The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is being sidelined by religious fundamentalists, and it’s bad news for American officials seeking to halt Iran’s nuclear program.
The same Iranian leader who dabbled in Holocaust denial and messianic fantasies was, paradoxically, also the theocracy’s most ardent advocate of direct nuclear negotiations with Washington. As Mr. Ahmadinejad falls out of favor with Iran’s hard-line religious leaders, the prospect of a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington is diminishing.
Once the darling of clerical conservatives, who only two years ago rigged the system to ensure his re-election, Mr. Ahmadinejad is now clinging to his post amid furious recriminations from his erstwhile allies. His fall from grace has been fierce and fast. In what is only the latest in a series of humiliating comedowns, Mr. Ahmadinejad was heckled recently at a service commemorating the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The most devastating blow came in May from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who publicly repudiated his hand-picked protégé in a clash over presidential powers.
Iran’s Islamist clerics deliberately made the presidency a weak office, due to their enduring suspicion of central authority and popular elections, and each of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s predecessors plainly chafed at its limitations. The brash Mr. Ahmadinejad persistently sought to transcend these constraints. By deftly exploiting nationalist impulses and economic grievances, the president used every opportunity to build a power base and assert his influence. These same shrewd political instincts drove him to embrace the notion of negotiations with Washington, a proposition fundamentally at odds with the clerics’ official ideology of anti-Americanism.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s interest in dialogue was not motivated by any appreciation of American civilization or an impulse to reconcile. Rather, the provocative president saw talks as a means of boosting his stature at home and abroad while touting his vision of a strong nuclear-armed Iran. For a politician with delusions of his own grandeur, the idea of high-profile negotiations with Washington offered an opportunity to strut on the world stage as the champion of a new, anti-American world order.
Iran’s conservative establishment has long recognized Mr. Ahmadinejad’s ambitions as a threat, both to their political domination and to their ideology. However, for as long as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rabble-rousing served the purposes of the regime, Mr. Khamenei indulged and even encouraged him — until the president’s pretensions began to infringe on Mr. Khamenei’s authority.
Having finally kneecapped the unruly Mr. Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader is now more firmly in control of Iran than ever before. None of the relevant decision-makers are willing or able to push back against Mr. Khamenei’s hostile and suspicious stance toward the West. And as turmoil spreads through the region, Iran is seeking to expand its influence across the greater Middle East and beyond. An increasingly confident and aggressive Iran is unlikely to accept meaningful limitations on its nuclear ambitions or sever its ties to militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
This poses a real conundrum for policy makers in the United States and Europe, who have been relying almost exclusively on economic sanctions to impede Iran’s nuclear progress while hoping that factional infighting might eventually lead the regime to collapse. Both strategies are likely to fall short. After all, Iran’s nuclear program was revived by the clerics during a period of isolation and wartime austerity as Iran fought Iraq in the 1980s, and fierce debate among Iranian elites is hardly new.
Still, the current political upheaval in the region does make the Iranian regime vulnerable. Moreover, Mr. Khamenei’s increasing absolutism has alienated not just Iran’s citizenry but even his loyal foot soldiers, from the revolution’s founding fathers, like the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to its zealous children, like Mr. Ahmadinejad.
A regime riven by internal conflicts, leery of its constituents, under economic duress, and surrounded by burgeoning anti-authoritarian protest movements offers its own share of pressure points — and a more creative American approach could pay dividends, as shifting alignments among Iran’s political class offer opportunities to reshape Iran’s priorities.
Washington must appreciate that it is locked in a prolonged struggle for regional influence with one of its least predictable foes. To prevail in this conflict, Washington must abandon any expectation that Tehran can be seduced or coerced to the negotiating table.
American policy should seek to maximize financial and technological constraints on the Iranian nuclear program, strengthen Iran’s opposition, exacerbate the many fissures within its political class and insulate Iran’s neighbors from its nefarious activities. The leaders of a revolution that has once again devoured its own can surely be thwarted by the United States and its allies.
Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.