The Iranian president is bombastic, masterful at generating media coverage, and largely irrelevant to his country's political leadership
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fallen on hard times. For months, that was the conclusion of some analysts and the suspicion of many Iran-watchers, but his visit last week to the United Nations seemed to cement this view as the new consensus. He has become a tarnished star, drawing the ire of powerful foes within Iran's conservative establishment and failing to sustain the energetic support he commanded only a few years ago. Worse yet, he is now seen as a marginal political figure, trying desperately to attract media attention in the vain hope of staying relevant.
If there is one other figure who could sympathize -- horrific as it may be for the both of them -- it's Sarah Palin.
Palin, like Ahmadinejad, was on top of the political heap only a few years ago. She was seen as a likely frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination, with waves of popular support across the country. Now, she isn't even among her party's presidential contenders. She occasionally dangles the prospect of a run, showing up in places like Iowa around the time of the Republican straw poll as a thinly veiled attempt to keep the buzz alive. But like Ahmadinejad -- who also loves to make a splash far larger than his actual influence merits -- Palin's time in the spotlight seems to have run out for good.
Ahmadinejad was once viewed as the leader of a new generation of Iranian politicians: non-clerics, war veterans, and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) establishment figures. Now factions within the regime loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have branded him part of a "deviant current." The powerful clerical leadership is working hard to prevent him from designating his successor when his term runs out in 2013, and there's little reason to think they will fail.
The writing on the wall is clear -- and, in many ways, it's tough to watch. When I attended Ahmadinejad's annual New York City press lunch this week -- an odd, well-worn ritual he holds with American journalists between speeches at the United Nations General Assembly -- the decline was unmissable, as were its implications.
Ahmadinejad must have been looking forward to his annual trip to New York as a chance to regain the limelight. Even before he left Iran, he stoked the embers of a dependably eager media by proclaiming to the Washington Post and NBC that he intended to pardon two US hikers still in prison. Predictably, the announcement made instant headlines, and Ahmadinejad was once again the center of world attention. That is, until his conservative rivals in the judiciary reined him back in. And so, in a not-so-subtle reminder that Ahmadinejad is on the outs, the judiciary waited until the president's plane left Iranian airspace before they let the hikers go free.
The strain of all this is beginning to show. When asked during a press conference last Friday whether he holds any sway on the country's nuclear policy, or if the Supreme Leader calls all the shots as many experts believe, Ahmadinejad fired back somewhat testily. "What difference does it make?" he said. "Of course the government, the administration" -- his administration -- "runs the foreign policy. The government decides on the foreign policy direction for Iran," he stressed, protesting perhaps a little too much. After all, there is a tension between the powers he claims to possess and the limits to that power evident in recent months. U.S. negotiators learned this lesson the hard way following the first high level meeting on the nuclear issue two years ago, when Ahmadinejad supported a US-backed fuel swap proposal only to have that deal cancelled by his more powerful colleagues. Since then, his political fortunes have been marred by disagreement over cabinet appointments and even threats of impeachment.
Apparently somebody in Iran thinks it makes a difference who is in charge, and that somebody prefers to keep Ahmadinejad out in the cold.
The biggest news out of Ahmadinejad's visit may be that the man is no longer newsworthy. After seven years of the same rehearsed outrage, many media and policy makers have learned that little of substance comes out of Ahmadinejad's bombast. True, Western diplomats exited the assembly hall en masse during his speech, but this was more ritual than calculation. Washington hardly spent time showing off its outrage, isolating the Iranian leader by ignoring him rather than attacking him.
Unfortunately, this lesson also applies to the few bright spots that arose during the visit as well, notably Ahmadinejad's repeated promise to stop uranium enrichment above low levels if the U.S. or some other supplier would agree to sell nuclear fuel to Iran on the open market. Proliferation groups like the Institute for Science and International Security have greeted this offer with enthusiasm, calling on Washington to explore the opportunity. But there is little reason to believe that Ahmadinejad can deliver on his promises without substantial help from others in Iran's power center. If a deal on enrichment is possible -- which it very well may be -- it is probably not going to hinge on whether or not Ahmadinejad supports it. And it certainly will not be as simple as he made it out to be.
The remaining two years of Ahmadinejad's term are going to be difficult as he fends off accusations of fraud, corruption, and sedition. Everything in his past behavior indicates that he is not one to go down without a fight, and indeed he has threatened to retaliate should opponents cross his stated "red lines." Yet, the marginalized position he finds himself in today just might be the best he could hope for over the next two years. The fiery Iranian president might be forced to copy another move made by the former governor of Alaska: leaving office before his term is up.