Iran, as Condi often notes, is run by unelected clerics.
President Ahmedinajad is not one of them
The election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad in Iran was the best thing that ever happened to the “real men go to Tehran” crowd in Washington. Here was a real live Iranian leader with the title of President who rattled sabers whenever he could, hinted at quitting the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, talked of wiping out Israel, and ferociously denounced any moves from Tehran towards accomodation and compromise with the West. A made-to-order bogeyman, whose florid rhetoric grabs headlines week after week and has, no doubt, helped sway American public opinion to the point where nearly half of the population believes Iran’s nuclear program is a threat that may have to be dealt with militarily.
In reality, of course, President Ahmedinajad does not actually run Iran, and is in no position to make the relevant decisions about Iran’s nuclear program, its relations with the West, Israel, or any other matter of national security and foreign policy. Executive power, and control over those decisions, remains in the hands of the unelected clerics, foremost among them the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini (pictured above). While propagandists for going to war are always going to overlook such niceties, you’d think the New York Times would know better. After all, throughout the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, it constantly made clear to its readers that while Khatami held the highest democratically elected office in the land, executive authority remained in the hands of the conservative clerics who stymied Khatami’s reform agenda. Nobody seems to have told the Times, and much of the rest of the Western media, that Ahmedinajad has no more power in Iran than Khatami had.
Today, for example, the Times reports that “Mr. Ahmadinejad vaguely suggested Monday, as he has before, that he would consider pulling his country out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if membership was no longer in Iran’s interests.” Well, no, that can’t be true, because Ahmedinajad does not have the authority to make a decision of that order. And that’s just one example of what has become a trend throughout the Western media, of reporting Ahmedinajad’s bluster as if it reflected Iran’s policies.
Ahmedinajad mugs for attention
The distinction between Ahmedinajad and the Supreme Leader is far from academic. Firstly, it’s important to understand that Khameini controls all foreign policy and security decisions, and he tends to make those in consultation with the National Security Council, a body of about 12 people on which Ahmedinajad has a seat but so do some of his key rivals. The Council is headed by Ali Larijani, who is handling the nuclear negotiations with the West and also the prospective talks with the U.S. on Iraq — Larijani reports not to Ahmedinajad, but to Khameini, and he actually ran against Ahmedinajad in the last election. Larijani projects a message quite different from Ahmedinajad on solving the nuclear issue, for example. On most matters that Ahmedinajad rants about — even Israel — more careful observers of the regime, such as the Economist’s Christophe de Ballaigue, conclude that the regime’s positions are far more nuanced and open to engagement than the president’s rhetoric would suggest.
The pragmatic conservatives who are closest to Khameini are alarmed by the impact of Ahmedinajad’s ranting on Iran’s diplomatic position, but this is hardly suprising, since part of the President’s agenda has been to sabotage the efforts by pragamatic conservatives such as Rafsanjani to reintegrate Iran with the world economy. Rafsanjani was the Supreme Leader’s candidate in the election that brought Ahmedinajad to power, and he remains the President’s arch enemy. For Rafsanjani and by extension Khameini, resolving the nuclear issue with the West is of critical importance because their priority is not to hold conferences on Holocaust denial, but to jon the World Trade Organization. Khameini has reportedly offered the U.S. comprehensive talks on all matters of concern to Washington
Ahmedinajad represents an element of the security forces hostile to the clerical leadership and the business interests represented by Rafsanjani. And the President has maneuvered on the nuclear issue to sabotage efforts to negotiate a compromise.
Indeed, Ahmedinajad, when he recently announced Iran’s “breakthrough” enrichment of a vial full of uranium gas in a laboratory setting, chose his words carefully: Iran would not compromise, he said. “Nobody has the right to compromise.” That’s not what you say when you’re the one making the decisions; they’re words directed at those who are in a position to compromise or not. So what we’re seeing here is a complex and increasingly bitter power struggle being played out within the arcane Iranian political system, in which the nuclear issue is one theater of conflict.
When the Western media treates Ahmedinajad’s his words as the policy of the Iranian regime, it suits the president’s agenda in Tehran just as much as its suits the agenda of the hawks who want to attack Iran. But it’s a misrepresentation of reality — and one that could ultimately have tragic results. The Mullahs have themselves to blame for sending such dangerously mixed messages to the outside world. But the media also has a responsibility to do whatever it can to convey the reality of Iran’s decision making.