By CNN's Tim Lister
Now that Moammar Gadhafi is gone, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is likely to be the most controversial visitor to New York this week. He seems to relish the global spotlight of the UN General Assembly. This year he may also be relieved to get away from troubles at home.
An internal power struggle has left Ahmadinejad with his wings clipped and the (more) conservative clerics in the ascendant. The Iranian economy is in poor shape (not least because of international sanctions). And Iran’s main ally in the Arab world – President Bashar al Assad in Syria – is struggling to hold onto his job.
The tussle over the two American hikers in Iran is the latest episode in a battle between Ahmadinejad and the clerical establishment. The president, apparently keen to get the issue out of the way before wheels-up for New York, told NBC last week that the hikers should be freed within a couple of days. Cue the judicial authorities, who are very much in the camp of conservative clerics. They responded curtly that they would decide the issue. Ahmadinejad shot back – suggesting he might make a "unilateral pardon on behalf of the Iranian nation."
Vali Nasr, a frequent adviser to the U.S. government on the Middle East and Professor of International Politics at Tufts University, says Ahmadinejad “wanted to take credit for the hikers’ release and make himself look relevant and capable” – a serious interlocutor. But his attempt to circumvent normal channels angered conservatives.
Nasr says Ahmadinejad is the proverbial lame duck president, with two years left of his second and final term. Nasr, who has advised U.S. administrations on Iran policy, says Ahmadinejad has been confronted by “resistance within the bureaucracy, parliament and judiciary and is unable to get his way on policy issues.”
The rift has grown since the disputed elections of 2009, when Iran’s conservative forces displayed a united front amid massive street protests. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, backed Ahmadinejad from the pulpit while the basij militia cracked heads in the street. But the president’s subsequent attempts to consolidate his power base – and his dabbling in matters spiritual – have not gone down well.
In June, a close Ahmadinejad ally, Mohammed Sharif Malekzadeh, was forced to resign as deputy foreign minister, amid allegations of financial wrongdoing – which he denies. That followed a struggle over the Intelligence minister in April, who was dismissed by Ahmadinejad only to be reinstated by Ayatollah Khamanei.
But it’s not just a turf war. Writing on CNN.com last week, Jamsheed K. Choksy, senior fellow at the Center on American and Global Security, said that "at the heart of the tussle between Ahmadinejad and his former clerical mentors is the question of whether the Islamic republic and its system of velayat-e faqih, or governance by an Islamic jurist, should endure or be discarded as a disastrous experiment."
Nasr says Ahmadinejad has also infuriated the clergy by repeatedly talking of his special relationship with the Twelfth (or Hidden) Imam, a messianic figure who he said last week would return to earth to establish “brotherly love.” Earlier this year Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandier Rahim Mashaei, backed a film on the subject. Conservative clerics reacted furiously at such an intrusion into their territory, attacking members of the government as "deviants, devils and evil spirits." Several people were arrested and charged with “invoking spirits.”
Karim Sadjadpour says Ahmadinejad "has always been the dispensable sword of Ayatollah Khamenei, who used Ahmadinejad to bludgeon his domestic opponents, pursue a non-compromising foreign policy and try to resuscitate revolutionary zeal." But he says the Ayatollah "seemingly didn't anticipate is that Ahmadinejad is a double-edged sword who wasn't going to be content with being merely the leader's lackey."
Iran and the Arab Spring
The regional picture for Iran is not quite as rosy as it was either. Three years ago, its alliance with Syria allowed Tehran to exercise influence throughout the Middle East and especially in Lebanon through Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles, the best of them provided by Iran according to US diplomatic sources, was the Iranians’ potent "insurance card" against any Israeli attack against its nuclear facilities.
At the same time, Iran’s influence in Iraq was growing through Shi’ite militia and an empathetic coalition led by Nouri al Maliki. (Saudi officials used to describe Maliki as an "Iranian agent.") Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt all fretted about growing Iranian influence. In a diplomatic cable from 2009, then President Mubarak of Egypt Mubarak warned of Iran's growing influence with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and was quoted as describing "Tehran's hand moving with ease throughout the region, from the Gulf to Morocco."
