Jane VaynmanTrouble for Ahmadinejad

Is there actually something promising happening in this whole Iran nuclear drama? A number of recent indications suggest that Iranian President Ahmadinejad is in trouble, and his uncompromising stance on the nuclear program is being questioned within Iran.

If Ahmadinejad continues to make his own mistakes, will the West have waited out, perhaps unintentionally, Iran’s unyielding position on the nuclear program? These domestic rumblings suggest that even in pursuing a grand bargain with Iran (as has been suggested by several experts) it may be best to take it slow. A real negotiation could do without Ahmadinejad’s ultimatums and exclamations.

First there was the election in December where Ahmadinejad supporters lost to more moderate candidates. Also in December, students protested during Ahmadinejad’s speech at Amir Kabir University. Last week BBC reported that 50 Iranian MPs signed a letter calling for Ahmadinejad to answer questions on the nuclear program, and 150 members blamed him for economic problems.

Newspapers (one run by an aide to Larijani, the other owned by Khameni) have published editorials criticizing Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue:

Ahmadinejad has brushed off the UN resolution as “a piece of torn paper,” and during trips to the provinces he has vowed to expand the nuclear program.

The daily Hamshahri, run by the Larijani aide, wrote that Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric undermined the efforts of negotiators when they were close to ending the crisis.

The daily Jomhouri Elsami, which belongs to Khamenei, said the nuclear case required its own diplomacy requiring “sometimes toughness and sometimes flexibility.”

“The resolution is certainly harmful for the country,” the paper said, adding that it is “too much to call it a piece of torn paper.”

AP reports that the daily economic situation has worsened: “prices of fruit, vegetables and food staples have skyrocketed since the United Nations Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran in December.” Iranian businessmen have called for “moderation in the country’s nuclear policies to prevent further damage to the economy.”

In addition to public and economic criticism, high level leaders are voicing disapproval. While supporting Iran’s right for a nuclear program, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri openly criticized Ahmadinejad’s tactics. NYT notes that this is the first time such a high ranking cleric has directly attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies.

“One has to deal with the enemy with wisdom,” [Montazeri] said. “We should not provoke the enemy, otherwise the country will be faced with problems.

“We should get our right in a way that it does not create problems or excuses for others,” he said.

“Besides, is this our only irrefutable right and we have no other rights?” he asked, referring to rising inflation since Mr. Ahmadinejad took office over a year ago.

Ayatollah Khamenei may also be looking to restrain Ahmadinejad and his confrontational approach.

Alarmed by mounting US pressure and United Nations sanctions, officials close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei favour the appointment of a more moderate team for international negotiations on the supervision of its nuclear facilities.

The move would be a snub to the bellicose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose threats to destroy Israel have left Iran increasingly isolated and facing a serious economic downturn.

Tehran sources said the impetus for a policy switch was coming from Khamenei, who has ultimate power over Iran’s foreign policy, security and armed forces.

Khamenei is said to believe that Washington’s aim is not only to halt Iran’s nuclear programme but to overthrow the regime.

Although this evidence is not enough to conclude that there are changes coming in Iranian policy, there appear to be important shifts happening in Iranian discussion.

Yet it is not clear what is responsible for the new tone. It could be the measured sanctions which pressure without alienating all of Iran’s leadership. Or it could be the threat of regime change looming from the US. Or the key explanation could be domestic- inflation, a failing economy, a leader who made too many promises and now takes too many expensive trips. There are also other kinds of US pressure -such as the detainment of Iranian agents in Iraq and the deployment of a second US carrier to the Gulf- which could play a role.

Of course there could be a combination of factors explanation. I generally dislike the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, but in this case it is likely that each of these factors is at least somewhat relevant, even if not a central cause.

Factors, explanations … the making of what will be a great case study one day. Let’s just hope it’s one for “why do states abstain from nuclear weapons,” rather than that other sort.


  1. abcd

    While acknowledging and welcoming the internal Iranian pressure on Ahmadinejad, I’m not sure that I buy the argument that a U.S. diplomatic overture would be counterproductive at this point.

    Do you think that with the U.S. reaching out to Iran – approaching people like Larijani and others while sidestepping Ahmadinejad – we could further marginalize the hardliners??

  2. Ben (History)

    Yes but didn’t the AFPC get the memo?

  3. Mike H

    While the “kitchen sink” approach to causality is rarely parsimonious, in the nuclear proliferation case it seems to fit the universe of cases far better than simplistic “external pressure was key” or “internal pressure was key” arguments. I would not worry about seeming too all over the place. In fact, your argument seems pretty coherent: Changes in Iranian internal politics shape their nuclear policies. Further, who wins and loses in domestic political debates is driven by two primary inputs: feedback from the international community and the domestic economy, which are interlinked in some but not all ways. An interesting argument. . .presuming that is what you meant!

