In Iran, a new challenge to hard-liners

October 20, 2011

A rapid succession of challenges directed at Iran in recent days has reignited a debate in Tehran over how to deal with the rest of the world.

Iran’s rulers, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continue to refuse any negotiations in which they would have to compromise. But an influential faction is now pushing for back-channel talks with the United States as a step toward lowering the tensions raised by U.S. allegations about an Iranian assassination plot.

In urging that Iran do more to address foreign criticism, members of the group have also pointed to the rising international pressure over the Islamic republic’s controversial nuclear program and to a new, highly critical United Nations report on human rights violations in the country.

The U.S. charges that Iran masterminded a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington have been broadly rejected here. But the opposition faction, which was forced out of the government in 2009, says the uncompromising policies adopted by Iran’s hard-line leaders have left the country with little room to maneuver.

Among the former politicians and activists who have spoken out on the subject in recent days is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who called Monday for more “tact and management” in Iran’s handling of controversial international issues.

A pragmatic politician once regarded as the most powerful man in Iran, Rafsanjani was pushed out of an inner circle of leaders by supporters of Khamenei in a unprecedented purge after anti-government protests that challenged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election victory. Rafsanjani, who enjoyed close relations with the Saudi royal family, is an unofficial leader of a faction that had pushed for more personal freedoms for Iranians and better relations with other countries.

In his new effort, Rafsanjani has been joined by several other former powerful politicians and influential analysts, who in recent days have called on Khamenei to take a more hands-on role that could include secret talks with the United States or a charm offensive aimed at Saudi Arabia.

“Khamenei should increase his presence, find solutions and open the way for backroom diplomacy,” said Reza Kaviani, a leading analyst who is critical of Ahmadinejad’s government. “Iran can only show flexibility in secret talks, not in the public talks that the West wants.”

Iran’s foreign policy has always been a stage for competing leaders to fight out their domestic rivalries. While the events of 2009 left the country with fewer players, there are plenty of foreign policy disagreements within the shrinking group of leaders that remains.

On Monday morning, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran would investigate the U.S. plot claims, only to be corrected that evening by Ahmadinejad, who told al-Jazeera that there was no need for such an investigation.

“The circumstances are not right, but only talking directly to the U.S., with one voice, will solve these problems,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political editor at the Farightegan newspaper, which is critical of the government. “For starters — if I was in charge — I would immediately dispatch Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad and [former president Mohammad] Khatami together to Riyadh to try to mend relations.”

While the alleged plot is the most pressing of Iran’s international issues, the damning report Monday by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Iran added to the pressure. Iran’s parliament said Wednesday that it would “sue” Ahmed Shaheed, chief author of the report, calling his findings of “cruel” human rights abuses “politically motivated lies.”

The Obama administration said Saturday that it would use a November report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear program to press for an escalation of sanctions against the country.

Those critical of Iran’s leaders say the hard-liners’ rigid opposition to any kind of compromise is a serious obstacle to solving any outstanding issues. But they do not expect Iran’s top leaders to give in.

“They cannot compromise on one issue, because the West has so many issues,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a former newspaper editor who was recently released after three years in prison for political activities. “Their only option is to call all Western pressure conspiracies and wait for the problems to pass.”

An experienced political operator who has led the Islamic republic since 1989, Khamenei has been the main advocate of Iran’s no-compromise policy. “The way to success is not to retreat from the enemy, not even one step,” he said Saturday in reaction to the bomb plot allegations.

But he also often lauds the insight and pragmatism of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1988 ended the war with Iraq, under immense U.S. pressure.

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