A briefing by Patrick Clawson
June 4, 2009
(includes an audio recording of this talk)
Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a leading specialist on Iran. He has authored or edited more than two dozen books and monographs, including The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action against Iran, with Michael Eisenstadt. He holds a doctorate in economics and speaks Persian. On June 4, Mr. Clawson addressed the Middle East Forum via conference call.
Though Patrick Clawson's predictive talk took place before the June 12 Iranian presidential election, his insights are relevant in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "landslide victory," as making sense of its significance requires an understanding of what was — and, just as importantly, what was not — at stake.
Clawson contends that "Iran's president is not really that powerful a figure." He has some influence over social and economic policy, but true power resides with Supreme Leader Ali Khamene'i, who controls national security and foreign affairs. As Clawson put it, the Iranian president is more a "cheerleader in chief" than a "commander in chief."
Hence, Iran's threats to Israel and the Western world — primarily its nuclear program and support for terrorism — were destined to continue no matter who prevailed on June 12. The only potential change was in the presentation of these policies, with a choice between Ahmadinejad's chief rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi "blowing smoke in our eyes" or the firebrand incumbent "spitting in our eyes." Ironically, the in-your-face tactics of the latter may put the world on alert more than the lulling practices of a Mousavi.
Saying that "election" is a "polite word" in the case of Iran, Clawson noted that the president is "selected more than he is elected," because the supreme leader excludes all candidates who would not advance the Islamic Republic's sectarian and highly belligerent agenda, both at home and abroad. Clawson also warned that Iranian elections are rigged and subject to "typically massive fraud" — a description that has proven prescient.
Clawson said that Iran's presidential campaigns are "used by the Iranian supreme leader to gauge what is the popular opinion … and to adjust his policies as required." Judging by the outcome, Khamene'i sees little reason to alter course.
Clawson concluded by stating that the chance of diplomacy halting Iran's nuclear program is less than one in three. In his view, there is a greater probability that Israel will strike Iran, precipitating a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Summary account by David Rusin.