HOW FOREIGN MODERATES AID EXTREMISTAhmadinejad: Gains when the West blinks.
October 25, 2006 -- IRAN'S President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is about to face the first serious challenge to his strategy of turning the Islamic Republic into the vanguard of a global opposition to the United States. To meet that challenge, Ahmadinejad may provoke a clash with America by heating things up in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon before the end of the year.
Even a month ago, Ahmadinejad was riding the crest of his popularity among the regime's core constituency while cultivating a romantic image among Muslims elsewhere. His promise to distribute Iran's oil revenues was popular among millions of Iranians who live below the poverty line. In the broader Middle East, his call for "wiping Israel off the map" resonated with the remnants of pan-Arabism and radical Islamists who feel humiliated by the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The first sign of trouble came earlier this month, when virtually all groups and parties that oppose him within the establishment decided not to boycott the coming elections. Ahmadinejad's faction may still win, but it will have to fight harder than he had expected.
Iran will see two sets of elections in December.
One is for the Assembly of Experts, a 92-man organ of the regime with the power to appoint and remove the "Supreme Guide." Since the "Supreme Guide" enjoys virtually unlimited powers under the constitution, the assembly is, in a sense, the system's true powerhouse.
Initially, the expectation was that Ahmadinejad's faction - known as Ithargaran, "the Self-Sacrificers" - would win control of the assembly in coalition with two or three smaller groups. But in the past week or so, many heavyweights from rival factions have filed applications for candidacy. Anti-Ahmadinejad factions are now negotiating a common list of candidates to oppose his list.
The second set of elections are local - tens of thousands of jobs at village, town, district and provincial levels, most of which Ahmadinejad hopes to win for his supporters.
To give his candidates a boost, the president has announced a scheme under which local authorities would spend their assigned budgets directly - without any intervention from the central government. Opponents call this an opportunistic scheme that could create ideal grounds for mismanagement and corruption.
Of course, the Islamic Republic's elections are not comparable to those of genuine democracies. All candidates must be approved by the Council of Guardians of the Constitution, a body of 12 mullahs that decides who has the right to seek public office. The council has the right to annul election results, preventing any winner from taking office.
Yet even this limited exercise has some significance. It enables the broader public to indicate its likes and dislikes, and lets the rival factions alter the balance of power within the establishment without violence.
The anti-Ahmadinejad front joins individuals and groups who oppose the president for a range of reasons. Some believe that it would be dangerous to allow Ahmadinejad, whose core support is from the military-security establishment, to win control of all organs of state.
Others deem him a dangerous demagogue who could lead the nation into an unnecessary war that might end in regime change in Tehran. Ahmadinejad's supporters say America and its allies, chastised by their Iraq experience, are in no position to launch any significant action against the Islamic Republic. His critics believe the risk of testing that theory is too high to be ignored.
Facing mounting problems at home, Ahmadinejad counts on foreign policy to put some wind back in his sails.
This could come in a number of ways:
* The Lebanese branch of Hezbollah could reignite the war against Israel in conjunction with radical Palestinian groups backed by Tehran. Failing that, a virtual takeover of Lebanon's government by Hezbollah and its Christian allies (led by ex-Gen. Michel Aoun) could also give Ahmadinejad the needed boost.
* He has also been heating things up in Afghanistan. Much of the upsurge in fighting in the southwest has been attributed to the Taliban. In fact, most of the latest mischief has come from elements of the Hizb Islami (Islamic Party), which depends almost entirely on Iranian support. The two big battles fought against NATO forces in Mousa-Qal'ah, for example, were led by the Hizbists, with the Taliban paying second fiddle.
* Iraq gives Ahmadinejad his biggest hope of success, in a number of ways. He has seized upon the latest call by Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of staff of the British army, for a quick withdrawal from Iraq - citing it as a signal that the U.S.-led Coalition is unraveling. In a provincial visit last week, Ahmadinejad indirectly claimed the breakdown of British nerves as a victory for himself. He would see an even bigger boost if America itself announces a timetable for withdrawal.
Two other issues may help Ahmadinejad. One consists of speculation that the Americans might ask Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq - James Baker, the co-chairman of a bipartisan commission on Iraq, has already announced that he'll recommend such a move. This would endorse Ahmadinejad's claim that there can be no peace in the region without Iran in a leadership position.
The second concerns Iran's alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad insists in public that America and its allies won't dare impose sanctions against the Islamic Republic. He has accused his rivals, including Hashemi Rafsanjani (the mullah who preceded him as president) of "cowardice in kowtowing to the Great Satan" even before any sanctions had been decided. If the drive for sanctions falters, Ahmadinejad is thus a clear winner.
Politics is full of paradoxes, and we may soon witness one such in Iran. Ahmadinejad, by all accounts the most determined enemy of the Western democracies in Iran today, may triumph over his rivals thanks to Westerners like Gen. Dannatt and Jim Baker.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.