At Large

Reading the Persian Tea Leaves

What's going on between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad?

By 12.23.11

It is always difficult to be an Iranian politician. One has to work so hard to make sure you are recognized as being against the right thing. Being properly negative -- and that also means being against the correct issue at the correct time -- requires considerable attention to the signs coming from the office of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is not always easy. The leader's office is a form of combined national and international security staff. From this office reflects the consideration and movement of all key domestic and foreign policies. If you do not have access to this center, you are not "in the loop."

The sacking of the British embassy is one of the more recent examples of touchy issues. Several hundred extremely mature "students" attacked the embassy and its guards. Reportedly the mob was organized by various hard-line politicians. It was a full day before it was clear in Tehran that this was an approved raid as far as the supreme leader was concerned.

In a surprising reversal of his previously moderate stance, Tehran's mayor, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, rushed to condemn Britain and extol the "revolutionary" strength of the "students." Joining him shortly afterward was the always politically alert speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, who made a point of explaining the action of Iranian "youth" as reflecting the view of all Iranians. This line had to have been transmitted through the supreme leader's office that already supported the embassy attack as "the people's reaction" to Britain's hostile economic action (sanctions).

President Ahmadinejad used a reverse twist on the issue by attempting to cut the ground from under Larijani, a political competitor and possible presidential candidate in the 2013 elections. Having already knocked heads with the supreme leader over the issue of firing the intelligence minister, Ahmadinejad took a chance and went against the already established line by opposing the diplomatic sanctions already called for against Great Britain.

A more cynical interpretation of the Iranian president's tactic would suggest he recognizes that Ayatollah Khamenei does not support him or his political future and in consequence Ahmadinejad decided to seek political support from the more moderate elements in Iranian politics. This tack is not as radical as it appears. Ahmdinejad always has sought the support of major political power centers before acting. His turning to those who represent a less pugnacious wing of Iran's political life may be his only hope of continuing to remain a major figure. No matter the reasoning, Ahmadinejad's actions point to divisions within the power players in Iran. For the moment, however, the supreme leader and the operative elements surrounding him have ultimate control of the key aspects of Iranian life.

From a practical point of view the internal security service of VEVAK, the al Quds force within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Council of Guardians are the operative instruments of Ayatollah Khamenei that hold the physical and ideological reins of power. They will remain the definitive factor for the near future, and it is the office of the supreme leader that maintains the coordination and balance among them.

If an individual or group seeks to wrest power from the existing structure militarily, judicially, or politically, they seemingly have an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. Even the appearance of defiance is quickly put down, although at the same time disagreement on the paths toward a policy is allowed. This provides the illusion of a form of democratic process. If a politician -- as in this case Ahmadinejad -- takes a line contrary to that which is generally approved but beforehand can point to a form of consent from one of the power centers, this politician has covered himself. It's all quite logical and very Persian, but Ahmadinejad still has support from someone on the Council of Guardians.

The signs are clear that the office of the supreme leader -- as well as Ayatollah Khamenei, himself -- at this time does not support Ahmadinejad for a further major political role. Larijani will take maximum advantage of the current president's period in the dog house to enhance his own chances for 2013. Further conflict with the United States and the European Union doesn't seem to benefit or disadvantage either figure. The real question is whether Ayatollah Khamenei can remain as the supreme leader. That question remains in the hands of the religious hierarchy -- not the electoral process.

At this time no Iranian politician speculates on the country's future nuclear weapon. That major issue is considered the purview of only the top of the chain of command within the supreme leader's office. Ahmadinejad has done his job of holding fast to the myth that Iranian nuclear development is solely for civilian power use. The truth is that no matter the eventual outcome of the current internal political maneuvering, the creation of an Iranian nuclear weapon is just a matter of time. This was a decision made decades ago.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.