Working class hero?
In the lexicon of Iran’s faith-based institutional-revolutionary establishment, calling for Israel’s elimination is– well, an article of faith. It’s one of those cornerstones of an outlook whose restatement is, for the most part, unecessary. Ahmedinajad was speaking, after all, at the annual anti-Zionist conference, and it may be tempting to read his restatement of the boilerplate rhetoric simply as the equivalent of wearing a scary costume at Halloween, which also comes once a year. Or, more correctly, the equivalent of a Soviet communist’s restatement of his or her aversion to capitalism. You know, like Kruschev coming to the U.S. and warning that the Soviet Union still planned to “bury capitalism.” But as the Sovietologists of old knew, the restatement of familiar slogans in certain contexts revealed something of the hidden conflict among rival power centers in Moscow. The same may hold true in Tehran.
Ahmedinajad’s comments registered on the international ear because they expressed a long-held view that has long been muted. No other heads of state in the Arab or Muslim world today openly advocate destroying Israel — it’s not that they’ve learned to love the idea of a Jewish state at the heart of the Middle East, they simply know it’s an intractable reality, and that clinging to practices premised on the idea that it will one day be reversed has proved self-destructive and counterproductive to Arab and Muslim regimes. In their ideal world, yes, Israel would be wiped off the map. This is hardly surprising: For Arabs and Muslims, the creation of Israel was an historic defeat and a humiliation imposed on them in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. They saw it as the West forcing them to accept the displacement and dispossession of Arabs in order to accommodate a people displaced and dispossessed by Western anti-semitism. So they’re never going to love it, although a half-century of defeats has forced most to accept it as an historic fact. To expect anything more would be like asking U.S. politicians to celebrate the fall of Saigon — they can learn to live with their defeat — even to recognize that there is much to be gained from reconciling with the very same Vietnamese communists who drove them out — but they’re never going t0 love it.
For Israel, the statement was a bit of a yawn. As Zvi Barel pointed out in Haaretz, calls for the destruction of Israel have been part of the core identity principles of the regime in Tehran for 26 years, and in that time it has coexisted with Israel — and even taken weapons deliveries from it during Iran-Contra. Regardless of its rhetoric, he says, Iran is a status quo power because its leadership is primarily concerned with the survival of their regime — a priority that dictates pragmatic relations with all sorts of countries friendly with Israel (such as India and Turkey) and increasingly also with the West.
Indeed, no sooner had Ahmedinajad spoken then other officials of the regime were rushing to reassure the world that Iran had no intention of acting on his words, that it respected the UN Charter which would preclude launching any aggression against another state, etc. Even Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who enjoys the favor of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, moved to pour water on the threat — even though he, himself, had made a similar one four years ago.
There’s a certain irony here in the response of some, like Tony Blair who sought to use the outburst to burnish his own case for action against Iran’s nuclear program — Ahmedinajad, after all, is the President, which means that he doesn’t really speak for the regime. We all know that — don’t we? — after sitting through eight years of Mohammed Khatami’s doomed reformist presidency. And that fact may help point us to an explanation for the outburst.
Did Ahmedinajad simply blunder, showing his inexperience in international affairs by uttering inflammatory slogans that brought new diplomatic pressure on the regime? Did he, as the Times put it, simply score a spectacular own goal? I don’t think so; a more plausible explanation may be the emerging struggle between rival conservative power centers in Tehran. Fearful that Ahmedinajad’s sharp-elbowed approach to diplomacy would jeopardize Iran’s interests in various international settings — and also anxious about the emergence of a Baseej-Revolutionary Guard power bloc openly challenging the clerics, with mass support garnered through a populist election campaign, for greater authority over the regime’s direction — Supreme Leader Khameini had recently moved to downgrade the new President’s executive power even further. He did this by delegating some of his own executive authority to the Expediency Council, another unelected clerical body that resolves policy disputes on the domestic and international level. The Expediency Council, of course, is headed by Rafsanjani, the millionaire former president who leads the pragmatic wing of the conservative camp. While supporting conservative positions on the domestic front, Rafsanjani has long been identified as the key to a pragmatic resolution of the nuclear standoff and other international disputes. He personifies the impulse even from within the conservative leadership to secure the regime’s longterm survival by integrating it into the world economy, and making various concessions necessary to achieve that goal. The conservatives know that the economy is the key to the regime’s survival, and Rafsanjani is far more concerned with getting Iran into the World Trade Organization than he is with fulminating against Israel.
Millionaire mullah Rafsanjani
But Ahmedinajad, also a conservative and also all about the economy, cleaned Rafsanjani’s clock in the last presidential election. Whereas Rafsanjani had the ear of the Supreme Leader and the confidence of the diplomatic corps, Ahmedinajad had the active backing of the Revolutionary Guard and the Baseej, the massive morality militia composed mostly of poor and unemployed youths who constitute an internal security storm troop. And in terms of getting out the vote, it was no contest. But this was about far more than institutional power centers and personal loyalties: Rafsanjani is concerned about the economy from a millionaire’s perspective; Ahmedinajad is a working class hero who campaigned on the bread-and-butter concerns of Iran’s impoverished majority — almost 40 percent are believed to live below the poverty line, despite the country’s oil wealth. So, while both speak the language of conservative clerical rule, they’re at loggerheads over how to build the economy, and how to distribute its rewards. Rafsanjani, notoriously corrupt, is viewed on the street as a self-serving fat cat; just the sort of people Ahmedinajad vowed to fight against, to ensure that the massive oil revenues Iran has earned as a result of the rising price would put a chicken in every pot. (And, quite literally, shares in every portfolio!)
Yes, Ahmedinajad’s core constituency are fiercely, belligerently nationalist. But their push for a greater share of power against the clerically-enabled pragmatists like Rafsanjani has a whiff of old-fashioned class politics about it. By sticking it to both Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader on the question of Irael — essentially taunting them for muting their hostility to the Jewish State in order to ingratiate themselves with the West — Ahmedinajad is showing the clerical autocrats that he’ll be far tougher to tame in the presidency than was his predecessor. Ironically, today it is the unelected clerics that represent the more pragmatic policy option, while the popularly elected president now represents the more extreme choices. Under Khatami, the Mullahs applied the brakes on liberal reform; now they may be applying the brakes on populist rabble rousing.
I suspect that in the case of the latest Iranian Israel-bashing, we may see a peculiarly Persian version of the old aphorism that “all politics is local.” And about to get a lot more interesting, because Ahmedinajad — unlike the liberal Khatami — can rally a very effective mass support base among the regime’s rank-and-file enforcers. I don’t think Israel has much to worry about from Iran as a result of Ahmedinajad’s outburst, but I wouldn’t say the same for Rafsanjani and even Ayatollah Khameini.