Partisanship in Tehran Could Slow Nuclear Program

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to give Iran the bomb to secure his legacy--but his domestic opponents don't want to see him succeed

ahmadinejad-- Caren Firouz-body.jpg

Caren Firouz/Reuters

In about a month, Iran's firebrand president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will once again fly to New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly. Being the lightning rod that he is, there are sure to be vehement protests and massive public outcry over his mere presence, much less whatever vile exhortations he has in store for us this year. Although this particular stage drama has become predictable over the last six years, now there is a new twist: Ahmadinejad's near-total political impotence back home in Iran.

Ahmadinejad's recent fall from grace has led many observers to write him off as a meaningful force in Iran. One analyst I spoke to recently said Ahmadinejad has become more like a foreign minister than a president, able to go on trips and give speeches, but not much more.

Iran's presidency has always been a relatively weak institution. According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the president is subservient to the supreme leader, who is vested with ultimate political and religious authority. Even among his peers in government, Ahmadinejad has always had to jockey for influence against military, clerical, and technocratic factions. But in recent months, Ahmadinejad has fallen out of favor with his colleagues -- and he has fallen hard.

The reason for the dispute lies in Ahmadinejad's controversial choice of advisers, especially his closest adviser Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, whose views on clerical rule in Iran have made him an enemy of many of the country's most powerful figures. But the source of the conflict is less important than its outcome: Ahmadinejad is now widely regarded as a lame duck president.

This could be good news, depending on how credible you find recent intelligence calculations. According to one nation's assessment given to the Associated Press, Ahmadinejad is the leading voice within Iran's inner circle pushing to develop nuclear weapons. Many in Washington instinctively viewed this report as a sign of Iran's devious nuclear intentions, but there is another way of looking at it: Ahmadinejad, currently at the nadir of his presidency, is unlikely to convince his colleagues to develop a nuclear arsenal because he is opposed by Iran's clerics who are far more powerful.

If you're afraid of an Iran with a nuclear weapon, right now there is no one you would rather have pushing for an overt military program more than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, precisely because he has fallen out of favor with Tehran's leaders.

It makes sense that Ahmadinejad would advocate sprinting across the nuclear finish line as a way of salvaging his legacy. If the country builds a nuclear weapon during his presidency, history will remember him as the one who vaulted Iran to great power status. For exactly this reason, however, his clerical opponents are likely going to continue to oppose finishing a bomb in order to deny him that great legacy.

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Patrick Disney is currently a graduate student focusing on Iran and nuclear nonproliferation at Yale University. He previously served as the Assistant Policy Director for the National Iranian American Council.

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