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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Some room for optimism on Iran

Yossi Melman is a senior commentator for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He specializes in intelligence, security, terrorism and strategic issues. An author of seven books on these topics he is now writing (with Meir Javedanfar) a book on Iran’s President and his desire for nuclear weapons to be published next spring in the U.S.A. In the Washington Post's PostGlobal section, Melman gives some room for optimism on Iran:
Since he came to power almost two years ago, Ahmadinejad has positioned himself as the vanguard of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and has consistently used inflammatory rhetoric – hoping to see Israel wiped from the face of the earth and denying the Holocaust – which causes concern around the world. But, luckily for global stability, he is not in charge of the nuclear program. The man who calls the shots, the one who holds ultimate authority, is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Yet the fact that Ali Khamenei allows Ahmadinejad to speak his mind is significant. On the surface, there are several explanations for this license. One is that Khamenei doesn't care, because ultimately he has the final word. Two, what the president has been saying is to the Supreme Leader's liking, because he, too, believes that Iran should take a tough negotiating stance on the nuclear issue. The third is that Khamenei doesn't have enough power to restrain Ahmadinejad, or that reining him in would come at the price of other political concessions that are more important to Khamenei than Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric.

Years of political experience, first as president and then as Khomeini’s successor, taught Khamenei not to be as irrational, messianic and single-minded as Ahmadinejad. One should not be disillusioned; like any other Iranian leader, Khamenei wants Iran to have nuclear technology for civilian purposes and probably for a bomb too. The difference is that while Ahmadinejad is ready to pay any price, including military confrontation, Khamenei seems more cautious. If there is any chance of reaching a compromise that would avoid additional sanctions and an American/British/Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the final decision to offer such compromise is in the hands of Khamenei. In other words, the prospect of crisis management to avoid a military confrontation which could turn into a global crisis is within the confines of Iran’s domestic politics.

Ahmadinejad, despite his fiery bravado and visible presence, only constitutes one side of Iranian politics. The other side is comprised of moderate conservatives and reformists, who stand against Ahmadinejad and his ultra-conservative ideological allies. Even though currently Ayatollah Khamenei seems to be granting the higher platform to Ahmadinejad and his allies, he would never allow the moderate and reformist side of Iranian politics to disappear. The Supreme Leader is a master at balancing political forces. To him, the Islamic republic is a bird which needs two wings to fly.

If and when Ahmadinejad’s actions and politics start to become counterproductive, Ayatollah Khamenei will shift power away from him. It seems that we may be getting closer to that time.


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