Q: Events in Iran seem to be more momentous than Netanyahu’s speech?
Indyk: Yes, that’s true. The reformists will be suppressed though. Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will retain power. I don’t think there is an alternative outcome. They’re determined to snuff out any oppostion.
Q: But isn’t it the case that Ahmadinejad also challenged part of the power elite?
Indyk: Ahmadinejad represents a return to the roots of the revolution, its radical roots, and that is disturbing also to elements within the regime, even conservatives. But together Khamenei og Ahmadinejad control the means of suppression.
Unless we see some splits there, my guess is they will succeed. The opposition has no organizational capability.
Q: Ahmadinejad also challenged one of the most powerful men in the country, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Rafsanjani wrote a letter of complaint to the Supreme Leader.
Indyk: What you will see is that Rafsanjani will adjust to the result. There will be a lot of resentment and you’re right to watch for splits. Ahmadinejad is deeply resented. Criticism of him came from important circles.
The results are so skewed we don’t know his real strength. He has support in the countryside, where he has provided for people. Even the Supreme Leader has to be careful how far he goes. Ahmadinejad can outflank him. He represents the voice of the revolution.
Ahmadinejad is a cunning man: the way he was able to portray his opponents in the election campaign. In a sense, what you had was the state vs. the revolution. The revolution won. That bodes ill for any chance of real rapprochment with the US. If there is to be a rapprochment the regime must be willing to put the interests of the state before the interests of the revolution.
Ahmadinejad will probably respond: «I won, I’m going to engage with the US». But on what terms? His position is so far from the Obama-administration’s.
Q: Have the latest developments made an Israeli strike more likely – down the road?
Indyk: There is a growing feeling in the Arab world that that is what is coming. That’s what they are signalling to the US administration: «Don’t think we can’t handle this. Don’t think we can’t handle the fallout from an Israeli strike. We handled Gaza.»
At the same time they don’t see any linkage to movement in the peace process. Bombing Iran does not translate into willingness to recognize Israel. That is Obama’s plan: solving or easing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would defuse the hostility of the Arab states and remove one important card from Iran’s hand.
Q. He is no Jimmy Carter, is he?
Indyk: Obama is no Carter. Carter wore human rights on his sleeve. Obama cares about human rights and democracy, but that is not going to stop him from dealing with these regimes.
You saw it in their reactions – how careful Joseph Biden was when commenting on the election. The crackdown raises questions: Washington doesn’t know how sustainable the regime is. The bigger the demonstrations, the greater the pressure on the administration to respond with condemnation. That would leave a weakened Ahmadinejad, and then to meet him would look like a sell out. To talk to the Holocaust-denier! Obama’s critics would jump on him.
Q: Is Iran the key to the region?
Indyk: There are many keys. Iran doesn’t control Syria. The Iranians can cause problems, but their bark is bigger than their bite. The Iranians cannot stand in the way of a concerted action.
Q: That presupposes support from China and Russia?
Indyk: Yes. The Russians want a Start treaty, they want the rocket shield scrapped, they want to be treated as an equal partner. If they want to have all these things – ultimately it’s a question whether Obama can make them feel that they are his partner. Russians have a tendency to see it as a zero-sum game – if US succeeds, Russia loses. If they perceive things in a broader context and if one can give them a role in the region, maybe they would be prepared to join.
Q. Wouldn’t the Russians also be scared by religious-revolutionary rhetoric?
Indyk: Their problem are with sunnis, not shias. A rapprochment between the US and Iran would result in the development of Iranian oil and gasfields, which would mean more competition for the Russians.
Q. What do you make of Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech?
Indyk: Netanyahu’s speech is important, because once he accept a Palestinian state as the outcome, then the issue becomes: on what territory? His concept was about security. Now, it is possible to start a negotiating process: what is the state going to look like? If you can resolve the question of borders, you can start to deal with the question of Jerusalem and refugees.
The speech provides something for president Obama to work with. Why should it end any differently this time? That’s where the personal factor of the President comes in. Can he create a momentum, a move that might entail not one but several countries, potentially? A solution with Syria providing power to a Palestinian state? Who knows? It’s still early days. It is possible to learn from past mistakes.
The most important asset: A president who is determined to end the conflict. We have a president with an extraordinary ability to communicate. My optimism is qualified by the immensity of the task. But I have experienced it personally: when an American president puts his mind to the task, it changes the equation.
Carter made Sadat go to Jerusalem. Clinton made Arafat and Rabin shake hands. It is more likely that Netanyahu will make peace with Syria than with the Palestinians. But an effort by the President means change is possible.
Martin Indyk is the Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He was in Oslo to participate in a conferance about the Oslo peace process 15 years hence.
The interview may be reprinted or quoted with customarily attribution.