The past several days have seen confusion over the status of the two American hikers recently sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for spying and illegal entry. The confusion resulted from a public claim by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the hikers would be released soon, followed by a a few ineffectual statements unbecoming of even a faltering head of state like himself:
“OK, these two persons will be released,” Ahmadinejad said. “Is it going to be over? We do it, for example, in (a) humanitarian gesture. Is it going to solve the problems? I hope so.”
The problem for Ahmadinejad is that hope is pretty much the only thing he has left. Other elements of the Iranian regime quickly denied that the release would be so simple, and curtly stated that “no other source [i.e. the office of the president] is entitled to provide information about this case.”
Remember the affair I mentioned a few months ago where Ahmadinejad demanded the resignation of his intelligence minister, Haidar Moslehi? To refresh your memory: A dispute reportedly began between Ahmadinejad’s right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and Moslehi after Mashaei tried to fire a junior intelligence ministry official. In the eyes of the clerical elements in the Iranian government, the intelligence ministry is its own territory where an almost anticlerical lay figure like Ahmadinejad has no right to interfere. Moslehi’s resignation was refused by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and in protest the scruffy president spent ten days in seclusion before emerging, beaten, at a string of humiliating media events showing his re-acceptance of Moslehi.
It’s now the clerics’ turn to pick off Ahmadinejad’s allies, who they have termed the “deviant current.” Mashaei is commonly considered the center of the current, and according to some his influence in the regime is a product of witchcraft.
Mashaei’s associates have been finding themselves in prison in greater and greater numbers. The most recent to fall is Amir Mansour Aria, who was allegedly behind a $2.6 billion dollar bank fraud (sorry to burst your bubble, Kweku Adoboli). It’s a bit of a silly charge, given that a vast share of Iran’s government spending involves shady bank transactions and outright lawbreaking. It’s also transparently political. How do we know that? The official fielding questions about Aria’s misdeeds was none other than the intelligence minister, a Mr. Haidar Moslehi.
Anyway, so Ahmadinejad’s been having a bad time and has been all but dead to the Iranian regime since not long after it destroyed its credibility to keep him in power in 2009. That’s what makes the hiker move interesting. To many, especially in the West, Ahmadinejad is still Iran. Thus, when he makes a statement that the hikers will be freed, and then the hikers aren’t freed, Iran, not Ahmadinejad, loses face. I’m not sure the Iranian regime had any plan to release the hikers so soon, but Ahmadinejad’s remarks provoked a flurry of diplomatic activity, with Oman sending in a team to negotiate and even providing a plane to bring the hikers home. The powerless President of the Republic may have forced the regime to rush its plans.
What’s to stop Ahmadinejad from trying this tactic again? He certainly doesn’t have anything to lose. This brings us to the crucial point: the timing of Ahmadinejad’s “concession” on the hikers suggests it’s part of a larger game. The next move? More concessions that he has no authority to make, but on a bigger stage: the United Nations.
The United Nations General Assembly opened on Tuesday, but the real action begins next week when heads of state show up to make their speeches. It’s a big occasion in the foreign policy world, and small-time dictators in particular love the exposure and legitimacy that a UN address can give them. UN speeches have figured particularly prominently in his reign, as his fire-breathing anti-Israel remarks and bizarre conspiracy claims drew headlines in the West and his claim to have seen an aura and felt the presence of the Twelfth Imam during his 2006 speech drew the ire of the clerics back home.
Thus, we may see Ahmadinejad again attempt to force the regime’s hand. Explicit remarks about the nuclear program, which as president he has no authority over (the same is the case with all national security matters), could be especially potent given the powerful international nonproliferation regime. An offer of full cooperation with the IAEA–something that’s been floated in official sources in the past few weeks–is one possibility. An attempt at a grand bargain is less likely but still possible. The launch of some other major initiative might also be in the works.
I’m not sure Ahmadinejad can make the offer break through the headlines he’ll draw, though. He’s a bit tone-deaf in the international arena, so he might make a big offer but totally bungle the expression of it. He will also have to take a hard line on the Palestinian statehood bid, as Iran has in the past derived great prestige by leading the charge against Israel. The pending US veto might even force him to use aggressive anti-American rhetoric that would undermine any attempt at reconciliation.
Even if he can send a strong signal, it won’t make much of a difference to the US, which knows that he’s too weak to make any legitimate offers (though it can, like Oman, pretend that isn’t the case). The US can’t accept a grand bargain, anyway, at least not openly, as the regime cannot make enough concessions on human rights and political freedoms. (Iran couldn’t accept a US offer, for that matter, as the regime legitimates itself as a non-Western locus of power.) The US delegation may even boycott his speech or stage a walkout when his remarks become too outlandish, as it has done in the past, so he may be speaking to an empty set of chairs.However, that won’t prevent plenty of posturing, and a public attempt at concession is a valid direction for that posturing. The attempted release of the hikers certainly seems like a prelude to such a move. It would also turn up the temperature on the US at what is sure to be an unpleasant session for it in New York City. This would be a pleasant change of direction for Iran and for Ahmadinejad, as both have been feeling the heat of late.