By Cliff Kupchan and Jonathan Tepperman
Last week was a busy one in New York, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in town for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, kept the media spotlight focused firmly on Turtle Bay with his usual antics: absurd claims about 9/11, some casual Holocaust denial, a little pro forma denunciation of Zionism, and some reflexive chest beating directed at Washington.
But the president's performance distracted attention from where the really interesting action was taking place: in Tehran, where a possibly game-changing battle within the conservative elite has intensified in recent weeks. The tensions between clerics and pragmatic conservatives on the one hand and Ahmadinejad and his allies on the other has been brewing for some months, but recently reached a fever pitch.
At issue are several disputes. The first is an ongoing power struggle between the president and the parliament, or Majlis, which is dominated by his pragmatic conservative foes. This battle has finally crystallized around a surprisingly banal question: funding for the Tehran metro, which the Majlis has appropriated $2 billion to upgrade and the president refuses to spend.
Part of Ahmadinejad's reasoning is that the metro system is run by the son of one of his many enemies: In this case, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who supported the Green Movement in last year's contested election. But there is a deeper reason for Ahmadinejad's fight with parliament, and it explains some of his other recent moves as well -- the diminutive leader is trying nothing less than to reinterpret Iran's constitution by fiat, to push it from a system in which the Supreme Leader coordinates between the three branches of government to one in which the president calls more shots.
Ahmadinejad's creeping power play can be seen in another of his recent campaigns: to wrest control over Iran's foreign policy. The president has long distrusted Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and sought to replace him. The problem is that Mottaki got his job from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So Ahmadinejad, like a deft infighter, has simply started working around Khamenei on this issue, appointing his own foreign policy experts -- in effect, establishing an alternate foreign ministry under exclusive presidential control. The new men include Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who now holds a brief as Middle East adviser, and five others. Khamenei has reportedly warned the president against setting up such parallel power structures, but so far at least, Ahmadinejad is ignoring him.
All of this might seem like good news for the United States, and in the long term, it probably is. Having successfully marginalized Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and the democratic Green Movement they led in last year's elections, the country's conservative elite is now turning on itself -- and if these battles keep escalating, they could eventually tear the regime apart.
The squabbling has also weakened the standing of Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who, by failing to intervene, is confirming his reputation for weakness and indecisiveness.
In the short term, however, the chaos will complicate relations between Washington and Tehran. For all his anti-Western rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has actually been one of the Iranian politicians to call most loudly for talks with the United States on Iran's nuclear program. But pragmatic conservatives will now do all they can to torpedo any outreach to the Great Satan, lest the president claim credit for a breakthrough. That means the chances of negotiation over Iran's advancing weapons program -- never high at the best of times -- have just gotten a little bit worse.
Cliff Kupchan is Director of the Russia and CIS team at Eurasia Group and an Iran analyst. Jonathan Tepperman is Eurasia Group's Managing Editor and a Correspondent for TheAtlantic.com.
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