There has been no shortage of commentary trying to dissuade Americans from taking the Iran nuclear threat seriously. The arguments run the gamut from attempts to show that Iran’s leadership is reasonable to attempts to assert that it is the Islamic Republic’s right to develop nukes. But one of the consistent themes we’ve heard in the last year is that the Western emphasis on the statements and ill intentions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wrongheaded. Time and again, we have been told that, as unpleasant as the Holocaust-denying and Israel-hating Ahmadinejad may be, he is not the real source of power in Iran. Rather, we are reminded, it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei we should worry about. In the view of apologists for the rogue regime, the focus on the loathsome Ahmadinejad merely demonizes Iran rather than dealing with it.
That argument was undermined by the events of the past summer, when the Islamist government went all out to steal the presidential election for Ahmadinejad. If he were just Khamenei’s errand boy, why would the ayatollahs unleash its religious militia to murder and intimidate the masses of Iranians who took to the streets to protest the stolen election? At the very least, Khamenei’s decision to stand by Ahmadinejad, even at the price of the regime’s internal legitimacy, illustrated that the president is a key part of the ayatollahs’ plan to hold onto power, if not an essential element of the regime, itself.
But now, as President Obama is mounting a half-hearted and belated attempt to enact sanctions against Iran for its refusal to halt its nuclear program, there comes a different point of view about Ahmadinejad’s importance. Jamsheed K. Choksy of Indiana University writes in Newsweek that not only is Ahmadinejad nobody’s errand boy but he has also become an independent power in his own right who may be challenging the ayatollahs.
According to Choksy, Ahmadinejad is regularly defying Khamenei and may have a different view about confronting the West than his alleged master. Choksy claims that Ahmadinejad, who has heretofore been considered an ardent backer of the theocracy, is putting forward a more pragmatic and less dogmatically religious approach to governance, including championing the rights of women. This may sound hopeful to some who would like to think that, even without foreign pressure or support for an internal rebellion, Iran ultimately could be able to reform itself and become a more moderate nation.
But don’t get too excited. The sort of government that Ahmadinejad might be aiming for may actually be more repressive and nationalistic than the current one. For Choksy, an Ahmadinejad victory over the mullahs will not be a victory for liberalism: “Together with the IRGC [the Iranian Revolutionary Guard] and Basij (a volunteer paramilitary group that has attacked opposition protesters), Ahmadinejad and his ilk are turning to totalitarianism, rather than the fundamentalism of Shiite clerics, to suppress the steadily growing democratic aspirations of the Green Movement.”
If Choksy is right, we ought not to be cheering for Ahmadinejad and his violent allies to take control from the clerics. But if this potential conflict is real, and that is far from certain, what it does mean is that there is more reason than ever for the United States to push hard for crippling sanctions on Iran as well as to speak up for the democracy movement. We cannot sit back and wait until we are faced with either a nuclear totalitarian Iran or a nuclear theocratic Iran. Either would be a disaster and a deadly threat to peace. If there is a real division between the rogues that run Iran, now is the time to put the maximum amount of pressure on these tyrants.