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by Jamsheed K. Choksy
Diplomats trooped out of the General Assembly in disgust last Thursday during the perennial speech by the Iranian President. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s continued denials of the Holocaust, abhorrence of Israel, and skepticism of 9/11 have earned him no friends in the West. However, despite his antagonistic relationship with the greater international community, Ahmadinejad may actually be winning at home.
Muammar Gaddafi paid a heavy price for alienating the Americans and Europeans when those nations sided militarily with Libyan rebels. Even Gaddafi’s nuclear deal with the West and denouncing terrorism could not save him. After firing on his own citizens, Syria’s Bashar al Assad could easily become the next target of the international community. Just like Gaddafi and Assad, Iran’s president is abhorred by many of the world’s power players and this will likely prove to be his undoing—even ifhe remains powerful in Iran.
Ahmadinejad is a hypocritical, bombastic, and racist politician who delights in aggravating Israelis, Americans, and Europeans. He is so easy to dislike that it is convenient to overlook the serious administrative and ideological challenges he has posed to the existence of the Islamic Republic’s theocratic system of government since 2009.
The major fault line within Iran’s government separates those individuals who belong to the Shiite clergy and those who do not. Ahmadinejad, most of his cabinet, governors, bureaucrats, and military men are part of the latter group. Not unexpectedly, they are vocal that “an Islamic government is not capable of administering a modern country.”
The president and his allies have been dismissing mullahs from administrative posts, appointing women to high level positions in defiance of clerical edits on gender roles, instructing officials not to enforce Islamic behaviors like veiling, and rejecting the mullahs’ xenophobia of enhanced contact with the rest of the world.
For their part, the mullahs and fundamentalist parliamentarians have announced that they will do everything possible to ensure that Iran is governed according to Shiite revolutionary principles. They cling to the sociopolitical notion of velayat-e faqih or governance by the Muslim jurist. The chief executive’s failure to conform is not just partisan infighting; it is moral failure. The future of Iran is shaping up as a tussle between religious and secular politics, with much of the population fed up with the theocratic state’s failures and oppression.
Yet, over the past few months numerous Iran experts in the U.S. and E.U. have written offAhmadinejad. Not surprisingly, the events of the past two weeks surrounding the release of the two American hikers held in Iran have been construed in the West as another sign of Ahmadinejad’s political weakness vis-à-vis the Shiite mullahs. The hikers’ release did take a few days longer than Ahmadinejad initially indicated, for the mullah-run judiciary stalled until the president had left Iran. They did not want him to garner international attention by escorting the two Americans to a waiting plane bound for Oman. Still, Ahmadinejad ultimately did get his waywhen they were released while he was at the United Nations General Assembly, allowing him to bask in the glow of purported magnanimity.
Moreover, the outcome of the hikers’ 26-month ordeal has parallels with other detentions of foreigners during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. In late March 2007, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy held 15 British navy sailors for 13 days before Ahmadinejad declared that they would be released. Likewise, in late November 2009, five British yachtsmen were detained for eight days before an announcement of their release was made by Iran’s Foreign Ministry. As with the hikers, those incidents preyed upon innocent victims for publicity—and further alienated Iran’s president from the West.
Within Iran, events surrounding the hikers’ release are viewed as yet another victory for Ahmadinejad and his supporters, who are now routinely denounced by panic-stricken mullahs as a “deviant current.” His countrymen and women regard the outcome, as one veteran Iranian journalist put it, as just “another stage in the power struggle… and Ahmadinejad has won this round because the hardliners submitted yet again after sounding their opposition and objection.”
Even Iranians note that their president timed the hikers’ release to focus international attention on himself when he mounted the world platform in New York. The ayatollahs realize the president is no longer a politician whose actionsthey can control in domestic or foreign policies. Unlike Ahmadinejad, fundamentalist mullahs have limited access to international forums and are sidelined in bilateral and multilateral negotiations. They can impact events directly within Iran, but internationally only through ties with militants in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has not set foot outside his homeland since taking office in June 1989.
