Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is risking his political future by striving to decouple his neo-conservative faction from long-standing domestic allies -- traditionalist clergy and small-scale merchants. If successful, Ahmadinejad would gain a greater degree of freedom of action in both the domestic and international arenas.
What Ahmadinejad might do with that added freedom is a topic that experts both inside and out of Iran are starting to grapple with. Many believe that a puffed-up Ahmadinejad would be a dangerous development for global security. But a few suggest that Ahmadinejad is interested in ditching his bombastic image in favor of a new persona as peacemaker.
Ahmadinejad's recent moves to sever ties with traditionalists and so-called bazaaris are designed to position him for his presidential reelection bid in 2009. The most overt sign of this intention was the government's attempt in early October to introduce a modest value-added tax on small shop owners, who collectively form the bazaari class. The bazaaris responded immediately with a crippling strike.
In September, Ahmadinejad also made a high-profile move to distance himself from the traditionalist faction. He did so by offering unqualified support to Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, Iran's vice president for tourism, who caused a scandal by asserting that Iran was a friend of the Israeli people. Although Ahmadinejad has made highly publicized comments in the past that expressed a desire to wipe the state of Israel off the map, he resolutely defended Mashai's statement, and rejected traditionalist calls for the vice president's resignation. "We have no problem with people and nations," Ahmadinejad said during a September 18 news conference.
Earlier in the summer, Mohammad Norizadeh, a top presidential aide, signaled Ahmadinejad's growing disenchantment with traditionalist clergy with public comments critical of supposed meddling by top clerics in political affairs. Norizadeh suggested such behavior sowed "confusion and anxiety" among the general public.
Since 1979, traditionalists and bazaaris have served as two of the central pillars of support for the Islamic revolution. But both factions, while playing a valuable role in securing the presidency for Ahmadinejad in 2005, are not considered to be part of his base. Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative faction is composed mainly of elements connected to the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia.
So far during his first term, Ahmadinejad has had to wage vigorous behind-the-scenes struggles for control of the policy-making agenda. Apparently, the president and his backers now feel powerful enough that they no longer need the traditionalists' and bazaaris' support to gain reelection. Thus, Ahmadinejad appears to be taking a political chance. If his political calculations are correct, he would emerge from the 2009 election with enhanced authority, and therefore gain a controlling interest in Tehran's policy apparatus.
"These moves speak of a sense of self-confidence," said one well-connected political observer in Tehran. "By keeping Mashai in his job and resisting pressure to sack him and by going against the interests of the bazaaris, he [Ahmadinejad] has made it known that he is not beholden to these traditional [power brokers]. He must also be tired of the constant interference from these people."
It remains far from certain whether Ahmadinejad's gambit is assured of success. One troubling sign for him was the fact that he had to back off from his value-added tax proposal due to strong bazaari opposition. Another indicator that Ahmadinejad may lack sufficient heft surfaced on October 22, when his administration backtracked on an initiative to allow a US-based non-governmental organization, the American-Iranian Council, to open an office in Tehran. Earlier this month, AIC obtained a waiver from the US Treasury Department to conduct operations in Iran, action that probably would not have been forthcoming unless some sort of tacit agreement had been in place between US and Iranian authorities. But on October 22, a close Ahmadinejad ally, Interior Minister Ali Kordan, announced that Iran would not give AIC final authorization to open an office in the country.
One Tehran-based expert suggests that Ahmadinejad's agenda for a second term requires him to jettison the traditionalists and bazaaris. That's because, in sharp contrast to the blustery and belligerent rhetoric of his first term, Ahmadinejad wants to recast himself as a statesman, if he wins reelection. In particular, the expert claims, Ahmadinejad would be interested in exploring the normalization of bilateral American-Iranian relations with the next US presidential administration.
Normalization would appear to offer Iran the best means for wriggling out of the economic mess in which the country presently finds itself, a mess that the Ahmadinejad administration had a major role in making during the last three-plus years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. If accurate, Ahmadinejad's sudden interest in normalization would seem to confirm a political maxim: the desire for power trumps any attachment to principle. It would also help explain why he would act to end his association with traditionalists and bazaaris, as both factions steadfastly oppose any move to restore ties between Washington and Tehran. Both groups fear that normalization would lead to the globalization of Iran's society and economy, thus severely eroding the factions' influence inside the country.
In arguing that Ahmadinejad is set to make a drastic foreign policy departure, some experts point to his September comments on Mashai and Israel. They cast the president's expression of friendship for the Israeli people as a signal that he wishes to moderate his position on the Middle East.
But there are plenty of Iran watchers in the United States and elsewhere who remain skeptical about Ahmadinejad's intentions. Many have a hard time envisioning Ahmadinejad in the role of peacemaker after watching him act like a crisis-monger since his election. Most are not eager to see Ahmadinejad win a second term, believing that it is far more likely that he would do more to complicate than to facilitate a US-Iranian rapprochement.
Among the wary is Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former member of the US National Security Council. Sick could not completely discount the possibility that Ahmadinejad might undergo a drastic political conversion, pointing out that it tends to be easier for "people [like Ahmadinejad] who have consistently taken a hard line against an adversary to talk to that country, [rather] than people who have called for talks all along." But he emphasized that it was impossible to say for sure what Ahmadinejad's intentions were at this time.
David Albright, the president of Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, is among the few who feels Ahmadinejad is potentially capable of changing. Albright noted that when meeting Ahmadinejad in an official capacity and with media cameras around, the Iranian president tries to live up to his bad-boy image by making outlandish quips. But in a private setting, Albright said, "he comes across as much more reasonable than his public persona."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.