Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about to face the first serious challenge to his strategy of turning Iran into the vanguard of a global opposition to the United States?
The answer is yes. To meet that challenge Ahmadinejad may provoke a clash with the United States 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 American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. With such a background, most politicians in the rival factions of the establishment believed that taking on Ahmadinejad in an election would be political suicide.
Now, however, Ahmadinejad no longer appears to be unassailable. And the coming elections in December are not going to be a walkover for his faction. A sign that the tide may be turning against the controversial president came earlier this month when virtually all groups and parties that had opposed him within the establishment decided not to boycott the elections. Ahmadinejad's faction may still win, but to do so it would have to fight harder than he had expected.
The December exercise consists of two sets of elections.
The first is aimed at choosing the Assembly of Experts, a 92-man organ of the regime with the power to appoint and remove the "supreme guide".
And, since the "supreme guide" enjoys virtually unlimited powers under the Khomeinist constitution, the assembly is, in a sense, the true powerhouse of the system.
Initially, the expectation was that Ahmadinejad's faction, Ithargaran (the self-sacrificers), would win control of the assembly in coalition with two or three smaller groups. In the past week or so, however, many heavyweights from rival factions have filed applications for candidacy. Talks are also under way among anti-Ahmadinejad factions to agree on a common list to oppose his list. The second set of elections concerns local government authorities throughout the country. At stake are tens of thousands of jobs at village, town, district and provincial levels.
In Iran, 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. Even after elections, the council has the right to annul any results and prevent any winning candidate from taking up the position for which he is elected.
Nevertheless, even this limited exercise has some significance for at least two reasons. First, it enables the broader public to indicate their likes and dislikes by voting for this or that approved candidate. Secondly, this limited and pre-arranged electoral exercise allows the rival factions to alter the balance of power within the establishment without violence.
The anti-Ahmadinejad front brings together individuals and groups that oppose the president for a range of reasons.
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 the Lebanese government by Hezbollah and its Christian allies, held by ex-general Michel Aoun, could also give Ahmadinejad the boost he needs.
Ahmadinejad has also been heating things up in Afghanistan. Much of the recent upsurge in fighting in south-western Afghanistan has been attributed to the supposedly revived Taliban. The truth, however, is that most of the latest mischief has come from elements of Hizb Islami (Islamic Party) that depends almost entirely on Iranian support.
But it is Iraq that gives Ahmadinejad his biggest hope of success. This could come in a number of ways. The latest call by the Commander of the British Army Sir Richard Dannatt for a quick withdrawal from Iraq has already been seized upon by Ahmadinejad as a signal that the coalition led by the US is unravelling. There are two other issues that might help Ahmadinejad frustrate the efforts of his rivals.
The first is again linked to Iraq and consists of speculation that the US might appeal to Iran and Syria to help stabilise Iraq. James Baker III, the man heading the bipartisan commission on Iraq, has already announced that he would recommend talking to Iran and Syria. Such a move would endorse Ahmadinejad's claim that there cannot be peace in the region without Iran in a leadership position.
The second issue concerns Iran's alleged plans to develop nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad insists in public that the US and its allies and partners will not dare impose sanctions against the country. He has accused his rivals, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, who preceded him as president, of "cowardice in kowtowing to the Great Satan" even before any sanctions had been decided.
Politics is full of paradoxes, and we may soon witness one such in the Iranian elections. Ahmadinejad, by all accounts the most determined enemy of the western democracies in Iran today, may triumph over his rivals thanks to people such as General Dannatt and Baker.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.