Consequently, hardliners fret about their once handpicked chief executive’s new political path of not only “restricting the supreme leader’s power, basing government within the elected executive and legislative branches, and abrogating the Islamic Constitution,” but of “reaching out to the West.” The mullahs are doing everything in their power to limit Ahmadinejad’s authority, even abolish his position if possible, while trying hard to convince the world “how ineffective an Iranian president can be without the supreme leader’s support.” Yet only analysts outside Iran seem to believe the theocrats are succeeding.
At first glance it is easy to conclude that Ahmadinejad is losing at home. Mullahs and other political opponents blocked his attempt to reach a nuclear deal in November 2009. His parliamentary foes sought to impeach him in November 2010. Supreme Leader Khamenei re-instated a clergyman the president had dismissed in April 2011. A few months ago the parliament sought to derail his reorganization of government ministries.
Yet, Iran’s president utilized the lack of an agreement with the West to blame foes at home for ongoing sanctions which are eroding the nation’s economy. Because, as he expected, the Iranian public’s desire for accommodation with the U.S. grew stronger, Ahmadinejad was able to offer unconditional negotiations during his most recent U.N. visit. Parliamentarians were unable to round up sufficient votes to even begin impeachment proceedings in late 2010. Stuck with a minister loyal to the theocracy earlier this year, Ahmadinejad moved intelligence decisions into the executive office. He succeeded in restructuring the bureaucracy and appointing key associates to the vacant ministerial positions with parliamentary approval.
Even as he seeks to mitigate Islamic fundamentalism at home for his own political gain, Ahmadinejad has played a key role in spreading it elsewhere. The Islamic Republic has for many years provided material and ideological support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s current Secretary General Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah was not only trained in the madrasas of Qum, but later represented the organization in Tehran. The transformation of Hezbollah from an anti-Israeli militia into a street-savvy Shiite political party that dominates Lebanese politics has been central to Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and the growing influence of Iran in the region.
The Iranian president’s administration has attempted to impede the Middle East peace process by aiding Hamas ideologically, financially, and militarily. The Hamas leadership has publically thanked Tehran for its “limitless support.” Additionally, Iran covertly provides the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with millions of dollars for political and religious endeavors, including directing resources to the Brotherhood to foster radicalism among poor and middle class Egyptians during the Arab Spring. Iran’s funds have facilitated Brotherhood members’ street protests as well. It is likely that the Brotherhood will play an important role in Egypt’s future, and they are beholden to Tehran.
Even if Ahmadinejad achieves his goals of dismantling a repressive theocratic state in Iran, he will not enhance his own stature in American, European, and Israeli eyes. Indeed, many of his own compatriots note with embarrassment that the president’s antics make him a poor representative for a country with such a storied history and renowned culture. During his address to the UN, Iran’s president was unable to resist making hackneyed verbal attacks on the U.S. and Israel.
Ahmadinejad’s championing of change in domestic politics and his awkward international outreaches, like suggesting a nuclear deal still is possible with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council, are directed at securing a positive political legacy.Bringing Iran out of three decades of isolation from the West, so it can once again become a serious partner in global affairs while experiencing economic growth and social liberties at home, would be a crowning achievement for Ahmadinejad.
But the Iranian president’s desire to improve relations with the U.S. fails whenever he makes outrageous claims at the U.N. and other international and national venues. Ahmadinejad needs to reshape himself both on the home front and abroad for there to be even a slim possibility of him ever achieving international legitimacy.
Iran’s president must accept the Holocaust, stop threatening Israel’s existence, acknowledge that the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, and sever his government’s ties with militant organizations. Only then will he be able to earn the respect and trust that make bilateral and multilateral agreements possible. Only then will his journey toward international redemption begin.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, Islamic, and International Studies, senior fellow at the Center on American and Global Security, and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He has authored three books on Iranian history and religions, and serves as a consulting editor for the Encyclopedia Iranica.
[Photo courtesy of Daniella Zalcman]