Analysis Brief

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Presidential Skeptics in Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: January 23, 2007


While most Middle East analysts have focused on the region’s Sunni-Shiite divide, the main Shiite champion, Iran, is undergoing internal rifts of its own. There are fresh reports of fissures (NYT) among the conservative ruling elite, with growing signs that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outspoken president, has lost the confidence of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The alleged falling out has been triggered by growing discontent among Iranians with the president’s anti-West harangues but also by outside pressure put on Iran in response to its drive to enrich uranium. Last December, the UN Security Council slapped limited sanctions against Tehran. European banks have severed ties with their Iranian counterparts, responding to pressure from Washington. While prices soar and the stock market slumps, Iranians grow ever frustrated (AP) with their president, a populist who promised to end poverty.

Candidates on Ahmadinejad’s ticket fared poorly in recent provincial elections. More recently, 150 parliamentary members signed a letter criticizing him for failing to submit a budget on time and for spending too much time abroad. The latest slap in the face came when a widely read hard-line newspaper owned by the Supreme Leader demanded that the president remove himself (Economist) from nuclear negotiations. "Basically the entire political elite are coming together in opposition to him," Gary G. Sick of Columbia University tells Bernard Gwertzman. "They see him as really a disaster as far as Iran ’s policy is concerned." Rumors of Ahmadinejad’s ouster are widespread in Tehran.      

Backed into a corner, however, Iran’s president appears unfazed. He says he will not be thwarted by threats or sanctions and adds that Iran “is ready for anything (AP) in this path,” referring to potential military strikes by the United States or Israel. In response to the latest UN Security Council resolution, he called the international body a "rusty institution" (NYT) whose actions "will not affect Iran’s economy and politics." But his growing isolation at home signals deeper divisions within Iran’s conservative camp between the traditionalist, older wing of the revolutionary generation, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the second-generation, more populist wing of Ahmadinejad.

This split has important ramifications for Iranian foreign policy. “It seems that the decline of Ahmadinejad is in fact the decline of the Supreme Leader’s current policies,” writes Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This could well mean that Khamenei may become more flexible toward the West, especially the United States.” The rift also may affect who succeeds the Supreme Leader, whose position wields far more influence over Iranian foreign policy than that of the president. The ayatollah’s death was falsely reported in the West earlier this month but local reports indicate his health is failing.

Of course, divining the tea leaves of Iranian politics poses a challenge akin to Cold War-era Kremlinology. No one knows if the Supreme Leader’s apparent efforts to lower Ahmadinejad’s profile reflect efforts to temporarily boost Iran’s image abroad, or are aimed more at permanently marginalizing the president, much like his predecessors’ powers were curtailed.

Experts say the Supreme Leader may be torn because Iran’s position on the world stage has arguably gained strength under Ahmadinejad’s tutelage. The threats of a Saddam-led Iraq and a Taliban-led Afghanistan are gone. High oil prices and divisions within the UN Security Council have added to Tehran’s leverage on the nuclear issue. And Iran has beefed up its supplies of conventional arms and missile defense systems, thanks largely to Russia.

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