Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Elephants in the Room

By Stephen McGlinchey

The Iranian President is a rare gift to journalists and analysts of foreign policy. He talks, a lot. Often candidly, in a way that few politicians at his level do; at least in the ultra-polished and spun Western world. In a true to form display of such candour, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted in late 2009 that America under President Barack Obama had not changed from the America of George W. Bush in its foreign policy application in the Middle East. 

Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay despite promising to do so, has not altered American refusal to countenance a truly independent Iranian “civilian” nuclear programme, and he has not changed course in Afghanistan nor in Iraq. Similarly, unconditional support for Israel – the frequent demon in Iranian domestic discourse regarding America, has been retained, albeit with a slightly less enthusiastic demeanour than in previous administrations. Such statements are of course true, despite their unpopular source. 

Despite the friendly appearance and conciliatory rhetoric of the Obama administration, characterized by Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize- when the award was cheerfully given to Obama pretty much because he was not George W. Bush, and its refusal to use the term “War on Terror”, do not detract from the reality that, in regards to foreign policy towards the Middle East, nothing of substance has indeed changed. The fact that arguably the world’s most notorious ‘elected’ statesman has pointed towards this elephant in the room does not mean that it should be ignored.

The wider context of these statements by Ahmadinejad was the news that Iran had yet again stalled on signing a nuclear compromise deal. The quest to find a mutually acceptable way for the international community, most vocally America, to tolerate the reality of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) having a nuclear programme dates back to 2003 when the EU-3 (Britain, Germany and France) collectively pursued a diplomatic solution to the issue. Faced with American insistence that the IRI was not to be trusted with enriching uranium due to the possibility that this could be used to build nuclear weapons, coupled with the then prevailing climate internationally considering the Bush Doctrine and invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were genuine concerns that a major regional incident would unfold, including a possible preventative attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by either Israel, America or both in tandem.

Obama’s highly publicised promise to “reach out a hand” to the IRI, brought America into direct involvement in the successor P-5+1 negotiations, which was a landmark in itself, considering that there have been no direct official negotiations between America and Iran for almost 30 years: perhaps one notable change in American foreign policy that Ahmadinejad had omitted.

Despite this, no deal with any realistic chance of long-term success looks likely to be made. Why? The international order, as we have come to know it, and the IRI are incompatible. This is the inescapable fact of international politics that no sugar coating can mask. The IRI will continue to enrich uranium, and continue to generally do what it likes in spite of international diplomatic rambling – much as it has done since 1979. America may have not changed much recently, as Ahmadinejad laments; but then again, neither has the IRI.

The IRI owes its existence to its identity as a reaction to the Western way of life and of doing business. To come to a reconciliation with the international community, spearheaded by the American insistence that Iran must not ever have full mastery of the nuclear cycle, is, in essence, a dismantling of the foundations and the pride of the regime. The possibility of moderation and/or reform of the IRI died a decisive death when Ahmadinejad controversially retained his Presidency in 2009, and was reinforced further when Iranian figureheads feverishly proclaimed (in a characteristic display of Orwellian reasoning) that the revolutions of North Africa throughout recent months were somehow a demonstration of the validity of the Iranian revolution.

At a time when Iran is internally politically volatile – particularly after the contested Iranian elections of 2009, and the recent domestic unrest that has shaken the regime in response to the Arab Spring – it would be political suicide for the regime to accept a “deal” over an issue with as much primacy as its nuclear program; in essence, bargaining over one of its remaining areas of strength. Hence, the recent course of domestic Iranian politics has determined the course of Iranian foreign affairs – and no statesmanship is likely to alter this, no matter how skilled.

For now, the regime most certainly has enough momentum to survive at least in the near term, having instilled a level of repression and fear in the populace that shows no signs of breaking in a critical sense, even as the Arab Spring moves beyond the Arab world into Bahrain and Syria. The Western negotiators should therefore stop attempting to negotiate with the Iran they would like to see and accept reality. This may mean that future nuclear negotiations may have to be significantly altered, perhaps abandoned, and the international community may have to accept that they cannot control or influence the IRI directly now that it has chosen its path. All attempts to do so will only provoke more animosity from the IRI and embolden it further. By all accounts, the extremely ill-considered idea to attack Iran is now “off the table” in Washington – and by default therefore off the table in Israel, despite their desire to intervene; therefore there is no other realistic choice going forward.

More controversially, Iran’s regional neighbour, Israel, has a large clandestine nuclear weapons programme, having in the region of one to two hundred warheads at its disposal, which it refuses to officially admit to, or open up to international inspection. This is the second elephant in the room. Iran is quite rightly pointing out the international hypocrisy. There is, for better or worse, a blatant double standard in effect here and the IRI is quite willing and able to play this card effectively. That double standard exists because, despite all other factors and possible compromises yet to come, the IRI will never be trusted by America or many of its international counterparts.

For any progress to be made, either 1) the IRI must simply cease to exist in its current format, or 2) the international community, principally America in this case, must fundamentally change its stance on the IRI and allow it to assert itself in spite of Israel – including allowing Iran to develop its civilian nuclear program as it sees fit unless there is clear and incontrovertible evidence of a clandestine weapons program. All available signals from both Washington and Israel have demonstrated a consistent unwillingness to accept either of the aforementioned solutions. Therefore, deadlock has characterised Iran’s role in international relations since 1979, and deadlock will almost certainly continue to characterise it in the near future as long as Iran remains the IRI. Hence, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Stephen McGlinchey is a PhD candidate and associate lecturer at Cardiff University. His research interests focus around American foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East and Iran.


This piece was originally published on e-IR, an online resource for students of international relations.


15 June 2011


Related Article:

Arthur Hayes, Ahmadinejad’s Power Grows as New Cold War Chills the Persian Gulf