Over the last few years, the United States has criticized Iran for its suppression of the pro-democracy Green movement in 2009 when a disputed presidential vote set off a bloody crackdown against street protesters; its support for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; and, most significantly, for its nuclear program, which the West believes is meant to develop weapons.
Since 2005, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been a divisive figure in world affairs, cheering on the development of the country’s nuclear program despite orders from the United Nations to halt it. But, over the last year, his power has been in decline since he ran afoul of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by challenging the authority of the clergy. Mr. Khamenei then made a proposal to eliminate the position of president, highlighting an increasingly bitter struggle within the country’s political elite, as he and his allies continued to try to undercut Mr. Ahmadinejad’s power.
In March 2012, coinciding with growing speculation about whether Israel would launch a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, Iran held its first parliamentary elections since the government crackdown in 2009. The opposition, which played a central role in voicing accusations of fraud in the 2009 vote, was left greatly weakened by the protests, its leaders under house arrest or jailed and its access to a voice in the media closed down.
Two days later, with 90 percent of the country’s districts counted, it appeared that Mr. Khameini had gained the ironclad majority he needednot just to bring President Ahmadinejad to heel, but to eliminate his position entirely.
The election’s outcome, which could drastically reshape Iran’s domestic political landscape, was not expected to affect foreign policy. Ayatollah Khamenei has long pushed a confrontational stance toward with the West, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program, which is popular at home and accepted as being for peaceful purposes.
Nuclear Program: Sanctions by the West
Iran and the West have been at odds over its nuclear program for years. But the dispute has picked up steam since November 2011, with new findings by international inspectors, tougher sanctions by the United States and Europe, threats by Iran to shut the Strait of Hormuz to oil shipments and Israel signaling increasing readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities
In mid-April, diplomats from Iran, the United States and other world powers met in Istanbul. The talks went surprisingly well and were something of a turning point in the American thinking about Iran. At the meeting, Iranian negotiators seemed more flexible and open to resolving the crisis, even though no agreement was reached.
In May, another round of talks were held in Baghdad, but they ended with no clear signs of progress, though the Iranians agreed to reconvene for more negotiations in Moscow on June 18 and 19.
Iran was known to be unhappy about proposals to address urgent concerns, including a freeze on its enrichment of uranium that could be converted to bomb-grade fuel, because of what the Iranians suggested was an insufficient easing of punishing sanctions that are to come into force in July.
The Baghdad talks began a day after Tehran signaled willingness to allow potentially intrusive international inspections of secret military facilities, raising expectations that it was searching for a diplomatic solution to the standoff, although Western officials discounted the likelihood of an imminent breakthrough.
Updated: June 1, 2012