- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the sixty-fifth UN General Assembly amid fresh questions about his political standing at home and infighting among Iran’s hardliners. Iranians are still angry at Ahmadinejad about the highly disputed results of the presidential elections in June 2009, says Iran expert Kaveh Ehsani, and they blame him for a poor economy and increasing international isolation. Ehsani notes that Ahmadinejad is also at odds with Iran’s legislature, which wants greater policymaking power, but that if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei "comes out and says Ahmadinejad should go, he’s admitting openly that they made a huge mistake by promoting him."
What is Ahmadinejad’s standing in Iran right now?
His standing is fairly shaky, because he was first elected in 2005 on a platform of combating corruption; improving the economy; dealing with issues of social justice and unemployment, especially for the young; and creating greater opportunities for people. His slogan was, "I will better distribute the existing wealth." Crudely put, he said, "I’ll bring the oil money to people’s dining tables."
And what happened after he was elected?
He really hasn’t delivered on his promises. The economy has gotten worse. Now Iranians are facing all these international sanctions; the unemployment numbers have gotten worse; the inflation has really gotten worse. He’s beset by popular discontent. The elections of June 2009 really harmed his legitimacy. There is a significant portion of the population that objects to the way that the elections were carried out as well as the results. And the way that the objections were dealt with--with sheer brute force--reflected badly on Ahmadinejad and the regime as a whole. This is a view held even among his lukewarm supporters. His situation is pretty precarious. In a way, this is nothing new in Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s politics have been very divided, fragmented, and factionalized.
Discuss the relationship between the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Khamenei strongly supported his reelection. Why did Khamenei do that when he could see that much of the country was opposed to Ahmadinejad and angered by the apparent corruption in the vote counting?
Because Ahmadinejad is his man. He elevated Ahmadinejad from relative obscurity from a political playing field where all the other factions were well-established and had their various power bases. Khamenei really wanted somebody to push aside these differences and be his man. Khamenei counted on Ahmadinejad realizing he needed the backing of the leader and would be pliant and basically support Khamenei’s agenda. As it turned out, Ahmadinejad has his own coalition of supporters among the mid-ranking and lower-ranking security apparatus, the military and managerial ranks, and he is not satisfied with being anybody’s pawn. He and his faction want all the power. It has turned out to be a Catch-22 for Khamenei.
What is the dispute between Ahmadinejad--who is the president--and the parliament, which is headed by Ali Larijani?
The big dispute between the legislature and the president is that the legislature wants to have more policymaking power. The president wants to set his own executive agenda, so he constantly refuses to carry out the laws that have been passed--or he vetoes them or just ignores them. This has been a spat that has been going on for the past thirty years between these two branches.
Ahmadinejad has his own coalition of supporters among the mid-ranking and lower-ranking security apparatus, and he is not satisfied with being anybody’s pawn. He and his faction want all the power. It has turned out to be a Catch-22 for Khamenei.
Then there are other centers of power, like the Guardian Council--which is a little bit like the Supreme Court--that has to approve every law passed by the parliament, and can [also] reject them. Then there is another council, standing above the parliament and the Guardian Council, called the Expediency Council, which basically judges the differences between the Guardian Council and the parliament. It’s a very Byzantine system: all these levers of power set up so nobody has the ultimate power. It ends up being a system of negotiation where they have to reach some kind of middle ground, and as a result nobody gets ejected, nobody gets completely marginalized. In the end, all the players feel that they are still part of a system, even though they don’t have ultimate power.
Did we see an example of this in the case of Sarah Shourd, one of the three American hikers arrested on the border with Iraq over a year ago? Ahmadinejad’s office announced that Shourd would be released, but then the prosecutor’s office said no, they hadn’t decided to release her yet, so they were forced to postpone the release for several days.
These hikers, like those British sailors a number of years ago who were captured, are pawns in the domestic and international political game being played in Iran. Iran will use any leverage it can gain to force the United States and the international community to refrain from interfering in what it sees as domestic affairs. It’s fair to say that Iran’s borders are porous; they’re populated by ethnic minorities who are more or less discontent. Potential separatism and civil war is always something that looms on the horizon. There is a lot of insecurity about Iran’s borders. There is this sense of paranoia, and the United States, especially under President George W. Bush, had been playing the ethnic card. This had emerged on several occasions in northwest Iran and in the Azerbaijan region and southeast Iran, in the Baluchistan area.
