threshold of action, there's no retreating from blame for anything that follows, whether through action or inaction. And in the weeks and months to come, dangers will only deepen.
     First, quick hits rarely achieve enduring political goals — and often produce more costs or unintended consequences than benefits. I've seen it so often before.
     I lived in Lebanon in the fall of 1983 when the Reagan administration ordered the Marine peacekeepers deployed in Beirut to open fire on a Muslim militia. The commander bluntly warned Washington that a strike would have dire consequences for U.S. policy and his troops. "We'll get slaughtered down here," he predicted. Nonetheless, the cruiser Virginia stationed offshore fired 70 deafening rounds on the Lebanese fighters.
     It was supposed to be a quick hit. It was supposed to send a warning.
But 34 days later, on Oct. 23, a yellow Mercedes truck carrying the equivalent of 6 tons of explosives drove into the Marine barracks as the peacekeepers slept. In my head, I can still hear the thundering bomb blast. It was the single largest nonnuclear explosion anywhere since World War II. It produced the largest loss of American military life in a single incident since Iwo Jima.
     Four months later, the world's mightiest military was ordered to leave Lebanon, its mission incomplete. The embryo of what became Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, had forced the retreat of American, French, Italian and British troops.
     This time in Syria, Washington may again consider its action limited and specifically targeted. But Syria and its allies, notably Hezbollah, surely won't. And they can respond in many ways.
The last five presidents have tried limited strikes with specific messages in various crisis spots, many in the Middle East. The track record is pretty sorry for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
     Again during the Reagan administration, I reported on the 1986 U.S. airstrikes against Libya for bombing a Berlin disco, a hangout for American troops. Three had been killed and more than 200 injured in the blast, not all Americans. Ten days later, U.S. airstrikes sent a kinetic message to Moammar Kadafi about the costs of terrorism.
     Operation El Dorado Canyon hit Kadafi's military headquarters and other military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, although several bombs missed their targets and hit civilian areas. The strikes did little to end the outrages. Two years later, Libya masterminded the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 that killed 270 people. And Kadafi remained in power another quarter-century.
     In 1998, I covered Operation Desert Fox, when the Clinton administration launched four days of cruise missile and bombing strikes against Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime had failed to comply with United Nations resolutions and weapons inspectors for a year. The goal was to "degrade" Baghdad's ability to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and to destabilize Hussein's hold on power.
     The impact was negligible. Hussein held on for five more years, until the George W. Bush administration launched a ground invasion that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and nearly 4,500 American lives over the next eight years.
And in the end, the United States discovered that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction anymore.
     I also covered Operation Infinite Reach, when the Clinton administration ordered cruise missile strikes on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998. It was a response to twin bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Twelve Americans had been among the 224 killed.
     But a year later, I was in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden's camps were still thriving. The U.S. strikes had made him even more popular and powerful on the terrorist circuit. And he skillfully adapted Al Qaeda's tactics. In 2000, a suicide dinghy struck the U.S. destroyer Cole docked in Yemen, killing 17 sailors. And then the 9/11 suicide planes, the most successful attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. Bin Laden may be dead, but the franchises born of his movement are thriving from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
     So the idea of quick hits or short campaigns is often an illusion. The one notable success was the 2011 air campaign that helped oust Kadafi. But it had the full endorsement of the Arab League, the United Nations and , NATO, which ran the international mission. Thousands of Libyans actually did the fighting, while the Transitional National Council provided a viable alternative government from inside the country. And still Operation Unified Protector lasted 222 days.
     In the case of Syria, a few days of strikes against military targets may assuage moral outrage over its heinous use of chemical weapons. But they also carry the danger of widening the war by legitimizing or deepening involvement by other foreign powers, notably Iranian and Russian support for Damascus.
     I lived in Beirut during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization. It achieved the immediate goal, yet Operation Peace for Galilee also backfired: Iran deployed Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon and created Hezbollah, which ultimately drove out both Israeli troops and American peacekeepers. It was Israel's first retreat — made voluntarily due to inexorable costs — in the long Arab-Israeli dispute.

     So, as the U.S. and its allies take on Syria, they need to ensure that the costs do not ultimately outweigh the benefits, and that another military mission doesn't backfire.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meet the Press

Egypt's Crisis and America's Options

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Foreign Policy

 Iran’s Young “Determinators”
Robin Wright
They’re the determinators—the politically savvy, socially sassy, and media astute young of Iran. And they count, quite literally, as never before as a new president takes over.
