Iran shifts gears in the Middle Eastern upheaval

The Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei obviously decided well in advance of the impending conclusion of the rule of President Ahmadinejad’s period of two four-year terms, that a change of strategy was needed by Iran in the context of rapidly changing international and regional circumstances which were having their own effect on his country.

In place therefore of Ahmadinejad, increasingly seen both abroad and at home as somewhat erratic in his radicalism, the Ayatollah manoeuvred a refusal of the then President’s desire for a third term, that has brought into presidential office Hassan Rouhani. The new President is a natural scientist with a record of apparent moderation in Iranian terms, and with a history of engaging the Western powers on the critical issue of Iran’s perceived desire to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Ahmadinejad’s Achilles heel turned out to be his inability to pursue what was perceived by the Western powers as an unacceptable nuclear proliferation policy while simultaneously safeguarding the integrity of the Iranian economy. Specifically, this meant that the sanctions imposed by the West were having a serious negative effect on the country’s economy, touching all classes of the population to the extent that inflation and shortages had become rampant.

The elections show, of course, that while a process of substantially free voting exists in Iran, the pre-election process of selection of those eligible to enter as candidates, dominated by the Ayatollah and accepted as such by the population and all probable contestants, has a limiting effect on the outcome of the eventual election itself. But in Iran as presently constituted, this methodology is accepted by all of those who deem themselves eligible to seek the highest formally accessible office of President.

Comment in the Western press has placed much emphasis on the success of Western sanctions in what appears to be a return to a degree of moderation in the management of the Iranian polity. Yet there seems little doubt as well, that the general volatility of current global relations, particularly as this volatility is playing out in the Middle East and surrounding areas, has made all major actors – Western and those in the Muslim world – pause and think of the extent to which any of these actors can have a dominating effect on the contemporary contentious issues that have emerged in the Middle East and the Muslim world, over the years.

It has been apparent, to take the Western world first, that the entry of President Barack Obama into office on a record of promising to withdraw American troops from Iraq, has reinforced American determination to tread more carefully in this part of the world. There is now the spectacle of continuous ruinous murder in Iraq under the rule of the Shia leadership there, which was awarded office after the removal of the Sunni Saddam Hussein. And the Americans well know that that Iraqi leadership has a relationship with the Shia-majority Iranians that influences the Iraqi stance on regional issues, and therefore on the current civil war in Syria.

The apparent determination of the rebel antagonists in Syria, has really limited American and Western perspectives of what the outcome of that conflict might mean.  And the American perception of that struggle is obviously being influenced by the outcomes of the de facto Western intervention in Libya, one of which, as demonstrated by murder of the American ambassador, does not necessarily seem to presage the eventual emergence of a pro-Western regime there.

But no sooner has the complexity of the civil war in Syria seemed to influence the extent of  the Americans’ flexibility there, than events in Egypt, from the era of Anwar Sadat a substantial ally of the United States in Middle Eastern affairs, are appearing to have resulted in a coming struggle for power between the recently subordinated Muslim Brotherhood, of Sunni  religious persuasion, and a de facto return to the now traditional situation of American support for the dominance of the military in Egypt.

The Americans probably suspect that another period of long-term rule by the military in Egypt is untenable, and they know too that the ground of their long-time NATO ally Turkey, led by an essentially Sunni party, hostile to military manoeuvring in domestic politics, is shifting. But the American-trained and supported military leadership in Egypt itself is obviously refusing to take counsel from the US to, in effect, go easy on the extent of its suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, essentially of Sunni  orientation but prone to take the position that Islamism must be an inclusive doctrine and organization. In that context, the Brotherhood have had on-again, off-again relations with the Ayatollah and the Shiites of Iran.

The election of Hassan Rouhani, and an inclination on his part to revert from what he will have considered the unstable diplomacy of Ahmadinejad, will pose for the Iranians certain priorities. Among these are likely to be a reversion to what the Americans considered the more flexible approach by the new president in his earlier days as chief negotiatior for the Iranians, as they seek at least a temporary relief from the pressure of the sanctions currently imposed on them.

On the other hand, the Americans will simultaneously be interested to see the extent to which the Rouhani  government will seek to continue to influence the unstable situation in Iraq by biasing their support to the current Shiite leadership there, deemed to have gone overboard in seeking to maintain their current political influence in the country.

Yet, it might not be surprising whether, given the extent of upheaval in the Middle Eastern environment, President Rouhani  will be inclined to bear in mind the substantial reason for his election. This was the feeling of increasing economic constriction and pressure felt by the Iranian population as the sanctions have bitten.  In that regard, Rouhani’s predominant engagement will likely be finding a way, through continuing negotiation, to get the Americans to hold their hands in relation to the sanctions.

How that objective influences how the Iranians will assess the types and extent of concessions  that they need to make to the US and the NATO powers, not only on the nuclear weapons issue, but on the course of developments in Iraq for example, which the Americans are keen to keep under wraps, is left to be seen.

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