Is Ahmadinejad in Trouble?


(United Press International)

by Alireza Nader

December 17, 2008

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may lose the June 2009 presidential election. And a more pragmatic figure, one willing to engage the United States and the international community on Iran's nuclear program, may assume power. But no one, especially in the United States, should count on a dramatic change in Iran's policies, even if Ahmadinejad loses.

Ahmadinejad has been routinely and harshly criticized by many of his countrymen for his performance of the past three years, especially his handling of the economy. Inflation hovers around 30 percent (officially), unemployment continues to climb, and rolling blackouts and energy shortages make everyday life more difficult throughout the country.

The Iranian Parliament's recent impeachment of Interior Minister Ali Kordan for forging a Ph.D. from Oxford University dealt another blow to Ahmadinejad's prestige and his prospects for re-election in 2009. Leading Iranian political figures, including some within Ahmadinejad's own political camp, are disillusioned by what they see as his economic and foreign policy failures. They may hope that Ahmadinejad's defeat in the presidential election could lead to a softer approach on issues ranging from the economy to U.S.-Iranian relations.

Domestic criticism of Ahmadinejad is nothing new. He has been attacked by a number of senior Iranian figures, ranging from the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami to the pragmatic conservative and powerful chief of the Expediency Discernment Council, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But Rafsanjani recently took the gloves off. "We have tolerated the (Ahmadinejad) government for the past three years," Rafsanjani told Iranian journalists. "Now we can say this is over."

There are reports that Khatami, Rafsanjani and other reformist and pragmatic conservative figures have put aside their differences in order to defeat Ahmadinejad, their common foe. Yet Ahmadinejad should not worry only about attacks from the left or center. The real challenge may come from fellow right-wing "principlists," those who claim adherence to the true principles and ideology of the Islamic revolution.

Ahmadinejad has managed to navigate and survive Iran's labyrinthine system of political power through the support of three key players: the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution; and the Basij, a reactionary paramilitary force under the Guards that claims to command 10 million men and women.

The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, who are the self-appointed guardians of revolutionary principles, have also formed a joint force of 12,000 "political guides" who likely will play an important role in the upcoming election. The influential and principlist Kayhan daily newspaper recently reported that the Basij had been the "the most essential voting bloc" in the 2005 presidential election and certainly would be influential in the 2009 election.

Kordan's impeachment by the Iranian Parliament shows the growing strength of the principlist faction opposed to Ahmadinejad. The faction is led by former national security adviser Ali Larijani, who handled negotiations with the European Union and International Atomic Energy Agency on the nuclear issue and who at times is viewed as a moderate by his interlocutors. Larijani is reportedly unhappy with Ahmadinejad's bellicose rhetoric and his aggressive style of domestic politics. A former Guards officer and current speaker of Parliament, Larijani is also a potential presidential candidate.

It is too early to predict who will become Iran's next president. Ahmadinejad, for all the challenges and complexities that confront him, appears to have received Khamenei's endorsement and may yet garner sufficient support from the principlists and the Guards/Basij to emerge as the winner. Yet even if he loses, the hard-liners, including the Guards, will still have a major role, especially on the nuclear issue.

Iran's political class, faced with a dire economy and increasing international isolation, may opt for a change of style in 2009. But all of the contending factions see Iran's nuclear program as a point of national pride. The United States and the European nations that have been attempting to negotiate an end to Tehran's nuclear programs should not delude themselves that the election will trigger a change in course.

(Alireza Nader is an analyst at the RAND Corp., a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.)

© 2008 United Press International

This commentary also appeared in the Middle East Times and Military Space News.

This commentary originally appeared on United Press International on December 17, 2008. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.