President Hassan Rouhani owes his election to the young, who are Iran’s largest voting bloc. At the last minute, vast numbers opted to back him rather than boycott the poll. They’re also now the centrist cleric’s biggest headache, as he has to meet their expectations. Two-thirds of Iran’s 75 million people are under 35—and they vote again in four years.
But the Islamic Republic’s long-term survival may also be determined by the first post-revolution generation, born in the 1980s and now coming of age. For Iran’s baby boomers reflect the regime’s almost existential conundrum—and the nexus between economic and nuclear policies.
To be credible, the world’s only modern theocracy must better the lives of its struggling young majority. And to jumpstart the economy, Tehran will have to compromise with the outside world on its controversial nuclear program to get punitive international sanctions lifted. It’s a huge—but increasingly inescapable—price to pay for keeping the determinators on board.
The regime has limited time to act. Iran’s young are antsy because they are better educated and more skilled than any earlier generation. Literacy has almost doubled since the revolution—to over 95 percent, even among females. Iran won a U.N. award for closing the gender gap.
Yet one of the theocracy’s biggest successes has proven to be one of its greatest vulnerabilities.  It can’t absorb the post-revolution babies.
Iran’s young face rampant unemployment, estimated officially at up to 30 percent but unofficially at up to 50 percent. During his first appearance at parliament, Iran’s new president acknowledged in June that 4 million university graduates were jobless—and a mushrooming problem.
The core economic issue has had a rippling effect. In a country where the median age is 27, vast numbers can’t afford to marry or move out of their parents’ homes. One-third of females and one-half of all males between 20 and 34 are now unmarried, according to the Statistical Center of Iran.       
Frustration is reflected in soaring drug use. The State Welfare Organization reported this year that almost 72 percent of Iran’s drug addicts are between 18 and 25.
Born after both the monarchy and the revolution, the young often refer to themselves as the lost generation because they have little to do and even less to inspire them. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini died when they were in diapers. And most were tots during the traumatic eight-year war with Iraq, which produced more than 1 million casualties in the 1980s. The conflict shaped the goals, fears and nationalism of their parents and the current political leadership.
But for the young, the war is relegated to history--and the now fading public billboards of the previous generation’s war “martyrs.”
Sixty percent of Iran’s young now say the Islamic Republic needs to adopt new ways of thinking to secure its future, according to an Intermedia Young Publics survey released in May. One-third of those polled between the ages of 16 and 25 said they would abandon Iran if given the option.
The implications can’t be overstated. Iran’s post-revolution generation is the largest baby boom in Iran’s 5,000-year history. Its influence will only grow due to one of the world’s most unique population bumps.
Iran’s twenty-somethings were born during a decade-long blip in between two ambitious family planning programs. The shah promoted birth control during his final decade. By the end of the 1970s, 37 percent of women practiced family planning.
After the 1979 revolution, the ruling clerics reversed course and called on Iranian women to breed, breed, breed an Islamic generation. And they did. The population almost doubled from 34 to 62 million in about a decade.
But the theocracy soon realized that it couldn’t feed, cloth, house, educate or eventually employ those swelling numbers—and voters. So it launched a novel (and free) birth control program, including required family planning classes for newlyweds. By the 1990s, the average family fell from six children to less than two—lower than during the monarchy.
Iran's 70 percent drop was "one of the most rapid and pronounced fertility declines ever recorded in human history," according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. The birth rate plummeted so far that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned in 2010 that Iran would be stuck with a “dangerous” aging population in another 30 years.
By actuarial standards, Iran’s baby boomers will have disproportionate clout for at least the next half century on most aspects of Iranian life.  Politically, their impact could even be more enduring than the current ruling theocrats. They’ve already shown demonstrated in many forms how far they’re willing to go.
In 2009, students led eight months of Green Movement protests after the disputed presidential reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They mobilized millions in cities across Iran during the “Where My Vote?” campaign, the largest challenge to the regime since the 1979 revolution.
The determinators may no longer be able to protest on the streets. But can make or break politicians. Their interest and energy turned the 2013 presidential campaign around in the final days, boosting Rouhani to a surprise, come-from-behind victory over five other candidates.
Their voices resonate across Iran in other ways too. As the region’s largest network of bloggers, they boldly diss on their revolution, daring to post criticism, jibes, jokes and political cartoons on banned social media through circuitous routes.
