The New York Times devotes considerable space on its front page this morning to a fascinating rundown on the contest to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran. Though this will involve voting and attempts to gain popular support, as Ahmadinejad’s re-election proved in 2009, the Iranian electoral system should not be confused with democracy. Just as the Iranian president is actually subordinate to the grand ayatollah who functions as a permanent supreme leader in terms of governing, the choices and the outcome of the Iranian election are also subject to the dictates of the ruling cleric and his fellow ayatollahs. That doesn’t mean that the infighting within the regime is not significant or that it shouldn’t be monitored closely. The differences between Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are, no doubt, quite real. But they ought not to be interpreted as a sign that the regime is in danger of falling or there is any significant divergence between them and their followers about keeping an Islamist government or maintaining the country’s dangerous nuclear ambitions.
But unfortunately that is probably the conclusion that many of the Times’s liberal readers will jump to after reading the piece since it brands Ahmadinejad and his faction as the “opposition” to the supreme leader. That may be true in the literal sense but, as even the article points out, that is the result of the fact that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei worked together to wipe out any real opposition to Islamist hegemony in 2009 as the United States stood silent. Like the Kremlinologists who spent decades trying to interpret the factions among the rulers of the Soviet Union before its fall, the point of much of the speculation about dissension among the ruling class in Iran is to try to throw cold water on policies intended to pressure the Islamist government. There is nothing wrong with keeping up on which of the tyrants of Tehran is gaining the upper hand on his colleagues. But the problem is that such discussions inevitably tempt Westerners to imagine that outreach to the supposed doves or liberals inside the regime will ameliorate its differences with the rest of the world. A sober look at the nature of this “opposition” and its goals ought to put an end to such foolishness.
Though, as the Times rightly notes, Ahmadinejad has not budged from the offensive positions that have made him an apt symbol of the aggressively anti-Semitic nature of the Iranian government, he has made a few small gestures that are being interpreted as shifts away from the regime’s Islamist fundamentalism. His public embrace of Hugo Chavez’s mother at the Venezuelan strongman’s funeral was seen as an astonishing break from the rigid separation of the sexes advocated by Iran.
The Times also reports that:
Despite his early advocacy of Islam’s role in daily affairs, the president is now positioning himself as a champion of citizens’ rights. …
In speeches, he favors the “nation” and the “people” over the “ummah,” or community of believers, a term preferred by Iran’s clerics, who constantly guard against any revival of pre-Islamic nationalism. He has also said he is ready for talks with the United States, something other Iranian leaders strongly oppose under current circumstances.
But all this probably has a lot more to do with his maneuverings to gain some leverage against Khamenei than any interest in democracy or even in fighting corruption, another theme he has sounded recently.
It is tempting to imagine that this dissension within the ranks of Tehran’s rulers can serve to loosen up a tyrannical regime or to make a deal with Iran over its nuclear program more likely. But it is important to remind those who succumb to such fantasies that this is, after all, the same Ahmadinejad who is the leading proponent of Holocaust denial in the world as well as the same man who has regularly threatened Israel with extinction and treated the country’s nuclear program as a personal cause to be defended at all costs.
The outcome of any struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei cannot produce a more moderate Iran because both are radical Islamists for whom hatred of the West and of Jews is so integral to their worldview that it is inconceivable that either has the capacity to lead the country to a more rational approach. While it is arguable whether division inside Tehran helps increase Western leverage over the regime, the idea that America and its allies have any rooting interest in Ahmadinejad prevailing in this struggle is absurd.
The true danger here is not the likelihood that Khamenei will suppress any opposition so much as it is the possibility that Western governments, and in particular the United States, will be deceived into believing that strengthening Ahmadinejad will make Iran more democratic or less dangerous to its neighbors, Israel and the West. If President Obama is to make good on his repeated pledges never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon, now is the time for greater pressure, not easing up on Iran in the hopes of helping Ahmadinejad’s “opposition.”
In past generations, there have always been those who clung to myths about missed U.S. opportunities to make friends with tyrants like Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro when in fact no such options were ever available. Just because some murderous tyrants sometimes quarrel with rivals for power doesn’t mean there is an opening for rapprochement with the West. That’s a lesson that some people never seem to learn.