“America is the Great Satan, the wounded snake.”
– Ayatollah Khomeini, November 5, 1979
“States like [Iran, Iraq, North Korea] constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
– President George W Bush, January 29, 2002
Spoken two decades apart, these words sum up the troubled history of the relationship between Iran and the United States. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” His observation holds true about the manner in which Tehran and Washington remain preoccupied with each other. No significant event in Iran can go without repercussions for relations with the West. Almost 30 years after the overthrow of Iran’s autocratic ruler and America’s policeman in the oil-rich Gulf, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the legacy continues to haunt both countries.
The presidential election of June 2009 has been no exception. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent, was seeking reelection after four turbulent years. A range of internal and external peculiarities surrounded the campaign that was both exciting and unique. In a country of 72 million people, two-thirds are under 30 years of age and the rate of literacy exceeds 75 percent. Iran’s economy has suffered a steady decline. Oil revenues have failed to benefit the population. The downturn in the world economy has affected Iranian oil exports particularly hard and its balance of payments difficulties are acute due to low financial reserves.
Inflation was over 30 percent during the summer of 2008, when the Central Bank intervened to limit lending to prevent the resulting expansion of the money supply. In 2009, inflation has come down but has still been around 24 percent. Unemployment is 17 percent, about a third higher than 2005, when Ahmadinejad first became president. The chorus of criticism of Ahmadinejad for economic mismanagement grew as the election drew near, not only from his political opponents but sometimes from his one-time supporters. The Islamic Revolution Devotees Society, a fundamentalist grouping of revolutionary veterans co-founded by the Iranian President himself, accused him for starting huge state-funded projects while Iran’s poor suffered and his stated goal of social justice was undermined.
Ahmadinejad routinely dismisses such complaints. He says they are a product of intervention by hostile media. He blames ‘secret networks’ for rising house prices. He has a doctorate in engineering, but often makes light of complaints about the economy by telling jokes. For instance, he has told Iranian MPs to visit his grocer to find out the truth about the rising price of tomatoes. He suggests that he often takes advice about the economy from his local butcher, who knows about the economic problems of the people. And he says that he prays to God he never learned about economics.
The electoral system of Iran is by no means perfect, but not as bad as in some other countries in the region. In Saudi Arabia, small Gulf emirates and Egypt, elections are either nonexistent or held under extreme restrictions. Rigging is widespread. And these states are ruled by America’s allies. In the June 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, faced three challengers. Mir-Hossein Mousavi was seen as the leading challenger. He was Iran’s last prime minister (1981-1989) before a presidential form of government was introduced. Three others had been rejected by the Council of Guardians, which vets all candidates. Former President, Mohammad Khatami, a liberal in the context of Iran, announced his candidacy but later withdrew and declared his support for Mousavi. Another ex-President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, often described as a centrist-pragmatic conservative, was also known to be unhappy with the state of affairs.
The high percentage of young voters, economic decline and restlessness among influential Iranians encouraged many inside and outside the country to believe that the time was ripe for political change. President Obama’s Cairo speech, seeking ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims’, came a few days before polling day in Iran. His words of reconciliation were a source of new hope for moderates and liberals in that country. They enlivened the prospect for improvement in US-Iran relations, perhaps for the first time since the 1979 revolution.
In the end, Ahmadinejad was declared reelected by a two-thirds majority, primarily because voters in the Iranian countryside did not abandon him. After an exciting campaign, sharp exchanges between candidates during television debates and overly optimistic reports in the foreign press, it was a bitter disappointment for Iran’s opposition. Its supporters came out in large numbers in cities in towns, but their protests did not grow to a popular revolution. The coercive instruments of the Iranian state, the military, the intelligence services and police, remained intact. A crackdown on opposition supporters followed. For a while, there were loud protests in America from the Republican right, the Israel lobby and human rights groups. They only played into the hands of the religious hardliners in Tehran. As a result, the liberal opposition of Iran finds itself isolated even more. It is a dangerous situation.
