THE BLOG
02/18/2006 10:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ahmadinejad is No George Bush: Considering Iran's Checks & Balances

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Though he has low favorability ratings and an increasingly large chorus of critics, President Bush has established a template for bold and decisive executive power that seems monarchially ill-disposed to the checks-and-balances of a healthy democracy. In many ways, he has pushed the powers of the Executive Branch beyond the high water mark established by Nixon's presidency at its zenith.

One of the odd but real consequences of Bush's power is that Americans seem to be perceiving other world leaders through a Bush-modeled prism. This is particularly the case with Iran's populist demogogue president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad is clearly hell-bent on creating collisions -- first with Israel, less over its existence than in wanting to do some regional head-butting to establish Iran as a hegemonic rival and in order to embarrass and emasculate Egypt's and Jordan's Muslim leaders. Secondly, Ahmadinejad wants a collision with the West over Iran"s nuclear activities to legitimate his revolutionary faction as the authentic national voice of Iran.

But what is strange is that there are numerous forces inside Iran working overtime to impede Ahmadinejad from fulfilling his ambitions -- while America and Europe are doing much to empower him and give him exactly what he wants.

The question of checks-and-balances in Iran is important -- whether they are theocratic or democratic institutions. We need to understand how executive authority in Iran flows -- or Europe and the U.S. may, out of ignorance, empower Iran's president while undermining other players who keep the blustery rhetoric of Ahmadinejad just that.

This fiery, anti-Israel, nuclear-obsessed President in Iran failed to get his preferred Oil Minister past the Majles-e-Shura-ye-Eslami, or Islamic Consultative Assembly three times. Finally, he had to compromise with other power centers in Iran's government -- who wanted competent manager in that post rather than one of Ahmadinejad's retainers.

This informed comment by Nasrin Alavi gives a picture of the Ahmadinejad-control facility that Iran's other power centers are building:

In fact the president has less power than any of his Islamic Republic predecessors. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has seemingly been startled enough by Ahmadinejad's disruptive tendencies to grant the expediency council (a non-elected body headed by Rafsanjani) oversight of the presidency.

This weakness goes back to Ahmadinejad's election victory in June 2005, when accusations of vote-rigging were made by three of his rival candidates (among the seven allowed to compete for the office, from the 1,010 who registered in the attempt) as well as many other observers. The candidates who alleged foul play -- Mehdi Karroubi (onetime speaker of parliament), Mostafa Moin (ex-education minister), and Hashemi Rafsanjani, (ex-president) -- each represent factional power-blocs within Iran, and have continued to chide Ahmadinejad since his power was confirmed.

Ahmadinejad's struggles to install an oil minister after a three-month political deadlock further exposed his political frailty, and the divisions among Iran's conservatives. After three failed attempts, he was finally forced into a major compromise by proposing an acceptable candidate for the post -- one who had backed a political rival during the presidential elections.

And read this analysis titled "Factional Infighting in Iran Complicates Nuclear Diplomacy". (The writer, Kamal Nazer Yasin, is writing this excellent material from inside Iran under a pseudonym.)

He writes:

An ultra-conservative faction in Tehran, headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not interested in exploring compromise on the nuclear issue, according to several political analysts in Tehran.

Hardliners evidently believe that confrontation with the West on the nuclear issue could help regenerate a sense of national purpose among Iranians. Political apathy has proliferated in Iran in recent years, due in large measure to the government's inability to address pressing economic problems.

It seems that one of the highest objectives of European and American nuclear negotiators should be to pursue a diplomatic track with Iran that chokes off fuel to Ahmadinejad's nuclear populism -- and working with elements beyond his office and which appeal to Iran's broader public would be a constructive step.

Yasin continues his excellent essay with insights into how factions are lining up to constrain Iran's president:

The hardliners are facing rising opposition from a moderate faction, which appears to enjoy support from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Larijani, recently praised some aspects of the Russian plan and emphasized that Tehran did not intend to withdraw from the NPT. Larijani is widely viewed as a political protege of Ayatollah Khamenei's.

Ahmadinejad enjoyed the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei during the initial stage of his presidency. But Ahmadinejad's pursuit of a radically conservative political agenda quickly prompted Ayatollah Khamenei to distance himself from the president's faction. The supreme leader, apparently seeing a need for Iran to have a political counter-balance to the presidential faction, has reached out to centrists led by Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Rafsanjani-led faction is willing to engage the international community on the nuclear issue. Former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a Rafsanjani protege, suggested in a February 9 interview with the Iranian Student News Agency that a confrontational approach would be counterproductive to Iran's national interests. "Shouting alone won't help us achieve our goals," Rouhani stated. "To stand up to our enemies, we need a multi-pronged, proactive and dynamic strategy."

This isn't to say that other elements of Iran's political sphere are going to be America- or Europe-huggers, but they clearly understand the high costs of both isolation and hot collision.

Another part of this equation that must be further explicated -- another day -- is that isolating Iran, or bombing it, could have staggering and profound consequences for American engagement in the Middle East for decades.

There are dangers -- and complicated costs and benefits -- for Europe, the U.S., Iran, and other players in the Middle East.

But we need to get our antennae working regarding what is real and not on the Iran side of the equation and resist inflating Ahmadinejad's powers to look like those of the "makes-his-own-reality" George Bush.

Steven Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note, and is both a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and editor of Bolton Watch.