What to Expect From Iran's New Leader

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Conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was formally endorsed as Iran's new president, Wednesday, after winning last month's election. How will his presidency change Iran's foreign policy towards the West, and the U.S. in particular?

Ahmadinejad's foreign policy will not be as open toward the West as that of former President Mohammad Khatami, or as inclined towards accommodation with the West, particularly if it comes at Iran's cost. President Khatami had created an atmosphere that nurtured increased trade between Europe and Iran, and facilitated visits by top Western politicians. Ahmadinejad had said from the outset that opening of relations with the U.S. was not on his list of priorities, and as regards Europe, he has said Iran's policy will be based on Iran's national interest. But he has tried to allay fears by professing a foreign policy of “peace and moderation,” and while he is unlikely to go to great lengths to enhance relations with the West, Ahmadinejad will likely seek to avoid confrontation.

What do Iranians make of the allegation that emerged in the U.S. that Ahmadenijad may have been among the men who seized American hostages in 1979?

One of Iran's main newspapers ran a long piece in which several key former hostage-takers denied Ahmadinejad's participation. Most of the leading hostage-takers are now reformists and oppose Ahmadinejad's conservative camp, which means they had no apparent motive to protect him. This lent their words credibility. The allegations against Ahmadenijad lost credibility in Iran when it was revealed that the photograph purporting to show a young Ahmadinejad escorting a blindfolded hostage was dug out by the Iranian Mujahedeen-Khalqh Organization, the Marxist-Islamist exile opposition group classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The MKO fought alongside Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and is despised by most if not all Iranians inside Iran. Still, many Iranians that I spoke to said they wouldn't be surprised if Ahmadinejad had in fact been one of the hostage takers, considering his highly revolutionary and religious stance. But there were also those who saw this as another U.S. plot to demonize Iran and its new international face.

Iran is in talks with three European countries over the future of its nuclear energy program. Tehran has signaled its intent to resume such uranium-enrichment activities as are permitted under the Non Proliferation Treaty, but the Europeans insist that it forego even those. How is Iran likely to proceed on this front?

The issue of uranium enrichment has been the sore point of the negotiations so far. The Europeans want Iran to stop all enrichment activity indefinitely; the Iranians say they have invested billions of dollars into their enrichment program and that it is their right under the NPT to be able to control the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes. Iran has been adamant about its enrichment program all along. Any talks that posit the termination of Iran's enrichment program as a necessary goal are likely to fail. For Iran, the optimal outcome of talks with the EU would be a package that involves great economic, technological and security incentives and at the same time allows Iran to save face by not demanding the unconditional and indefinite suspension of the fuel cycle. The enrichment cycle has been elevated to a national issue of defiance inside Iran, so the Europeans need to consider Iran's domestic calculations short of leading the talks into a crisis.

What are the primary domestic challenges facing Ahmedinejad, and how does he plan to address them?

Ahmadinejad won with the overwhelming support of Iran's economically-disadvantaged majority, by promising jobs, improved health care, educational and professional opportunities and to let “Iranians feel the effect of oil money on their dinner tables.” Now he has to deliver on those promises, which are similar to those made 26 years ago by old-guard revolutionaries such as former President Akbar Rafsanjani, whose failure to deliver may in large part explain why Rafsanjani lost the election to Ahmadinejad.