They’re increasingly creating an alternative culture, pushing boundaries further than any time since the 1979 revolution. The stereotype of their parents’ generation was a black-shrouded woman or a young man sporting a headband that vowed martyrdom for Islam.
Images of the young today are more likely to be mall-hopping, increasingly in flashier fashions that defy conservative Islamic dress. Or they may be at play, including performing parkour, a holistic sport that combines running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping and rolling that resembles open-air gymnastics but in public places. 
In a telling sign of changing times, Iran’s young have even popularized rap as the rhythm of dissent in the world’s only modern theocracy. They hold back little in their warnings to the regime, as Yas, Iran’s leading hip-hop artist, rapped defiantly,
“Listen to my words and see the agonies I suffered
What my generation has seen, made our tears fall
Those without such pains—how they saw ours,
They became even more cruel, what a pity for our land!”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Atlantic

The Fires Facing Iran's New President 
And why Hassan Rouhani will have to put them out, fast.
By Robin Wright
One of the most important questions in the Middle East this year is whether Hassan Rouhani's election will mark a new era -- both for Iranians and the outside world. The answer could mean the difference between peace and (yet another) war. Rouhani's campaign certainly made lots of promises. One of his most striking posters was a bright blue textograph of his face crafted from a slogan promising "a government of good sense and hope." The Scottish-educated cleric energized an election many Iranians had considered boycotting after pledging that "freedoms should be protected." He also won over key youth and female votes by vowing in televised debates to "minimize government interference" in culture and society and to give women "equal rights and equal pay."
The upbeat promises have continued apace since the June 14 election, particularly on Rouhani's two English and Farsi Twitter accounts. "This victory was a victory of wisdom, moderation, progress, awareness, commitment and religiosity over extremism & bad behavior," @hassanrouhani tweeted on June 15. The "bad behavior" was clearly a dig at outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose status has plummeted over the past year. He leaves office almost in disgrace.

Online, Rouhani even discreetly tipped his turban to the Great Satan. Four days after the vote, his account tweeted a decade-old picture of Rouhani visiting a U.S. field hospital set up after the devastating 2003 earthquake in historic Bam. He is pictured next to an American female medic.
Now Iran's new president has to deliver. After the Aug. 4 inauguration, Rouhani faces a grueling test of the popularity he won at the polls against five other candidates. Iran's economy is toxic. Political divisions border on schisms. Regional allies--both secular and Islamist--are literally under fire. And the outside world has threatened military action if Tehran does not compromise on its nuclear program. Rouhani will find few quick fixes either. His gentle smile will only get him so far.
"It's the economy stupid" applies as much in the Islamic Republic as in any capitalist society. Rouhani inherits an almost existential challenge in putting out the financial fires. The economic situation is beyond grim due to a combination of punishing international sanctions and Ahmadinejad's gross mismanagement.
Iran's currency has lost about half its value since mid-2012. At least one out of four young people is now unemployed--including 4 million university graduates--in a country where more than half the voters are under 35. The Central Bank put inflation at 36 percent this spring, but Rouhani said his incoming team estimated that it was closer to 42 percent. Disgruntlement is visible. Sporadic demonstrations, including a July rally by steelworkers outside parliament, have protested unpaid salaries and layoffs.
Iran's economic lifeline is oil. But crude oil exports were cut by almost 40 percent in 2012--to 1.5 million barrels per day, the lowest in more than a quarter century, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By July 2013, the World Bank reported that Tehran had not paid back loans totaling $79 million for more than six months (out of $679 million due overall), which also meant Tehran would be ineligible for new funding and would find it harder to get new money from commercial creditors.
"For the first time since the imposed war [with Iraq from 1980 to 1988], our economic growth has been negative for two years in a row. And this is the first time that negative growth is accompanied by high inflation -- the highest inflation in the region or perhaps in the world," Rouhani told the country's parliament in July. In Iran's unusual political system, the president's biggest portfolio is the economy--and it could make or break his presidency.
During the presidential debates, Rouhani was quite conciliatory toward the outside world, at least compared with the defiant and discordant Ahmadinejad. "We need to move away from extremism," Rouhani said on national television. "We should maintain the country's interests and national security to provide conditions where we create opportunities." The key, of course, will be whether Iran and the outside world can settle longstanding questions about Iran's nuclear program.
