Over the weekend, in a knockout punch to the fanciful myth of a rupture between Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his hand-picked president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mullahs’ top leader not only defended his embattled president, he endorsed him for a second term. So much for the much-touted schism and preposterous inferences shaping policy toward Tehran. Is Denver listening?
In what Ahmadinejad’s allies have described as a ''conclusive statement'' on Saturday, 23 August, 2008, Khamenei ordered the former Qods Force commander-turned-president to plan on keeping his post for a second four-year term. According to the state-run Fars News Agency, he said, "Do not think that this year is your last year as head of the government. No. Act as if you will stay in charge for five years." He added ''Imagine that this year, plus the four that follow, you will be in charge, and plan and act accordingly.''
Many proponents of incentive-centric dialogue with Tehran have reasoned that since Ahmadinejad has less than a year left in office and the ''pragmatist radicals'' within the ruling security-military faction are supposedly on the rise, Washington and its allies should just wait and work with the next cabinet.
Khamenei’s Saturday statement has scuttled this preposterous policy which, if pursued, would effectively let Tehran continue its nuclear drive and terrorist meddling in Iraq.
Khamenei’s backing of Ahmadinejad at a crucial juncture was nothing new, but the ferocity of his verbal attack on Ahmadinejad’s domestic critics, top among them Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was unprecedented. According to the New York Times, his support for Ahmadinejad ''was exceptional because of its detailed look at domestic issues and his categorical statements that he and the president were in ideological accord.''
Lashing out at Ahmadinejad’s rivals for their ''destructive negativity,'' the mullahs’ supreme leader praised Ahmadinejad’s defiance of three UN Security Council resolutions. He said, ''Some bullying and demanding countries wanted to impose their will on our country,'' a reference to demands Iran stop its uranium enrichment. ''But our people, and the president and his ministers, stood up to such demands.''
Rafsanjani had recently revealed that Khamenei asked him and other pillars of the theocratic regime to tolerate Ahmadinejad. But in what some of Ahmadinejad’s allies have labeled a declaration of war, Rafsanjani told an audience that ''We tolerated the executive power for these three years. Now we can say it is over.'' He later berated Ahmadinejad as incompetent, saying, “A country with abundant resources should not have gas cuts in winter and power cuts in summer, or have people spending hours in line waiting at gas stations.''
I have previously discussed in this column, how the ayatollahs’ regime is besieged by insurmountable political crisis, threatening its survival as never before. After nearly three decades of rule, the clerical regime is marred by financial and moral corruption; it depends on tyranny at home and expansion of its Islamic fundamentalist rule abroad to stay afloat.
To appreciate this crisis at the very top of Tehran’s leadership, one must understand the set of domestic and foreign imperatives that compelled Khamenei in 2005 to throw his full weight behind the presidency of Ahmadinejad, then an obscure mayor of Tehran. Please see The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008) for more details.
In early 2003, with the invasion of Iraq looming and Tehran’s nuclear program exposed by the main Iranian dissident group, the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI/MEK), Khamenei made a do-or-die decision: Advance the nuclear program and agenda for Iraq by catapulting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps into the political foreground. Khamenei’s strategy, supported by the IRGC’s top brass, was simple: There is window of opportunity before the curtain falls on us; we have to advance full speed with an inward and outward belligerence. There is no time to fool around with charm campaigns.
Indeed, in an apparent jab at the mullahs’ ''reformist'' president Mohammad Khatami, Khamenei remarked on Saturday that ''The government of Ahmadinejad has stopped the process of Westernization and secularization that had begun to infiltrate the decision-making processes of the country."
In 2006, Khamenei let it be known that any compromise in the nuclear standoff or in Iraq would jeopardize the survival of the theocratic regime. He said: ''Any backing down will open the way for a series of endless pressures and never-ending retreats.''
In October 2005, former IRGC general Ali Larijani told it like it is. Then, he was Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator; now he has been designated by advocates of the status quo as a ''pragmatist'' radical. Larijani declared, ''This is war. If we take a step back today, tomorrow they will bring up the issue of human rights, and the day after they will bring up the issue of Hezbollah, and then democracy, and other matters.''
With that in mind, Khamenei has methodically built a political, diplomatic and military stronghold since 2003, placing the top IRGC brass in key political and security positions. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s win in the 2005 presidential elections was the culmination of this ''multi-layered and complex'' morph of the IRGC into a wide-ranging military-political entity.
Shortly after his win, Ahmadinejad, formerly a senior IRGC commander, vowed to ''spread the Islamic Revolution throughout the world.'' With Khamenei’s blessing, he staffed the top tiers of his cabinet and diplomatic corps with veteran IRGC commanders.
But the regime is nonetheless decaying, after three decades of tyrannical, corrupt and belligerent rule. Khamenei finds himself and his regime ever more dependent on the IRGC. And he knows that any chink in the political-military armor - even a change of guard with another die-hard IRGC radical such as Larijani - would be perceived as a ''retreat'' and a sign of strategic weakness.
With debate on a viable Iran policy undoubtedly surging in coming days and weeks, during the presidential conventions and afterward, the strategic implications of Khamenei’s statement must be fully understood. With four more years of the Khamenei/IRGC-backed Ahmadinejad, the Tehran regime is incapable of fundamental change. The only viable, indigenous agent for change is Iran’s rising opposition and democratic resistance.
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.