As a new round of nuclear talks looms, is the mood in Tehran, Iran’s capital, becoming less hostile?In the summer of 2009, after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Green Movement of disaffected voters threatened Iran’s Islamic Republic with revolution. But the regime and its myrmidons managed eventually to crush the sedition, in marked contrast to several neighbouring Arab dictatorships that were skittled by the upheavals of 2011. Iran has since been the object of intense international sanctions, campaigns of murder and sabotage, and threats of war, all on account of its secretive nuclear plans. Yet last month it was amid expressions of mutual respect that Iran’s nuclear negotiator sat down with the representatives of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (known in diplomatic jargon as the P5+1).
One reason for the Islamic Republic’s durability against what many would regard as overwhelming odds is the dogged but subtle crisis management of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. Three summers ago, his thugs used every weapon in their armoury, including murder and rape, to squash the domestic opposition. The beginning of this year was marked by rhetorical belligerence against the West the kind of which had not been heard for two decades. Now, though, a softening may be under way.
In the country’s teeming capital, Tehran, the repression is a shade less overt. Members of the feared baseej militia have been withdrawn from street corners and foreign television satellite channels are jammed less frequently than before. A campaign of harassment against the families of Iranians who work for the BBC’s Persian station in London seems to have stopped.
To show that they no longer regard him as a threat, the authorities recently took Mehdi Karroubi, a detained opposition leader, for a joyride and a good lunch in the countryside. On state television, his name and that of a fellow dissident, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who many think truly defeated Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election, are mentioned with a new and disarming casualness. Human-rights abuses have become less widely directed, especially at dissident journalists, bloggers and activists, dozens of whom are behind bars.
“The supreme leader has done a masterful job of containment,” sighs a former Green. For many such people, compromise with the regime is an economic necessity; in one form or another, the state is by far the country’s biggest employer. One hothead who manned the barricades in 2009 now works docilely as a craftsman helping to build a huge new prayer hall in central Tehran: Mr Khamenei’s answer to the godless materialism of the West. Another former protester chafes that soon he will have to serve, as a conscript, the government he loathes. “What alternative do I have?” he asks forlornly.
The regime’s supporters hope that the worst of Iran’s international isolation is over. In Syria Bashar Assad’s continuing grip on power has reassured them that an important regional ally may not, after all, fall. Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who was recently in Tehran, is a pliant fellow Shia who once lived in Iran and gets on badly with Iran’s main regional competitors, the Saudis and Turks, both Sunni. The Iranians will probably try to contain a row that is simmering with the United Arab Emirates over some disputed islands (see next article).
Mr Khamenei’s grip on the home front is such that the Americans regard him, and not Mr Ahmadinejad’s government, as their real negotiating partner. Alarmed by months of sabre-rattling and a possibility that Israel will make good on long-standing hints that it intends to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, he and President Barack Obama had softened their tone before the talks begin.
In February Mr Khamenei declared that possessing nuclear weapons was a “grave sin”, a theological ruling that would be hard to disavow. For his part, Mr Obama has made it clear that he would countenance war only if Iran were building a nuclear weapon, which his intelligence chiefs do not now think is the case.
Still, a binding agreement is far off, as the next round of talks, starting in Baghdad on May 23rd, may show. Any deal would need to constrain Iran’s uranium enrichment and subject it to enhanced verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, all the while helping to advance those bits of the programme that are demonstrably non-military in character. Distrust between the two sides is so deep that Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Iran, expects a drawn-out process lasting well beyond November’s American presidential election. In the meantime, he predicts, “tensions in the Gulf will…subside.”
But that does not presage victory for Mr Khamenei. His skill at deflecting crises does not conceal his inability to prevent them from blowing up in the first place. The Islamic Republic is enfeebled by corruption, inefficiency and the institutionalised disdain of those in authority for the people they rule. All of these ills have been fostered by Mr Khamenei’s dictatorial approach. In the Iranian body politic, the supreme leader is both virus and vaccine.
The latest crisis is socioeconomic. Sanctions and the government’s populist profligacy have led to rampant inflation (running far higher than the advertised 22%) and a wildly oscillating exchange rate which saw the rial fall by more than 50% against the dollar before a recent mini-rally caused by optimism that a nuclear agreement might be in sight. The uncertainty has prompted a flight from production and into traditional refuges such as gold, property and even carpets. Sanctions and rising energy prices have cost many jobs. According to the central bank, 22% of families are in effect without a breadwinner.
A little more than a year before the end of his second and final term, Mr Ahmadinejad’s love affair with poor, pious Iranians may be souring. A growing number seem to realise that, whatever the president gives them in handouts, inflation takes away. One former fan, a mother of three in the dormitory town of Karaj, west of Tehran, amuses her family by raining new and ever more imaginative curses on the president when he appears on television. The government, for its part, denounces a sinister nexus of political enemies and hoarders for causing “phoney” inflation, which for some basic foods is running at more than 50% a year.
The regime may even be encouraging moderate critics to launch a “loyal” opposition of the kind favoured by the shah. The trouble for the reformists who may take their place in its ranks, including a respected former interior minister, Abdullah Nuri, is that the debacle of 2009 alienated many Iranians from open politics altogether.
Nor does the supreme leader’s largesse extend to allowing a more plural society. Would-be students are denied university places on the grounds that they took part in the protests three years ago. Censorship is even tighter. The sight of police harassing women for pushing the limits of the dress code is again becoming common as the summer temperatures approach.
Iran’s leaders have so far prevented the devout poor from making common cause with the liberty-seeking middle class who dominated the Green Movement. The first reason for this is ideology. Unlike the sham philosophies of the defunct North African dictators, the Islamic Republic was founded on a bristly Islamism that even now commands millions of adherents, especially among the pious poor.
The second reason is the oil that has permitted Mr Ahmadinejad to shower cash on his supporters. In spite of chronic underinvestment and sharply decreased sales to the European Union, the industry remains profitable. Sanctions have helped keep prices high, and the Iranians know every trick in the sanctions-busting book, from discounted and barter sales to concealing buyers’ identities. According to Mr Ahmadinejad, a fund he set up last year to absorb surplus oil revenues is already worth $35 billion.
An implosion is thus unlikely. Hardly more convincing, however, is the regime’s talk of national “self-belief” burgeoning in proportion to the external threat. The reality for many Iranians is stress, a coarsening of courtesy and good manners and financial insecurity (and a sharp rise in bounced cheques). But that does not mean the regime is anywhere close to falling.
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