Unlike the economy, Rouhani is uniquely qualified on this issue. He is a mid-ranking cleric, but he was also the national security adviser for 16 years. As chief nuclear negotiator, he brokered a rare deal with the West in 2003-4, when Iran temporarily suspected uranium enrichment, a fuel process that can be used for both peaceful nuclear energy and the world's deadliest weapon. He left the job shortly after Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
Rouhani actually took a potshot at Ahmadinejad's team--including Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator and another presidential candidate--in the campaign this summer. Among the six major powers negotiating with Iran, Jalili was famed for his long-winded tirades and stalling tactics that went nowhere during the five rounds of diplomacy since April 2012. The joke in Washington was that U.S. officials would actually not have minded if Jalili won the election, because at least they would no longer have to sit across from him at the negotiating table. He may have had the same reputation in Tehran.
"The nuclear issue will only be resolved through real negotiations, not just announcements," Rouhani said during the debates. "Iran's foreign policy should be placed in the hands of skilled, experienced people -- not people who do not know what they are talking about."
The sixth round of negotiations--with the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia--is expected to resume this fall. "Iran will be more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules." Rouhani said in his first press conference after the election. The International Atomic Energy Agency--the U.N. nuclear watchdog--particularly wants access to facilities and scientists so far off-limits to the outside world. The looming question is also whether the regime will finally agree to direct talks with the United States to expedite resolution.
"Relations between Iran and the United States are a complicated and difficult issue. It's nothing easy," Rouhani said at his first press conference. "This is a very old wound that is there, and we need to think about how to heal this injury. We don't want to see more tension. Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things."
Rouhani knows the nuclear program intimately. He also knows that a deal that lessens or eliminates sanctions would in turn be the key to reversing Iran's rapid economic decline. "It is very good for [nuclear] centrifuges to spin," he said in the final debate on foreign policy. "But it's also good for the lives of people to spin." For all his realism, however, Iran's new president remains committed to the unique ideology of the world's only modern theocracy. He also opposed terms of a deal offered in 2009.
The central challenge for Rouhani is that he will not have the last word on virtually anything. In Iran's hybrid political system, a cleric is the ultimate executive. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has virtual veto power, sometimes in subtle ways, over everything from cabinet appointments to political agendas and foreign policy. The last three presidents ended up alienating the supreme leader--and losing influence for themselves and their political factions.
Tehran also has rival power centers. To win support for his initiatives, Rouhani will need to be a master wrangler to keep Iran's herd of bull-headed politicians in the same corral. He will have to navigate a balance between hardline principlists (so called for their rigid revolutionary principles) at one end of the spectrum and reform sentiments at the other, with many political shades between the two poles. For all their differences, Iranian and American politics actually have something in common--intense government rivalries that produce gridlock.
After the election, Rouhani told a packed press conference that his government would include "moderates, principlists and reformists. There will be no restrictions. I don't like the word coalition, it will go beyond factions and be based on meritocracy."
But blocks have already formed to hold Rouhani in check. Iran's unicameral parliament -- the Majlis -- is dominated by conservatives and hardliners, while Rouhani is a centrist. In a recent letter, 80 principlist members of parliament warned against naming "seditionists," a reference to reformers. Their six-point demands included absolute commitment by any appointee to revolutionary principles in domestic and foreign policies and total obedience to the supreme leader.
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards also wield enormous political influence. Under Ahmadinejad, veterans from the 1980-88 war with Iraq strengthened their hold on top government jobs, both nationally and in the provinces. The Revolutionary Guards also are a dominant economic force, holding billions of dollars in government contracts having little or nothing to do with the military. They are not shy when it comes to getting their way.
So the honeymoon may be brief for Rouhani. Like his Western counterparts, he probably has 18 months to two years to produce something tangible before risking the leverage gained by his surprising first-round victory. Then he will have to begin thinking about the next election cycle.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What the World Will Learn in Iran's Election

Foreign Policy 
June 6, 2013
By Robin Wright
The field of candidates may be limited, but the outside world can still learn a lot from Iran’s 2013 presidential poll. The election will provide three pivotal metrics about the Islamic republic now that the Ahmadinejad era is ending. 
First, the (real) turnout at the polls will indicate how many Iranians still have an interest in the world’s only modern theocracy. The government is quite obsessed with the number of people who vote to prove it still has a public mandate. Voting has become almost an existential issue for the ruling clerics.
"A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system and our electoral process," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a public appeal on June 4. He charged that the outside world was plotting to ensure a low turnout. Leaders clearly hope at least 60 percent of the estimated 50 million voters will turn out.