  4. linus bern (History)

    I would go so far as saying that the current American position is what has strengthened Ahmadinejad. It didn’t take Bush/Cheney long after 9/11 to figure out that an external threat can draw popular support to an autocratic government, and Ahmedinejad is doing the same thing. Moderates in Iran that would oppose him for countless domestic failures end up feeling that they must support him because of the belligerent posture of the US. You know, “Don’t question a president in wartime, you’re with us or with the enemy.” eerily familiar, no?

    To me the absurdity is that it has come to this point and the whole situation is painted as though Iran is the aggravating party.

  5. Dan Plesch (History)

    One senior Iranian, Hossain Mousavian outlined an approach to freeing the Middle East from WMD that goes way beyond the position of the present government. He spoke at a conference I organised at SOAS with British Pugwash. His and the other speeches are now online. http://www.cisd.soas.ac.uk/index.asp-Q-Page-E-the-middle-east-weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone—88061160Excerpts from Dr Mousavian’s address in TV broadcast quality: Media Player High/Normal Real Player High/Normal

    WEBCAST and TRANSCRIPT of all other speeches including those by Professor Barry Rubin, and ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are on the main conference website.

    For further details, contact Dr Dan Plesch, Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies on:dp27@soas.ac.uk

    Tel 0771 2833909

  6. Andy (History)


    The link didn’t work for me, but I as able to find it by going to http://www.cisd.soas.ac.uk and navigating from there.

    A WMD free zone is certainly a great goal, but I don’t think it’s realistic given the current chronic regional political climate. Israel, for example, will never give up their weapons so long as many of their neighbors deny their right to exist as a sovereign state and fight them through proxy forces. Diplomatic recognition would seem to be a requirement for a negotiated treaty.

    Mr. Mousavian’s ideas about a WMD-free zone amount to a unilateral disarmament by Israel in exchange for the possibility of normalized relations with its regional enemies. No Israeli government would ever agree to such a proposal. In Mr. Mousavian’s worldview the only thing holding Arab-Israeli peace back is Israel’s “intransigence”:

    “My fourth proposition is that establishing a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East hasdirect bearing on a just peace process in the Arab-Israeli conflict and could potentiallyencourage Israel to abandon its intransigence and become more receptive to such aprocess.”

    Finally, Israel has no faith in the NPT as a mechanism to keep nuclear weapons from its adversaries. Tuwaitha and the current Iranian program gives that view some justification.

    All this should not suggest that I’m a card-carrying member of the pro-Israel lobby but rather reflects political realities. Israel may be willing to give up its nuclear deterrent, but it would require much, much more than what Mr.Mousavian suggests.

    Linus said:

    “It didn’t take Bush/Cheney long after 9/11 to figure out that an external threat can draw popular support to an autocratic government”

    Do you really mean to suggest that the US is now living under an autocratic government? Here’s a definition refresher for you: “An autocracy is a form of government in which the political power is held by a single person.”

  7. Mark Gubrud

    Okay, Ahmadinejad is an asshole, and I’m sorry I ever said anything different. His statements about Israel have been misquoted and misrepresented, but he left them uncorrected, and his Holocaust denial conference really broke the back.

    But I don’t see the basis for believing that he has much to do with Iran’s nuclear posture or that his removal would lead to a breakthrough on US terms, which seem to have been calculated all along to prevent any possible breakthrough.

    Iran, as a nation and a polity, not just Ahmadinejad’s or any other faction, is apparently committed to asserting its right and proving its capability to master nuclear technology, including uranium mining, refining and enrichment. This has been affirmed so many times and so proiminently that it is hard to see how any Iranian politician could mount a successful challenge to those who maintain this position.

    The intent to acquire a nuclear weapons capability is made clear not only by the determination to develop uranium enrichment but also the parallel (presumed) plutonium project at Arak. This is perfectly understandable in the context of American threats and actions, particularly since 2002, and secondarily the desire of Iran to project national power and assume regional leadership by confronting Israel and its nuclear monopoly.

    Perhaps a change in Iranian politics, with Ahmadinejad exiting the scene, would lead to a change in atmospherics and more willingness to engage American overtures leading to a possible “grand bargain.” But we know that Iran floated good proposals for such a bargain back in 2003 and received the cold shoulder from Bush. Their substantive position does not seem to have changed much since then; neither has the US.

    Ahmadinejad’s provocations make it easier for Bush to take steps toward war with Iran, but I don’t see that subtracting him from the picture would lead to a resolution of the issues underlying this confrontation.

  8. Jim Termini (History)

    Ahmadinejad needs time. Stories about his internal problems should not be gullibly accepted as if he had no hand in their promotion. For a period of time shortly after Castro came to power in Cuba he used the same ploy. People thought we should just wait and stand aside because his regime was about to collapse. Only the ultra-naive believed it.