Waiting for Mussavi! This is the name of a new diplomatic game much in fashion in Washington these days. Home to a veritable industry of political speculation, the American capital has been working overtime to make President Barack Obama’s confused foreign policy statements look coherent if not actually meaningful.
One way of doing this is to assume that the next presidential election in Iran on 12 June would see the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s quest for total victory over an American adversary judged to be in retreat. Ahmadinejad is described as delusional even though he has the Americans exactly where he wanted them: standing at the gate, demanding to talk to the Islamic Republic.
Obama apologists claim that the new US president would rather wait and do business with someone other than Ahmadinejad because of his denial of the Holocaust and repeated promises of creating a “world without America”.
The real reason, however, may not be Ahmadinejad’s verbal excesses, despicable though they are. The reason Obama may prefer to deal with someone else is that he fears that, in future negotiations, Ahmadinejad might demand total surrender, leaving no wiggle room.
The man Washington hopes would defeat Ahmadinejad is Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, a former Prime Minister and now presidential candidate for the so-called “reformist camp” in Iran.
Mussavi has also received favourable comments in some European capitals, notably London, Paris and Berlin, while many Arab capitals have indicated they would feel more comfortable with him in charge in Tehran.
American and European sources offer three reasons for their favourable opinion of Mussavi.
The first, and most obvious, is that he is not Ahmadinejad. Mussavi’s election would amount to a dramatic rejection of the Islamic Republic’s policies and behaviour in the past four years. By showing Ahmadinejad the door, the Khomeinist establishment would send a strong signal about its readiness to alter direction. Mussavi would be elected to do something different. Moreover, the Americans, the Europeans and the Arabs believe that anything would be better than what Ahmadinejad is doing.
The second reason is that Mussavi is a known quantity. As Khomeini’s foreign minister for two years and then prime minister for eight years, he developed a wide network of contacts in the US, Europe and the Arab countries. During the decades in which he served in high executive positions, Mussavi tried to mix a radical rhetoric with pragmatic action. He talked the revolutionary talks on all issues. However, when it came to walking the walk, as the saying goes, he knew when he had to be cautious.
The third reason is that, unlike Ahmadinejad, Mussavi has much experience with international negotiations. Ahmadinejad, who claims to be in contact with the “Hidden Imam,” does not understand the very culture of give-and-take, especially when dealing with “Crusader-Zionists” and their allies in the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad sees Iran as a vehicle for the Khomeinist revolution. Mussavi sees Iran as a nation-state that needs to absorb its revolutionary experience and move on.
Mussavi’s government conducted the lengthy Algiers talks that led to the release of the US hostages after 444 days of captivity in 1981. Behzad Nabavi, the man who led the Iranian side in the talks was Mussavi’s deputy and top advisor. If Mussavi wins, Nabavi is certain to return to a key position in the next Khomeinist administration.
Mussavi’s government negotiated an end to Iranian-inspired terrorist operations in France in the 1980s in exchange for a reduction in French support for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. Mussavi’s government also managed to solve the thorny issue of France’s $1 billion debt to Iran, contracted under the Shah.
Between 1984 and 1986, Mussavi also conducted secret negotiations with the Reagan administration. The coordinator was Abbas Kangarloo, one of Mussavi’s key advisors and a friend who developed a network of contacts in intelligence and diplomatic circles in Europe and the United States.
While there is much that might look positive about Mussavi, it would be wrong to pin high hopes on him, at least as far as his ability to transform Iran from a cause into a nation-state is concerned.
To start with, there is no doubt that Ahmadinejad is currently the veritable representative of the Khomeinist constituency. People like Mussavi and former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani have long ceased to be regarded as genuine revolutionaries.
Judging by the kind of audiences that Mussavi has attracted during this campaign, his principal appeal is to urban middle classes who wish the Khomeinist revolution would just fade away.
Even if Mussavi wins against the overwhelming wishes of the Khomeinist base, he might find it hard, not to say impossible, to make the concessions that the US, the Europeans and the Arabs demand. He may even have to adopt a much tougher position to cover his flanks at home. The Khomeinist base would regard any softening of the position led by someone like Mussavi vis-à-vis the outside world as a betrayal of the revolution.
A similar softening of the position by Ahmadinejad, however, might be regarded by Khomeinists as a clever manoeuvre.
This is not surprising. Obama is able to continue many of his predecessor’s controversial policies without provoking a backlash from his anti-Bush base.
Paradoxically, negotiating wit Ahmadinejad might prove easier than with Mussavi, if only because the former has a genuine constituency while the latter does not.
Mussavi may assemble a coalition from disparate groups within the establishment and outside it to win. However, he would quickly find himself in the same position as Khatami – a man who wants to be in the middle but ends up being nowhere.
To dismiss Ahmadinejad as delusional is not good politics. He has adopted a radical, no compromise position because of his adversaries’ obvious weakness and confusion. Why should he not aim at total victory when he has seen his adversaries in retreat during the past four years?
As long as no one is prepared to stand up against an expansionist and hegemonic power that claims to represent the “Hidden Imam,” the Islamic Republic will have no reason to moderate its ambitions.