By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative son of a blacksmith, became Iran's president yesterday in the midst of the biggest confrontation with the West since the seizure of the U.S. Embassy a quarter of a century ago, this time over Tehran's long-term nuclear ambitions.
The Bush administration is increasingly concerned that Iran's conservatives, who now have an official monopoly on all branches of government, intend to steer Iran on a more radical course on three top issues for the United States and its allies -- support for Islamic extremist groups, intervention in Iraq, and the international talks aimed at ensuring Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, said U.S. officials.
A report issued yesterday by an international watchdog group warned that the consolidation by hard-liners, represented by Ahmadinejad's ascent to the presidency, marks a new challenge for the rest of the world. "Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the revolution's early days: more ideological, less pragmatic and anti-American," said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent, nongovernmental organization that works to prevent and resolve global conflict.
Ahmadinejad is likely to "aggravate tensions" with the United States because he is "dismissive" of the need to improve relations with Washington, the report said. "On the foreign front, the style likely will be more confrontational and less appealing to Western audiences."
After his dark-horse victory in June over better-known politicians, including a former president, Ahmadinejad said "relations with the United States are not a cure for our ills."
Over the next four years, oil-rich Iran is instead likely to deepen new economic and security partnerships with China, India and South Korea, which have growing energy needs, at the expense of long-standing European ties, predicted the ICG. As Tehran's mayor since 2003, Ahmadinejad has visited Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo but no European capitals.
Ahmadinejad is not the only reason to expect a tougher line from Iran, especially since his administration is expected to focus heavily at first on the domestic economic issues that were largely responsible for his surprise election, Iranian and U.S. analysts say.
"The election has solidified the conservative establishment and given them a deeper self-confidence and sense of legitimacy," said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The energy of self-confidence is likely to make them risk-prone rather than risk-averse. They believe they now have enough leverage to drive tougher bargains on many issues, particularly in nuclear talks."
Over the past eight years, during the two-term presidency of reformer Mohammad Khatami, the Iranian regime has been deeply divided by rival reformers and hard-liners. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the conservative supreme leader with veto power over all aspects of government, had the last word, but decisions were often consensual, involving disparate input, U.S. officials and Iranian analysts say. Now, they say, discussions might be limited to hard-line positions.
In a potentially ominous sign for nuclear negotiations with Europe, Iran's top negotiator indicated yesterday that he will be leaving the job, with others on his team expected to follow suit. National security adviser Hassan Rohani said he expects the new foreign minister or secretary of the Supreme National Security Council to take his post.
The United States and its Western allies expressed concern yesterday that Iran now appears intent on breaking its agreement to suspend the conversion of uranium, a step taken in a peaceful nuclear energy program but which can be redirected for developing a weapons capability.
Iran will resume the conversion process early next week, Rohani told state-controlled television in Tehran. That will be a violation of a temporary agreement reached last November. Iran had originally threatened to restart the disputed fuel cycle yesterday. The U.N. nuclear watchdog appealed to Tehran not to break the seals until it can set up a monitoring system.
Senior U.S. policymakers "now believe this is going to end up at the United Nations," said a State Department official familiar with Iran policy. While they have long believed Iran's nuclear capability would have to be taken to the U.N. Security Council -- which can impose sanctions on Iran -- the turn of events has happened "sooner than a lot of people expected," he said.
In his first speech yesterday, Ahmadinejad called on the world's major powers to give up their deadliest weapons as well. "Global threats, including weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons that are in the hands of dominant powers, should be dismantled," he said.
Despite the bleak assessments, the ICG report and analysts say Iran and the United States still have common interests, such as Iraq's stability and an end to narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan. Estrangement is "unsustainable," the ICG report said. On Iraq and the nuclear issue, Washington and Tehran must "engage, collide or both," it said.
Added Shaul Bakhash, an Iran specialist at George Mason University: "Once he is in office and has been briefed on the realities of Iran's international situation, Ahmadinejad will have to moderate some of his views. But there's still going to be a change in town."
Ahmadinejad was formally acknowledged yesterday as the new president by Iran's supreme leader, the first step in assuming power. The new president is to be sworn in by the parliament on Saturday.