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Iran: What is Ahmadineja up to?

Submitted by on November 4, 2005 – 8:55 am No Comment

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday made his second attempt to fill four Cabinet positions, after some of his initial nominations were overwhelmingly rejected by the Majlis for lacking relevant experience. Intriguingly, he seems set on treading the same path once again: He has appointed Sadeq Mahsuli, who like himself is a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to head up the crucial oil ministry — although Mahsuli has no experience in the oil sector. The nomination is subject to a vote of confidence in the Majlis.

The nomination is adding to a growing perception, even within Iran, that Ahmadinejad is, in addition to being a political novice, possibly a loose cannon as well. His provocative statements, such as the recent and widely reported “Israel should be wiped off the map” remark, drew powerful condemnation from the international community (though only a mild response by Washington) — including calls by Israel for Iran to be ousted from the United Nations. As previously noted, his statement was hardly out of the ordinary, considering that it was delivered in an appearance at a student conference titled “The World Without Zionism,” but it certainly was an invitation for a media frenzy. And the timing was such that the controversy could undermine Iran’s confidence at the Nov. 25 IAEA meeting to discuss its nuclear program and in backchannel talks with Washington.

Despite misgivings about his qualifications for his role, Ahmadinejad does have certain uses within the Iranian regime, one of which is making inflammatory statements when Tehran needs a delaying tactic. One of Iran’s goals at this stage in the negotiations over the nuclear issue is simply to buy time: The longer talks continue, whether in the public sphere or behind the scenes, the longer it can stave off military action or some other type of unacceptable (from its standpoint) conclusion. It long has been our view that Iran has used talks with the EU-3 strategically, putting up a public show, while more substantive discussions with Washington over Iraq and the nuclear issue were taking place in private. By drawing attention to its nuclear ambitions, Iran sought to elevate its status as a global player and gain economic concessions along the way.

The question at this point is, if Iran is trying to buy time, to what end?

It is becoming more apparent that the hard-line power brokers in Tehran are unhappy with the pace and direction of talks with the United States. Iran certainly has an interest in sustaining the current level of talks with Washington in its bid to increase influence across the border in Iran, but there also is a desire to keep things from getting too close at this juncture. Although contacts are now at a level not seen since the 1979 revolution, Tehran has dealt warily with the Bush administration, and the unelected clerical establishment wants to remain reasonably conference that improving ties with Washington will not eventually cost them power. In other words, the goal is to make sure that as relations warm, the United States does not use the opportunity to back the more moderate elements within the regime.

Thus, a political figure like Ahmadinejad has utility — and when a reckless statement slows down talks, the establishment can plausibly claim deniability for his actions. But there are some worrying signs even here.

Reports have emerged that the regime has decided to purge as many as 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats from their posts when their terms expire in March. Many of the diplomats belong to the reformist camp of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. Flushing out moderates from Tehran’s diplomatic circles, including those that have been engaged in nuclear talks with the United Kingdom, France and Germany would signal Tehran’s goal of consolidating hard-line control over the government and applying the brakes to backchannel talks. But there is a problem looming, hinted at with news — also on Wednesday — that Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Javid Zarif, had been reinstated to his role.

Zarif resigned in early October from the nuclear negotiating team, and there has been speculation that he would be among the diplomats Ahmadinejad is now seeking to purge. However, it appears his time in office is being extended — either because the hard-liners need his services as they proceed with nuclear negotiations, or because they have not yet identified anyone capable of filling the void.

All of which leads to a question: If Ahmadinejad, who is coming to be viewed as a bull in the political china shop, embodies the next generation of hard-liners, will it be possible for Iran to carry the ideals of the 1979 revolution forward and still progress with foreign policy goals?

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