Today the picture is hazier. Publicly Ahmadinejad has distanced himself from Syria’s beleaguered President, Bashar al Assad. Ahmadinejad told the Washington Post last week: "Some people are against him. They should be respected." Some analysts say Iran is concerned about the anti-Iranian tone of some Syrian protests, and wants to hedge its bets should Assad eventually succumb. Vali Nasr says the veiled public criticism of Assad is an attempt by the Iranians to protect their image on the Arab street, while at the same time continuing to back the Syrian president in private.
"I suspect in private the Iranians have offered Assad their continued support and advised him not to concede an inch," says Karim Sadjapour of the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace. "The long-held strategy and philosophy of Iran's hardliners is that you never compromise for it will only project weakness and encourage more dissent."
Other trends don’t necessarily work in Iran’s favor. Turkey, a growing power in the region, has chastised Iran for its loyalty to Assad. Much sharper pro- and anti-Iranian lines have been drawn in Lebanon, with the Sunni-led opposition bloc throwing down the gauntlet to Hezbollah. And while the results of the Arab Spring are not yet in, its democratic impulse is one that’s difficult for Iran to champion – given its own crackdown on protesters in 2009. Iran has somewhat implausibly supported the protests as an "Islamic awakening."
There may be opportunities for Iran in the reshaping of the region: the military council running Egypt is less hostile to Iran than was Mubarak – and also less cozy with Israel. Shi'ite unrest in Bahrain – just a few miles across the Gulf from the Iranian coast – has given a stick to the Iranians with which to beat the (Sunni) Gulf monarchies. Ahmadinejad told a news conference in April: "The Saudis did an ugly thing to deploy troops [in Bahrain] ... the Bahraini government also did an ugly work to kill its own people."
But from Morocco to Syria, the inspiration for change has been democracy not theocracy, and Iran-watchers say those winds of change may in turn limit Ayatollah Khamanei's freedom of maneuver. Even if he wanted to engineer the impeachment of Ahmadinejad, fresh elections while the rest of the Middle East is in turmoil might invoke the law of unintended consequences, says Vali Nasr.
There is plenty for Iranians to grumble about. Inflation is running at 20 percent; unemployment by some estimates at 15 percent. Sanctions have hurt the financial and transport sectors and are variously blamed on the United States, Ahmadinejad, the clergy or all of the above. Economic growth is probably no more than one percent, according to the head of the Parliament's research committee, Ahmad Tavakoli. On top of that, the government has begun to reduce state subsidies, which were costing an estimated $100 billion a year. Suzanne Maloney of the U.S. Institute of Peace wrote earlier this year that Iran's youth "who represent more than two-thirds of the population – are simply fed up with the lack of opportunities and the stultifying social and cultural restrictions."
Vali Nasr says that despite everything, many poorer Iranians still support Ahmadinejad. “He’s distributed a lot of money to the poor and they still think he’s on their side.” As subsidies were cut, the government provided modest cash payments to Iranian families to cushion the impact.
More likely than any showdown between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, according to analysts, is an uneasy coexistence until the next scheduled presidential elections in 2013. Nasr says the clerical establishment doesn’t want to disturb the system having expended so much political capital in backing Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections. It is happy to weaken him without resorting to the “monumental step” of impeachment.
Now coming into focus is the campaign for next year’s parliamentary elections and the crucial presidential election in 2013. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to groom long-term protégé Esfandier Rahim Mashaei as a successor have set off a furious backlash. Last week, Ahmadinejad denied that Mashaei (whose daughter is married to the president's oldest son) was implicated in a $2.6 billion banking scandal in Iran. And he included Mashaei in his delegation to the UN – prompting conservative lawmakers to claim he was protecting his chief of staff from likely arrest back home.
Despite all the protesters awaiting him, a few days at the Warwick Hotel in New York may seem like a vacation to the Iranian president.