Tehran has become the stereotype of the aggressive, confrontational rogue regime. What may not be immediately apparent, however, is that the ayatollahs’ outward belligerence only increases relative to the inward weakening of their regime. Understanding this apparent contradiction is key to untangling a plethora of Iran-related national security challenges confounding policymakers on the both sides of the Atlantic.
Last week, as all of Washington was talking about new reports confirming Tehran as the number one threat to a democratic Iraq and to U.S. national security, Iran’s president again exposed his fangs. With much fanfare, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the “nuclear good news” about plans to install another 6,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges and test more advanced ones in the near future.
Two days later, Ahmadinejad told his audience in the northeastern city of Mashhad, "We have two missions: to build an Islamic Iran and to endeavor to change the world leadership. We have to do both as best we can.” The “resolutions adopted against Iran,” he said, are “scraps of paper.”
Ahmadinejad’s exaggerated defiance could not hide the waning strength of his regime, exacerbated by the widespread boycott of the mid-March election and the unprecedented round of purges which preceded it. In the most telling part of his Mashhad address, he talked about the need to press on with the elimination not just of rivals, but even of those among his allies and cabinet members who have displayed less than absolute loyalty. Forecasting more purges on the horizon, he said that “We must prepare ourselves for a major purge and an overhaul of principles in route to the reconstruction” of Iran.
The next day, his government announced that Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, the interior minister in charge of elections, had been sacked along with the finance and economy minister. Make no mistake; Pour-Mohammadi was not dismissed because he belonged to the rival faction. “Moderation” and “reform” are alien concepts to this guy. Since the inception of the ayatollahs’ rule, he has been one of the most ardent advocates of the hard line, at home and abroad. A former deputy minister of intelligence and security as well as former revolutionary prosecutor for the military, Pour-Mohammadi was directly involved in the killing of hundreds of dissidents, including the 1988 massacre of political prisoners.
Ahmadinejad’s ruling faction nevertheless blames Pour-Mohammadi for the popular boycott of the elections. Even the inflated official numbers show a mere 20 to 25 percent participation in Tehran and other major cities, while reports compiled by the network of the People’s Mujahedin (PMOI/MEK), Iran’s main democratic opposition, indicate single digit participation.
Actually, Pour-Mohammadi and his ministry had done all they could to lessen the blow of the impending boycott. In the days before the polling, he announced a “35 million turnout.” On Election Day, he backed off and told reporters that only 25 million had participated. And when the vote counts came in, he again lowered the number to 22.8 million. But Pour-Mohammadi’s desperate attempts were an implicit acknowledgment of the regime’s defeat, which greatly angered Ahmadinejad and his cohorts. Pour-Mohammadi’s head was first to roll.
If Ahmadinejad’s Mashhad remarks are any indication, the purges are just getting started. Already Tehran is abuzz with rumors of imminent dismissals of many provincial governors and their deputies. The summoning of the Intelligence Minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ezhei, and Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, before the parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission this week has only accelerated the rumor mill.
The specter of political instability, hardly masked by Ahmadinejad’s daily dose of diatribes and defiant tirades, has caused deep anxiety within the regime’s inner circles. The dismissal of almost a dozen ministers in addition to scores of other senior officials during Ahmadinejad’s presidency worries many Tehran insiders, who fear it will be interpreted abroad as a sign of the regime’s fragility.
To counteract this persistent decline, Ahmadinejad is driving ahead full throttle in pursuit of nuclear weapons and the establishment of a sister theocratic rule in Iraq. With the backing of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, his regime has adopted a do-or-die agenda, which makes future sackings and purges inevitable.
The ruling clique fully appreciates the implications of rising anti-regime sentiment at home and growing isolation abroad. They know too that the trend of purge and elimination of the regime’s political body could, sooner or later, bring down the whole regime. That is why they are racing against time to get the A-bomb and dominate Iraq, both crucial to their bid for a second lease on life for their regime.
And that is why western capitals, particularly Washington, must take stock of the realities of dealing with an increasingly fragile — and at the same time increasingly belligerent — regime. In conjunction with its allies, the United States must confront the ayatollahs on the nuclear issue; compliance is non-negotiable. In Iraq, the United States must stop Tehran’s inroads by relying on indigenous anti-fundamentalist and non-sectarian political organizations. In both cases, a large bipartisan group of Members of Congress argue, the best strategy is to throw the political weight of the United States behind the democratic Iranian opposition who was designated as terrorist by the State Department as a "goodwill gesture" to Tehran in 1997. Members of Congress believe that the main Iranian opposition is partnered with moderate, secular Iraqis trying to safeguard their country from Iranian interference, and they are at the heart of the anti-fundamentalist movement in Iran.
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are racing against time, and so should the West. This is one race the West cannot afford to lose.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org, and is on twitter @A_Jafarzadeh.