Was the Slapdown of Ahmadinejad By Iran’s Ruling Ayatullah Good for America?

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Iran wants to talk, again, about the nuclear standoff with the West. Laura Rozen reports that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, has written to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to request another meeting. The last round of talks, held in January, was so frustrating to the Western powers that they’re not exactly jumping to accept Jalili’s offer. And the unprecedented public political showdown between President Ahmadinejad and Iran’s clerical Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei makes prospects for reaching a nuclear agreement even more remote.

When news of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad power struggle  broke last week, David Ignatius of the Washington Post saw the schism as centrally linked to the issue of whether Iran should engage with the West.

“The political ferment in Tehran is one more sign of the Arab Spring, an earthquake that is shaking the entire Middle East,” Ignatius wrote. “In this environment, both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei understand that the legitimacy of their increasingly isolated regime is in danger. Ahmadinejad’s circle seems to favor outreach; Khamenei and the clerics want deeper retrenchment.”

The outbreak of political hostilities between the President and the Ayatullah, Ignatius suggested, may have been prompted by the efforts of supporters of the Supreme Leader to monitor or block an outreach to the West being attempted by Ahmadinejad’s top aide, Rahim Mashaei. But others note that the latest flare-up is a symptom of a factional conflict that has been brewing since the disputed June 2009 election that returned Ahmadinejad to power with the backing of Khamenei. Since then, the President has increasingly challenged the Supreme Leader in what has become a power struggle over whether Iran’s future will be shaped by its clergy or by its political institutions. And Khamenei appears to have won this round, with Ahmadinejad forced to back down and heed the Supreme Leader’s edict reversing the President’s dismissal of his intelligence minister.

As analyst Afsin Molavi has wrote this week, one of the key reasons for the vehemence with which the conservative clergy has attacked the President over the past two weeks has been that Ahmadinejad and his camp “have trafficked in a school of thought that diminishes the influence and power of the clergy,” instead advancing an aggressive nationalist agenda whose legitimacy is not dependent on the sanction of the Shi’ite clerics whose “guardianship” over matters of state was codified by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Notes Molavi,

“Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly invoked the Hidden Imam, Shi’a Islam’s messiah figure who, according to belief, went into hiding more than 1,100 years ago and will return to bring justice to the world.

Mr Ahmadinejad claims to have a direct line to the Hidden Imam. In a sense, he has superseded the clerical intermediary role. Traditional conservative clerics have been uncomfortable with this sort of talk, but a documentary film produced by an Ahmadinejad ally, suggesting that the Imam’s return is imminent owing in part to Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency, rocked the clerical establishment…

While Iran’s secular middle class largely distrust the president, many are also strongly anti-clerical… it’s very dangerous when a figure like Mr Ahmadinejad, a traditional conservative with a social constituency similar to that of the hard-line clergy, is seen as anti-clerical.”

If the implication in Ignatius’ piece was that Ahmadinejad’s camp represented a better hope for Iran heeding Western concerns about Iran – even though Ignatius acknowledged that it was impossible for the U.S. to negotiate with just one faction of the Tehran regime — Century Foundation Iran expert Genevieve Abdo suggests exactly the opposite. In a counterintuitive argument, she argues that the West may be better off if Khamenei prevails in the power struggle, because Ahmadinejad represents a militarized nationalist regime even more dangerous than an Iran ruled by the Mullahs. She writes,

 “As much as Khamenei detests the United States, he will always prefer ‘soft power’ to a military confrontation, whether it is with Israel, the United States, or regional rival Saudi Arabia. This is not the case for Ahmadinejad and his partisans inside the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps]  whose members have gained greatly in both political and economic influence. Ahmadinejad is still believed to have powerful supporters inside the Corps, despite comments made last week by Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, warning the president to ‘stay away from deviant factions,’ a term used to refer to Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and close confidant, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie. Many high-ranking officers and the rank and file of the IRGC share Ahmadinejad’s radical views and political ideology and have greatly benefited from his government’s policies in the past six years. They will stop at little to provoke Israel and empower Iran’s regional proxies, which include Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

“While the two factions have disagreed in the past on nuclear negotiations with the United Nations, their real differences revolve around the future direction of Iran’s Islamic system, with the nuclear program only a proxy arena for waging those deeper political battles. The president’s pretenses of reaching out to engage the United States and Western governments are solely to increase his power internally, with the hope that the power structure might change and Khamenei might be the last supreme leader.”

Khamenei represents a system that uses its religious authority, rather than hard power, to project influence throughout the Arab world, Abdo argues. “While this is a downside to Khamenei’s triumph in the power struggle, his victory has preserved a system the West might not understand but one that so far remains somewhat predictable. Such is the state of affairs inside Iran’s regime that Khamenei and the conservatives the United States once called ‘hard-liners’ are now a safer bet than the wild card that is Ahmadinejad.”

Either way, nobody’s expecting negotiations to make any progress any time soon.

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