Second, reaction to the results will signal whether the public deems the election process itself legitimate. It’s no small issue. Many Iranians believed the 2009 presidential poll was fraught with fraud—and that Ahmadinejad was not really reelected. The reaction sparked the greatest challenge to the Iranian regime since the 1979 revolution. It gave birth to a new opposition movement.
Over the next eight months, millions turned out in cities across Iran to challenge the results—and to demand “Where is my vote?” The regime had to use brutal force, arrest thousands, and hold Stalinesque trials to quash the new Green Movement opposition.
In 2013, the regime has already witnessed signs of discontent even before the vote. On June 4, thousands reportedly turned the funeral for Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri into an anti-government demonstration in Isfahan. Taheri had been the Friday Prayer Leader in Isfahan. He had earlier criticized the regime for corruption, eventually resigning from the post. He also called the 2009 election “invalid.”
At his funeral, supporters chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to the supreme leader and a rallying cry from 2009. Others shouted “Free Mousavi and Karroubi,” the two reformist presidential candidates in 2009 and co-leaders of the Green Movement. They have been under house arrest for more than two years.
Again, the regime has publicly conceded its concern about the day-after-the-vote. On June 4, the supreme leader charged that unnamed foreign powers were plotting to foment “sedition” after the poll.
Third, the new president—if the election is credible—may indicate who is capturing the public imagination. Iranians surprised the outside world—and themselves—in electing dark horses in both 1997 and 2005. The regime favorites were trounced in both polls.
In a stunning upset, the 1997 election brought to power Mohammad Khatami, a purged former culture minister who was director of the national library. The vote marked the beginning of the reform era.
In 2005, the final runoff was defined as a battle between “the turban and the hat” – or a cleric against a layman. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, ran against little- known Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For the first time since the revolution’s early days, a cleric did not win. The vote was widely interpreted as public rejection of the clerical monopoly of power—more than as overwhelming support for Ahmadinejad, an engineer and specialist in traffic management.
            Because of past controversies and regime paranoia, the list of candidates in 2013 offers little variety—arguably less than in any election since the revolution. Even former President Rafsanjani was disqualified from running—along with more than 670 others candidates. Two of the 2009 presidential candidates—a former prime minister and a former speaker of parliament—are still under house arrest.
But the eight candidates, all ardent supporters of the revolution and Islamic rule, don’t have cookie cutter views. The televised debates have even had flashes of disagreements over the economy, censorship, academic freedom, and women’s rights.
The election will also be telling about the key to Iran’s future–its disproportionately large young population. Because the Islamic regime aggressively encouraged larger families in the 1980s, its population almost doubled from 34 million to 62 million in a decade. Today, about two-thirds of Iran’s 75 million people are under age 35. Even more striking, about half of voters are reportedly under 35.
 The young also face the widest array of challenges in Iranian society, from inadequate access to higher education and serious housing shortages to increasing unemployment or underemployment. All three are pivotal to independence and marriage. Frustrations among the young have been reflected in several growing social problems, from narcotics to prostitution.
The big issue for the regime, however, is the level of political engagement. Half of Iran’s electorate was born after the revolution. They have no memory of the monarchy—or the factors that inflamed passions behind the revolution. Since youth played a huge part in the 2009 protests, their interest in voting, their choices at the polls, and their reaction to the results could also be disproportionately important—and potentially decisive.
  In the end, Iran’s president may not have real executive power. Khamenei—ironically himself a former president—still dominates the policy process. Iran’s supreme leader has a virtual veto over almost everything.
Yet the president does matter in Iran. His administration strongly influences the tone of politics, the economy and the cultural atmospherics—as well as many appointments.
Khatami allowed the flowering of an independent press, fewer restrictions on women, and wider cultural expression in the arts. He talked about bringing down the “wall of distrust” with the outside world and introduced the idea of a dialogue among civilizations at the United Nations. He also brought many other reformers with their own ideas about ways to open up Iran into top jobs.
In contrast, Ahmadinejad brought into power many from his days in the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. His closest aide was an in-law through the marriage of their children. Both men framed policy considerations in terms of the return of the missing 12th imam, whom many Shiites believe went into “occultation” or hiding in 941 AD and whose reemergence would bring peace and justice to the world.
So this vote will count. Despite the huge array of restrictions on the election, Iranians will be able to signal a lot about what they’re thinking at a particularly important juncture in Tehran’s relations with the outside world.