Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has paid a political price for his nuclear-fueled rhetoric. In February he compared Iran’s drive for nuclear energy to a runaway train with “no reverse gear” (Reuters), remarks that drew fire from Iranian moderates fearful he had done serious damage to Tehran’s diplomatic standing. In July, a panel of Iranian economists blamed the president (IHT) for Iran’s financial woes, including a spike in prices for basic commodities. Given the perceived blunders, some analysts predicted a tough reelection campaign (Foreign Policy) for the former mayor of Tehran come 2009.
But that was before Ahmadinejad’s self-described “victory” (Guardian) on December 3. A National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus view of all sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded Iran had most likely ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report, which stopped short of declaring dead Tehran’s ambitions for a bomb, nonetheless appeared to bolster Ahmadinejad’s claims that his country’s nuclear program was for peaceful purposes.
It was a dramatic reversal for Washington’s intelligence community. For Ahmadinejad it also was a likely boost for his embattled presidency. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv, says the Iranian president emerged “the biggest victor” in the post-NIE fallout, vindicated domestically with a “stamp of approval from Washington.” Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, predicts the report could strengthen hardliners (WashTimes) “if the U.S. abandons pressure on Iran.” One woman in the western Iranian province of Ilam told a reporter that Ahmadinejad’s triumph (DPA) “against a huge country like America” convinced her entire family to vote for the president “over and over” in elections next year.
Not everyone agrees the shifts in intelligence will be good for Ahmadinejad at home. Vali Nasr, CFR’s adjunct fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says Ahmadinejad had been using the threat of a U.S attack to rally domestic support. Yet the NIE appears to have made U.S. preemptive strikes unlikely in the near-term, a development that could refocus Iranian voters’ attention on domestic issues. “If war is off the table, the Iranian electorate may pay a lot more attention to issues that don't favor Ahmadinejad in the elections,” Nasr says. Iranian moderates are also likely to remain wary of the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad added to his list of enemies in November when he accused political rivals (RFE/RL) of being “traitors” to Iran’s nuclear program. On December 11 Iran’s reformist ex-president, Mohammad Khatami, lashed out at Ahmadinejad in a rare public rebuke (NYT) of the president’s domestic policies.
But analysts Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Kayhan Barzegar predict the NIE will strengthen (BosGlobe) Iran’s diplomatic standing and force the international community to reconsider sanctioning Tehran (Reuters) over its nuclear program. Iran has denied ever having a nuclear weapons program and some Iranian leaders have taken issue (IRNA) with the report’s claims that one existed before 2003. For his part, Ahmadinejad is revisiting all thirty of Iran’s provinces to shore up support (AFP) ahead of crucial March 14 parliamentary elections. He used one such stop on December 5 to make his “victory” declaration. And as he works to build a political base outside the capital—showing support for development projects in poor areas—the president also gloats about Washington’s softening stance, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
In the end, though, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric may matter less than the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And of late, Khamenei has sent mixed messages on domestic issues. Nasr notes in the Washington Post that Khamenei has boosted Ahmadinejad’s political rivals in recent months. At the same time, however, he endorsed a “comparative hardliner” (NYT) with close ties to Ahmadinejad to serve as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.