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Ahmadinejad's Fall, America's Loss

Authors: Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
June 16, 2011
New York Times


The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is being sidelined by religious fundamentalists, and it's bad news for American officials seeking to halt Iran's nuclear program.

The same Iranian leader who dabbled in Holocaust denial and messianic fantasies was, paradoxically, also the theocracy's most ardent advocate of direct nuclear negotiations with Washington. As Mr. Ahmadinejad falls out of favor with Iran's hard-line religious leaders, the prospect of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington is diminishing.

Once the darling of clerical conservatives, who only two years ago rigged the system to ensure his re-election, Mr. Ahmadinejad is now clinging to his post amid furious recriminations from his erstwhile allies. His fall from grace has been fierce and fast. In what is only the latest in a series of humiliating comedowns, Mr. Ahmadinejad was heckled recently at a service commemorating the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The most devastating blow came in May from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who publicly repudiated his hand-picked protégé in a clash over presidential powers.

Iran's Islamist clerics deliberately made the presidency a weak office, due to their enduring suspicion of central authority and popular elections, and each of Mr. Ahmadinejad's predecessors plainly chafed at its limitations. The brash Mr. Ahmadinejad persistently sought to transcend these constraints. By deftly exploiting nationalist impulses and economic grievances, the president used every opportunity to build a power base and assert his influence. These same shrewd political instincts drove him to embrace the notion of negotiations with Washington, a proposition fundamentally at odds with the clerics' official ideology of anti-Americanism.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's interest in dialogue was not motivated by any appreciation of American civilization or an impulse to reconcile. Rather, the provocative president saw talks as a means of boosting his stature at home and abroad while touting his vision of a strong nuclear-armed Iran. For a politician with delusions of his own grandeur, the idea of high-profile negotiations with Washington offered an opportunity to strut on the world stage as the champion of a new, anti-American world order.

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