Relations between Washington and Tehran sank to a new low following the events of 9/11 and Bush’s description of Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’. Two factors in particular came to the fore: Iran’s nuclear program, assisted by America and its allies when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi used to be Washington’s regional policeman; and accusations of its support for international terrorism. In a leaked letter obtained by Associated Press in September 2006, the International Atomic Energy Agency described as ‘outrageous and dishonest’ claims made in a report by the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that Iran’s nuclear program was geared towards making weapons.
The IAEA letter specifically said the report is ‘false in saying that Iran is making weapons-grade uranium at an experimental enrichment site’. In fact, the agency said, the material produced was only in small quantities far below that can be used in nuclear weapons. The clash between Washington and IAEA experts was reminiscent of the earlier disputes between them over whether President Saddam Hussein was involved in developing weapons of mass destruction. Those claims in Washington and London were given as the principal reason for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The claims were subsequently discredited when no traces of weapons of mass destruction were found. However, it did not prevent the Bush administration from using similar tactics against Iran, with both America and Israel issuing warnings that Iran’s nuclear research facilities might be bombed.
The failure of the US-led invasion forces to produce evidence was one factor that conspired against an attack on Iran. Another was the outbreak of full-scale war following the dissolution of the Iraqi state structure by Paul Bremer, the head of the American-led occupation authority. The conflict in Iraq defied the Bush administration’s calculations and prevented the Americans from using strong-arm tactics against other adversaries. However, diplomatic pressure and threats continue even after the Bush presidency.
On September 7, 2009, the IAEA Director General, Mohamed El-Baradei, delivered his last report to the Board of Governors two months before his retirement. He said that although Iran had ‘cooperated with the agency on some issues’, several critical areas remained ‘unaddressed’. Iran had not suspended its enrichment-related activities or its heavy water-related project, as required by the UN Security Council. Choosing his words carefully, El-Baradei said that these issues needed to be clarified ‘in order to exclude the possibility of there being military dimensions’ to Iran’s nuclear program.
President Ahmadinejad has by now ruled out further concessions by Iran. He recently told journalists in Tehran, “From our point of view, Iran’s nuclear issue is over. We will never negotiate over the obvious rights of the Iranian nation.” Tehran has also accused Washington of faking intelligence reports suggesting that Iran has ‘studied ways to make atomic bombs’. Press TV, Iran’s state-funded channel, quotes officials saying the United States has not ‘shared the original documents’ it claimed to have a year ago and there is no credible evidence of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
The outgoing IAEA Director General, Mohamed El-Baradei, is also highly critical of the West and its allies, France and Israel in particular. Both have accused El-Baradei of ‘suppressing damning evidence’ of Iranian attempts to build nuclear weapons. To them, the IAEA chief said, “I am dismayed by the allegations … which have been fed to the media that information has been withheld from the Board. These allegations are politically motivated and totally baseless.” He bitterly complained that such attempts to influence the work of the IAEA Secretariat and undermine its independence and objectivity are in violation … of the IAEA Statute and should cease forthwith.
As El-Baradei prepares to retire, accusations and counter-accusations continue to fly between all concerned parties. There exists a stalemate over the nuclear issue. And the United States with its allies and Iran remain engaged in a game of brinkmanship.
Deepak Tripathi is the author of two forthcoming books – Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Afghanistan: The Real Story Behind Terrorism, both to be published by Potomac Books, Inc. His works can be found on http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at: [email protected].
 Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, ‘Tough Times Ahead for the Iranian Economy’ (Washington: Brookings Institute, April 6, 2009); also Mahtab Alam Rizvi, ‘An Assessment of Iran’s Presidential Elections 2009’ (New Delhi: The Institute for Defense Studies, June 19, 2009).
 Robert Tait, ‘It’s the economy, Mr Ahmadinejad’ (Guardian, September 19, 2007).
 Amy S Clark, ‘IAEA: Iran Nuclear Report Outrageous’, CBS News, September 14, 2006.
 ‘Director General’s Report to Board’ (IAEA, September 7, 2009).