Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is among the world leaders scheduled to speak today at a United Nations summit on global goals to fight poverty, hunger, and disease. Ahmadinejad, whose controversial re-election set off weeks of protests in Iran in June 2009, “is on a public relations offensive this week in New York, addressing the session on tackling world poverty, giving interviews and speaking Thursday in the assembly’s general debate.” On Sunday, Ahmadinejad told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that after he helped free American hiker Sarah Shourd, President Obama should reciprocate by releasing Iranians held by the U.S. for sanctions violations, though “U.S. officials have said those cases have nothing to do with each other.” Ahmadinejad will likely try to use his visit to the United Nations as an opportunity to increase his domestic support, as he has recently come under increased criticism by other Iranian conservatives for his handling of the economy and flamboyant statements. The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, also blasted Ahmadinejad “for criticizing a court verdict against the former head of state news agency IRNA” for his statements about pro-reform Green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Protesters are planning demonstrations today against Ahmadinejad, and “the New York City Police Department has ramped up security for the assembly.”
MULTI-TRACK EFFORT: Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York comes as the Islamic Republic is coming under increased sanctions pressure. The initial phase of President Obama’s Iran policy involved an effort to step back from the Bush administration’s belligerent stance, and to demonstrate a good faith willingness to negotiate with Iran. After talks last year over Iran’s program failed to achieve sufficient progress after Iran was unable to respond in time to a proposed nuclear fuel swap, the administration turned to the pressure track, primarily through the use of financial sanctions. Speaking yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said, “It is not just my prediction that this strategy can have significant impact; it has already begun to do so. The financial measures the U.S. and others are implementing are imposing serious costs and constraints on Iran.” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Monday that, “The door is open to them having a better relationship with the United States and with the international community,” but “Iran is going to have to demonstrate its commitment to show its peaceful intent around its nuclear program.” Rhodes also said that “the cost that Iran is facing has been greater than it was expecting with regard to sanctions.”
TENSIONS IN REGIME: Recent statements by Iranian power-broker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani seem to confirm Levey’s and Rhodes’ comments. Speaking last week before the Assembly of Experts, Iran’s most senior clerical body, Rafsanjani said “you should be vigilant and careful. … Do not downplay the sanctions.” Rafsanjani added, “We have never had such intensified sanctions and they are getting more and more intensified every day. Wherever we find a loophole, they [Western powers] block it.” Reuters also reported that “divisions within the ruling elite have become increasingly evident in recent months as opposition protests over Ahmadinejad’s re-election in June 2009 have died down.” The increased international pressure may also be having an effect on Iranian public support for the nuclear program, long seen as a consensus issue among Iranians. Leila Chamankah, a professor at Azad University in Tehran, wrote that “many Iranians are dubious now about the country’s nuclear program” because of the perceived international costs. “At the popular level,” wrote Chamankah, “a separate motivation has taken shape: pride in the technical prowess embodied in the program, but opposition to Iran becoming a nuclear power and all that it would mean for its relationship with the West.”
POLICY OPTIONS: While sanctions are clearly having an effect on the Iranian regime, the question remains what those effects, and the current tensions within the Iranian government, mean for U.S. policy. Surveying the tensions, former State Department Iran adviser Ray Takeyh is skeptical that the current measure will lead to a positive outcome in the near term, writing, “For the near future, Iran’s international relations will be conditioned by the vagaries of the complex relationship between [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which means its policies are likely to be characterized by contradiction and inconsistency.” Unless there is a more creative approach to Iran policy, George Washington University’s Marc Lynch predicts “a relentless slide towards a replay of the Iraq saga of the 1990′s: a steady ratcheting-up of sanctions, which increasingly impact the Iranian people but fail to compel change in the regime’s political behavior; episodic and frequent diplomatic crises which consume the world’s diplomatic attention and resources; the growing militarization and polarization of the Gulf; ongoing uncertainty about Iranian intentions and capabilities.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stressed that “the goal [of sanctions] was to stop the Islamic regime without harming innocent civilians.” A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that “Americans are at present reluctant to resort to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, preferring economic sanctions and diplomacy.” Indicating agreement with the administration’s position on Iran’s nuclear rights and responsibilities, a majority of 52 percent also said that if Iran were to allow U.N. inspectors “permanent and full access throughout Iran to make sure it is not developing nuclear weapons,” then it “should be allowed to produce nuclear fuel for producing electricity.