Tehran/Brussels, 4 August 2005: Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad's presidency may aggravate tensions between Iran and the West, and the U.S. in particular. But it would be unwise to act upon hasty conclusions about the new leader.
On the eve of Ahmadi-Nejad's formal inauguration on 6 August, the International Crisis Group's new briefing, Iran: What Does Ahmadi-Nejad's Victory Mean?*, examines what his presidency will bring to the country and outlines the challenges for the international community. Despite talk of dramatic change, bottom line positions on Iran's nuclear program, Iraq policy and other regional interests almost certainly will not vary.
"Based on his rhetoric, past performance, and the company he keeps, Ahmadi-Nejad appears a throwback to the early, more radical days of the Islamic revolution", says Karim Sadjadpour, Crisis Group's Iran Analyst. "But major foreign policy decisions are not made by the president. The country is governed by complex institutions and competing power centres that favour continuity over change".
The new president, who gained his surprise victory by stressing populist economic measures and with the support of conservative elements in the political establishment, appears indifferent at best to improved relations with the U.S. His success strengthened those in the Bush administration who hold that nothing good can come from engagement. But although both sides may take short-term comfort from continued estrangement, the posture is unsustainable. On at least two burning issues -- Iraq and the nuclear question -- the U.S. and Iran must deal with each other, collide or both.
Ahmadi-Nejad's election may diminish whatever slim appetite existed in Washington for engaging, but with the situation in Iraq as bad as it is and the government in Baghdad increasingly reaching out to Tehran, the necessity of direct or indirect coordination will only become greater.
Likewise, even if EU/Iranian nuclear talks break down, Washington (and Europe) will face difficult choices and the need to recalibrate policy. Simply put, the absence of U.S. engagement would make chances for a real nuclear resolution -- remote as they may be -- nil.
"Both hopes and fears of major change from Ahmadi-Nejad's presidency are misguided", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director. "The truth is none of Iran's fundamentals have changed. The regime is not about to collapse. It holds pivotal cards on at least two issues of vital interest to Washington and the wider international community. And any chance there is of modifying Iran's behaviour will come, if at all, by discussing its security concerns".
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