Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent statements calling for Israel's annihilation are connected primarily to an intensifying power struggle in Tehran, in which hardliners are striving to defeat a challenge by pragmatists led by former chief executive Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Ahmadinejad provoked global outrage on October 26 when he said that Israel should be "wiped off the map." He reiterated his beliefs two day later at an anti-Israel rally in Tehran, saying: "those in the West can say what they want, but their opinions are invalid."
Experts both in Tehran and the West have offered a variety of explanations for the comments, some describing the remarks as an attempt by the president to satisfy his ultra-conservative base, and others attributing the apocalyptic rhetoric to political inexperience. Still other analysts suggested the comments were somehow linked to Iran's ongoing confrontation with the West on Tehran's nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A source well-versed in the twists and turns of Iran's opaque political process says Ahmadinejad's actions are being driven primarily by domestic political considerations. When Ahmadinejad won the presidency in June, hardliners believed they had established a strangle-hold on power. That, however, has not proven to be the case, largely because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has in recent weeks taken steps to distance himself from the hardliners' political agenda. The supreme leader was a backer of Ahmadinejad's presidential bid, but in the months since the election he has reconsidered, having apparently determined that the president's political team is too inexperienced to handle Iran's daunting domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Ayatollah Khamenei is also reportedly worried about the meteoric political rise of clerics and institutions with close ties to Ahmadinejad's presidency - in particular Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Messbah Yazdi, a radical cleric, and the Revolutionary Guards. Messbah Yazdi's call for a sweeping reorientation of Iran's cultural, economic and political spheres is at odds with Ayatollah Khamenei's preference for stability and evolutionary change. Perhaps more alarming for Ayatollah Khamenei is the fact that Ayatollah Messbah Yazdi has sought to place his proteges in the Assembly of Experts - the only body in Iran that can constitutionally replace the supreme leader.
"The supreme leader is simply making a path-correction," the source said. "He feels he can not trust the ship of the state to a bunch of novices."
To implement the correction Ayatollah Khamenei has turned to Rafsanjani, perhaps Iran's foremost political tactician. Many Iranian political analysts consigned Rafsanjani to political oblivion after he finished a distant second to Ahmadinejad in the presidential vote. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With Ayatollah Khamenei's help, however, Rafsanjani has quickly reestablished his political credentials. The source characterized Rafsanjani as currently "number two" behind the supreme leader in Iran's political hierarchy.
To enable Rafsanjani to supercede Ahmadinejad in authority, Ayatollah Khamenei manipulated Iran's complex political system, in which unelective institutions coexist with the legislative and executive branches. In either late September or early October, the supreme leader authorized that the one of the unelective bodies, the Expediency Council, which is headed by Rafsanjani, would supervise the work of the conservative-dominated presidency, legislature and the judiciary.
At the anti-Israel rally on October 28, Rafsanjani cited Article 110 of the Iranian constitution as the basis for the new arrangement. "The Expediency Council formulates overall policy and once the supreme leader approves it, it takes on the force of law," Rafsanjani said. "The second part of the same article  specifies that the supreme leader must ensure that the different organs execute the policies correctly. He [Ayatollah Khamenei] has now transferred some of this oversight responsibility to [the Expediency Council]."
By giving extraordinary constitutional powers to Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khamenei in one stroke created a counterweight to hardliners led by Messbah Yazdi and other radicals. It was within this context that Ahmadinejad issued his calls for Israel's destruction. Those comments were designed to accomplish two objectives - to reassert the supremacy of presidential authority and to undermine an attempted rapprochement with the United States that was being guided by Rafsanjani.
In late September and early October there were several indications that pragmatists in both Iran and the United States were looking for a way to open a dialogue aimed at restoring relations. On September 27, Rafsanjani traveled to Saudi Arabia for urgent consultations. Political analysts in Tehran noted that Rafsanjani has used the Saudis in the past to convey messages to US officials. A newspaper leak later indicated that the main purpose of Rafsanjani's trip was to explore the reopening of talks between Tehran and Washington.
Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, who is not part of Ahmadinejad's inner circle, helped fuel speculation about a possible US-Iranian rapprochement when he said: "If the United States sets no pre-conditions, talking to them may be useful."
Meanwhile, a report published by the Wall Street Journal in early October hinted that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favored the opening of quiet diplomacy with pragmatists in Tehran.
Hardliners in Iran are reportedly desperate to scuttle any possibility of a US-Iranian dialogue. From the ultra-conservative viewpoint, a rapprochement between Iran and the United States would preclude the chance that the hardliner social and economic agenda could ever be implemented.
It remains unclear whether Ahmadinejad's comments on Israel have enabled hardliners to regain the political initiative in Tehran. But by all appearances the remarks appear to have succeeded in torpedoing the effort to revive US-Iranian discussions.
"It is going to be very tough to talk to Iranians after this," said a Geneva-based energy consultant to EurasiaNet. "There are still many people in the White House and elsewhere who dream of changing the present government in Tehran. ... this statement [Ahmadinejad's remarks on Israel] has clearly strengthened the neo-conservatives' hand."