An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ahmadi and Friends

Sanctions aren't forcing Iran's leaders apart -- far from it. Ayatollah Khamenei's master plan is right on track.

Iran-watchers in the West may be pleased to find Tehran’s political leadership so seemingly willing to oblige the primary intention of the latest international sanctions — namely, to sow discord among Iranian elites.

In recent weeks, the Iranian media has been chronicling the public feuds between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and seemingly everyone else in the entire country. Ahmadinejad versus the Majles (the Iranian parliament); Ahmadinejad versus the judiciary chief; Ahmadinejad versus the bazaar merchants, some of the country’s most powerful economic players; Ahmadinejad versus the conservative Motalefeh party; Ahmadinejad versus some of the country’s most powerful and influential hard-line clerics. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei finally entered the fray in late August, demanding that the feuding politicians set aside their differences, at least publicly, and instead work together toward the betterment of the country.

To some, Khamenei’s plea may have seemed a sign of desperation, a signal that the regime was unraveling under the weight of economic mismanagement, the effect of sanctions, and the lingering discontent over last year’s election results and the aftermath of state-sanctioned violence. But that’s little more than wishful thinking dressed up as political analysis. In truth, the latest squabbling is business as usual in the byzantine Iranian political system.

The tension surrounding Ahmadinejad isn’t a product of international sanctions, at least not primarily, nor does it signify the rebirth of the Green Movement: It’s largely the expression of Iranian conservatives’ discontent with the status quo. After the regime’s crackdown on the liberal and reformist opposition, it’s true that the opposition has been drastically reduced — only conservatives remain in positions of influence — but that’s not to say that everyone sees eye to eye with the president. Some of these conservative politicians have even challenged Ahmadinejad at the ballot box: Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament, and Mohammad Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran, both ran for president in 2005. In 2009, Mohsen Rezaee, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threw his hat in the ring against the sitting president. Their differences range from the rhetorical — many traditional conservatives think Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory grandstanding has hurt Iran’s cause on the world stage — to the bureaucratic — Ahmadinejad has pointedly restricted decision-making on economic policy to all but his most-trusted aides.

Conservative clerical opposition to Ahmadinejad has been a constant throughout his presidency: Early in his first term — in one of his only attempts to reach out to liberal, urban Iranians — Ahmadinejad proclaimed that soccer stadiums should allow women, as well as men, to attend as spectators. The result was a wave of condemnation by clerics and conservative lay politicians alike. The major bazaar merchants have also long held the president accountable for what they see as a mismanagement of the economy and his planned economic reforms that would raise taxes on some Iranians, while cutting subsidies on gasoline and certain foodstuffs.

That there’s vocal — albeit limited — opposition to Ahmadinejad shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Islamic Republic: despite its glaring democratic shortcomings, it’s never quite been the absolute and monolithic totalitarian dictatorship we often imagine it to be (and it’s certainly not one with a dictator president). The supreme leader’s admonitions notwithstanding, those conservatives and clerics still in good standing have no reason to let up in their opposition: Ahmadinejad has proved himself a ruthless political infighter — invading other elites’ traditional spheres of influence or bypassing them altogether in important decision-making.

Generally, this is the sort of political jockeying that the supreme leader will abide: His primary concern is the system’s loyalty to his leadership, and — especially after the past year’s purges — he has nothing to fear in that respect. Khamenei makes a point of accepting advice from anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives, and he even occasionally encourages direct challenges against the president via Kayhan, Iran’s largest daily newspaper and a mouthpiece of the supreme leader’s office.

So why now does the supreme leader feel he must put a stop to the public squabbling? One reason might be the inordinate amount of attention it has received. Khamenei is no doubt aware that Iran’s enemies are keenly watching for signs of the regime’s weakness, the better to justify military attacks. By emphasizing unity — something former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, no fan of Ahmadinejad, has also done in recent weeks — Khamenei likely means to project an image of strength, internationally and domestically, at a crucial period in Iran’s history. The rallying together isn’t a flailing reaction to sanctions; it’s a concerted show of strength in the face of adversity.

The fact is, there is broad consensus on major foreign-policy issues across the political spectrum in Iran — particularly with respect to the nuclear issue. While U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration claims that the latest and toughest sanctions seem to be working, forcing the Iranians to consider negotiations on the nuclear issue, the Iranian leadership was already in agreement on actual compromises before the sanctions were imposed. There’s no reason to doubt the good-faith bona fides of the Tehran declaration, which Iran signed together with Turkey and Brazil, and in which it agreed to an exchange of enriched uranium and even suggested further negotiations with the IAEA and the P5+1. From Iran’s perspective, it was the United States that rejected the deal without any evident consideration.

The suggestion that tensions within the leadership have been aggravated by the sanctions, or that sanctions are responsible for Iran’s apparent willingness to talk, is a misreading of the political scene in Tehran. At a base level, it ignores the long history of clashes and rivalry between strong personalities in government and among the ayatollahs. Moreover, history has shown that outside threats tend to create unity rather than divisions among Tehran’s leadership; that unity does not need to be coerced. Yet the supreme leader’s call to stop the squabbling is likely motivated by a deep — perhaps even occasionally paranoid — fear that to respond to hostility with conciliation is to fall into a trap that the West has set for Iran, one in which Iran suddenly finds itself beholden to greater powers or subject to a “soft” or “velvet revolution.” Put simply, now is not the time for petty infighting. And even those conservatives who retain their distaste for Ahmadinejad won’t want to jeopardize their good standing with Khamenei — especially as the 2013 presidential election approaches — by appeasing Iran’s enemies, real or imagined.

Hooman Majd is a contributor to NBC News. He has written for many publications including the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Foreign Affairs, as well as Foreign Policy. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran and, most recently, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran. <p>HoomanMajd, a New York- based writer, is author of TheAyatollah Begs to Differ. He advised and interpreted for two Iranianpresidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to theUnited States.</p> Twitter: @hmajd

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