Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Clerics Seen Tightening Grip on Post-Election Iran


When he takes office later this summer, Iran's new president will have numerous thorny issues to deal with. During his election campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged to improve the economy and provide more for Iran's poor. On foreign policy issues, he was cautious, but he did say the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear programs will begin again soon. The question of Iran's relationship with the United States is always pressing. NPR's Mike Shuster has a report.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

For more than a year, Iran has been negotiating with Great Britain, Germany and France over its controversial nuclear activities. During this time, Iran suspended uranium enrichment, but some government officials as well as many conservative members of parliament say Iran will restart the enrichment of uranium regardless of the negotiations. The Europeans, with the backing of the Bush administration, insist that is not acceptable. So right now the negotiations are at a critical stage. Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, says the election of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will only make Iran more inflexible on acquiring nuclear technology.

Mr. ABBAS MILANI (Stanford University): They have made so many gung-ho declarations about not negotiating, about not giving up the full right to full fuel cycle, that I think it's going to be very, very difficult for them politically to now backtrack. And Ahmadinejad has again repeated, at least two or three times since he won, one's right to a full cycle is non-negotiable.

SHUSTER: But there is another school of thought that sees a way out of the nuclear impasse. According to this view, reformers like outgoing President Mohammad Khatami wanted to compromise on the nuclear issue, but conservatives and Iranian nationalists wouldn't accept it from them. They may accept compromise from a more conservative government, argues Graham Fuller, a former top Middle East analyst with the CIA.

Mr. GRAHAM FULLER (Former Middle East Analyst, CIA): They could sell it to the public if it was perceived to be coming from a strong nationalist leader, as Ahmadinejad probably will appear, and if it's explained as being in the national interest, and particularly if it's explained that we have, in effect, prevailed over Washington's attempt to stop us from having any nuclear power capability.

SHUSTER: But many analysts in the US do not see Ahmadinejad emerging as a strong figure, despite his elevation to the presidency. Mark Gasiorowski, an Iran scholar at Louisiana State University, believes the big winner is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader.

Mr. MARK GASIOROWSKI (Louisiana State University): Who is now all-powerful, now has no opponents, and he will control things. The presidency is not a strong institution in Iran, so I don't really think that Ahmadinejad will that much be in the driver's seat. I think it will be mainly Khamenei.

SHUSTER: Last year Khamenei engineered the expulsion of a majority of reformers from the parliament. Now many believe he has worked to ensure the election of a conservative president. He already controls the judiciary, the military and the militias. Some scholars believe Khamenei has become much more of a pragmatist, aware of the practical benefits of improving relations with the US and of making compromises when necessary. Khamenei, in Gasiorowski's view, will make the big decisions on these issues, not Ahmadinejad.

Mr. GASIOROWSKI: I don't think that Iran's foreign policy necessarily changes very much under Ahmadinejad. He's not going to be very involved in foreign policy. That's really something that Khamenei is going to keep very closely in his own portfolio, and I think Khamenei, although he's very reluctant and suspicious, in the end probably is going to make a deal on the nuclear issue and other matters.

SHUSTER: Still, in order to manage any improvement in relations with the US, Iranian leaders will need a willing partner in Washington. Graham Fuller doesn't believe they will get it.

Mr. FULLER: I frankly wouldn't hold my breath, because I think Washington at this point has no desire to really reach a rapprochement with Iran, even though I think it very much is in our interest to do so. And at the same time, Iran is not going to rush into it and is probably going to drive a hard bargain.

SHUSTER: On domestic issues, especially on the economy, many American experts are skeptical that Ahmadinejad's populism, his belief in economic subsidies and the expanded welfare state are going to bring Iran out of economic stagnation. What Iran needs is foreign investment and a loosening of state controls, says Mark Gasiorowski.

Mr. GASIOROWSKI: The economic policies that will result from this election will be things that will sort of prime the pump in the short term. They'll probably create inflation and they won't make the economy more efficient and will not help the economy in the long term. In fact, I think that they'll probably hurt the economy in the long term.

SHUSTER: This election, analysts say, has left Iran split almost right down the middle between those who want to see more political economic and social reforms and those who resist what they see as the erosion of Islamic social values. Abbas Milani believes the election of Ahmadinejad, which he says was rigged, may give an unexpected boost to the reform movement.

Mr. MILANI: I would be very surprised if, in the next few weeks, we don't see some tension, increasing tension within Iran, within the ruling elite, between the clergy about the results of the election, about the tactics that were used.

SHUSTER: Conservative leaders, some experts say, may find it more difficult to navigate Iran's complex political landscape than the results of this election suggest. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.