The central state always thinks of its border region in terms of national security issues. If you have three American hikers on that border who get picked up, they are automatically seen as spies sent there to start some kind of serious trouble. Having said this, looking at these hikers, they were most likely innocents caught in a bigger political game. Once they were caught, the Iranian regime and all these factions started trying to use them as negotiation pawns to get the United States to release some Iranian prisoners held here in the U.S., to show that Iran is uncompromising in dealing with the international community. For the supporters of Ahmadinejad, it’s really a cynical political game being played more than anything else.
I was wondering about that fact that institutions within Iran objected to the release of the woman hostage initially because the president hadn’t gone through proper legal requirements.
This is a big spat that is going on: Who sets foreign policy? Under the Iranian system, the president doesn’t have the last word on foreign policy. The foreign minister has to be closer to the supreme leader, who oversees foreign policy. This is a spat between Khamenei himself and Ahmadinejad, and the judicial matters fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary. The president has no right to interfere and say what prisoner should be released. Nevertheless, the president has been completely ignoring these supposed protocols of the Islamic Republic, and there’s a turf war going on between him and the parliament, between him and the foreign policy establishment, and--in an unsaid way--between him and the supreme leader, and between him and the conservative allies of the supreme leader in the parliament and in the judiciary.
Is there any chance that Khamenei might press for Ahmadinejad to resign, or is Ahmadinejad in such a strong position that that is not possible?
I don’t think Ahmadinejad is in such a strong position. In fact, nobody is in a strong position in Iran at this moment. It’s very unclear who has the ultimate legitimacy. The population seems to be highly angered, disillusioned with a lot of the leaders. The Green Movement leaders--[Mir-Hossein] Mousavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi, the two presidential candidates who were the victims of the rigged elections--seem to have retained their popular support among those who are unsatisfied with the system, but we don’t know how strong these sentiments are because there is no way to measure it. There are no opinion polls, there is no free media. All the oppositional press has been suppressed. I wouldn’t say that Ahmadinejad has a lot of power, nor does the leader. The point is, it’s a Catch-22. They need each other; they can’t do without each other. If Khamenei comes out and says Ahmadinejad should go, then he’s admitting openly that they made a huge mistake by promoting him and supporting him against all odds and against his own conservative constituency, through a very disputed election and against huge popular discontent. His own position would become really shaky. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, really has not that much popular support anymore. People like the fact that he’s spreading money [around], but he’s not really improving the economy. The conservative establishment is really uncomfortable with the way that he has handled foreign policy, the nuclear issue, the Israel issue. His confrontational style has really increased the cost of Iran’s policies and its place in the international community. They are really uncomfortable with what he’s been doing domestically and internationally. But, in some ways, they’re caught in this dance that they prepared themselves. They can’t do without each other.
It’s been written, I think, that Ahmadinejad gets tremendous support from the Revolutionary Guards, which seems to be the controlling security force in Iran. Is that your impression, too?
There’s a turf war going on between [Ahmadinejad] and the parliament, between him and the foreign policy establishment, between him and the supreme leader, and between him and the conservative allies of the supreme leader in the parliament and in the judiciary.
Yes and no. Iran has a huge militia called the Basij, a kind of military volunteer force, which is huge. It has about ten, fifteen million members, supposedly. These are people from middle class and lower, working classes, who see joining the militia as a way of upward mobility. They get preferential access to jobs and some minor income and political connections in exchange for political loyalty. There is a strong sense that Ahmadinejad represents and tries to build the Basij as his base.
The Revolutionary Guard is much more of an elite military unit and a lot more established. They have been supporting Ahmadinejad, but all the indications are that this force is highly divided itself. They are strategic thinkers. Their task is to defend the revolution and the regime. And they make rational calculations as to what would ensure the survival of the regime. I don’t have the sense that they are irrational actors who think, "In a military confrontation we could defeat the United States or Israel or other external enemies." They know their limitations. At the same time, they really want to have monopoly power, and they want to ensure that the regime remains the way they want it to be. But within themselves, they seem to be really divided about Ahmadinejad.
If you look at Ahmadinejad’s coalition, people who support him are people in the Basij, in the militia, some of the appointed leaders of the Revolutionary Guard, and people in the security apparatus. Aside from that, people in the rank and file of the bureaucracy are very unhappy, and the population is becoming more and more disillusioned as the economy gets worse and as Iran becomes more isolated internationally.