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Reading Ahmadinejad in Tehran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 25, 2006

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Based on recent comments by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran will not likely give up its nuclear activities by the April 28 deadline set by the UN Security Council (FT). Nor will Iran promote peaceful coexistence with Israel, which Ahmadinejad calls a "fake regime that cannot logically continue to live (Independent)." Iran's president also just announced that Tehran would consider sharing nuclear technology with Sudan (NYT). But Ahmadinejad is just one piece in the multilayered puzzle that makes up Iranian foreign policy. Not every senior leader within Iran's foreign policy elite agrees with President Ahmadinejad's demands to "wipe [Israel] off the map." Within Iran's conservative leadership class, cleavages are reported to exist on a wide range of foreign policy issues, from nuclear arms to Iranian relations with Hezbollah to its influence over Iraq (Asia Times). "This rivalry will intensify with the approach of fall elections for an 86-member clerical body—the Assembly of Experts—and for municipal councils," writes RFE/RL's William Samii. These internal divisions lead to a foreign policy that often comes across as muddled and far from monolithic, as this CFR Background Q&A explains.

CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh, writing in the National Interest, says "an ascetic 'war generation' is assuming power with a determination to rekindle revolutionary fires long extinguished." Matthias Kuntzel writes in the New Republic about the lingering influence of the basij—the military movement created by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979—on Iran's foreign outlook. "A younger generation of Iranians, whose worldviews were forged in the atrocities of the Iran-Iraq War, have come to power, wielding a more fervently ideological approach to politics than their predecessors," he writes. "The children of the Revolution are now its leaders."

But while poles of influence may be competing for control of Iranian foreign policy, the outside world, particularly Washington, sees a country unified in its aim to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. There have been fresh calls by some in the U.S. Congress for tougher action against Tehran, motivated by Iran's defiance of international calls to roll back its nuclear program. This view was maybe expressed best by Senator John McCain (R-AZ): "There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option. That is a nuclear-armed Iran" (BBC). Fueling the debate in Washington was a much-discussed New Yorker piece by Seymour Hersh that says even a U.S. nuclear strike is under consideration by U.S. planners, though it was dismissed as "wild speculation" by President George W. Bush. CFR President Richard Haass says "the likely costs of carrying out such an attack [against Iran] substantially outweigh probable benefits (FT)." Others, including CFR Fellow Michael Levi, say Iran "poses no imminent threat" and that "flirting with [the nuclear option] undermines the American stance against nuclear proliferation" (NYT).

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