Is This Really the End for Ahmadinejad?

Beset by sanctions and isolated internationally, Iran decides to test its system of checks and balances.

Casual Iran observers tend to portray the country's most prominent political division as that between fundamentalist hard-liners and secular moderates. In reality, however, the struggle for Iran's future is a three-way fight waged by the different branches of conservatives that control the parliament, the presidency, and the theocracy. The Green Movement may have stalled, but the parliamentary opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has only grown stronger and more assertive over the past year -- culminating in a recent push to charge the president with abuses of power warranting impeachment. Those efforts are coming to a halt under orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fears that the parliament's attempt to assert itself against the president will also be at the expense of his own power base, the country's conservative mullahs.

In fact, this isn't the first round of infighting among Iran's leaders. In July 2009, legislators warned Ahmadinejad that they would seek to oust him as the chief executive if he continued acting in an autocratic manner. Ahmadinejad responded by claiming the executive branch is the most important one of the government.

Ahmadinejad has also clashed with parliamentarians over his prerogative to influence the activities of the Central Bank. As financial hardships mount on common Iranians, in part due to mismanagement and in part from international sanctions, their elected representatives are blaming the president and his bureaucrats for the economy's woes.

It's a naked power struggle that has cloaked itself in ideology. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the executive branch of Iran's government increasingly reference secular Iranian nationalism. They recently celebrated an exhibition honoring Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago; they have also been known to castigate influential mullahs for diminishing Iran's greatness, going so far as to encourage the separation of religion from the government. Meanwhile parliament speaker Ali Larijani and his legislative supporters present themselves as adherents to the fundamentalist traditions of Shiite Islam and as true believers in the velayat-e faqih, Iran's system of governance by Muslim jurists.

But at its root, the infighting is motivated by differences over pragmatic political strategy. At a time of economic stagnation and international isolation, Iran's power players are all competing to put their stamp on national crisis management.

Ahmadinejad has generally held the best cards in this high-stakes game. The president, together with has chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have built up a formidable power base within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary, and the civilian bureaucracy, with which they have deep links through service, appointees, and millions of dollars in economic patronage. The power-broking clerics, including Khamenei and the hard-line ayatollahs on the Guardian Council -- the panel of Shiite scholars who vet all electoral candidates and legislation for adherence to the principles of the Islamic Revolution -- now need Ahmadinejad's support more than he needs theirs. Those mullahs handpicked Ahmadinejad to become president in 2005, re-endorsed him as "God's miracle" during the hotly contested June 2009 presidential elections, and so have associated their own legitimacy with his continued success. The president is also emboldened by the knowledge that this will be his last term, as Iran's Constitution allows only two consecutive presidential terms. Ahmadinejad no longer has to keep an eye on the opinion polls.

Khamenei, whose main concerns are to safeguard Iran's novel system of velayat-e faqih and his own role as its head, likely views both the president and parliament with suspicion. He knows that Ahmadinejad is cultivating support, on the basis of secular nationalism, from among the materialistic military and civil services. On the other hand, Khamenei knows that Larijani -- whose brother heads the judicial branch of Iran's government and whose family is of high ecclesiastic descent -- has enough clout among religious conservatives to make a seductive case for vesting popular sovereignty in the parliament rather than in the clerical hierarchy or the presidency.

All this is why too much shouldn't be read into Khamenei's support for the president in the face of impeachment -- this is a tactical, not a permanent, alliance. If the president continues to undermine velayat-e faqih, the supreme leader won't hesitate to back Ahmadinejad's rivals. And there are even more basic reasons for Khamenei to avoid a showdown with the president. Both the parliament and the supreme leader may lack the means to enforce Ahmadinejad's impeachment. When President Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached in 1981, it was only the authority of the IRGC that made his ouster possible. Now, however, the IRGC and its Basij paramilitary are divided in their loyalties between the supreme leader and the president. It would be risky to assume they would side with the mullahs. In fact, Khamenei's personal authority has been so eroded since the public protests of late 2009, as evidenced by other prominent ayatollahs openly challenging both his qualifications to hold the position of supreme leader and his insistence that religion should play a central role in politics, that it's not entirely clear whether the parliament will actually acquiesce to his calls for a show of political and ideological unity. Khamenei's best hope may be that the struggle between the parliament and president will critically weaken both.

These intraregime clashes have serious foreign-policy ramifications. Ahmadinejad's attempt to strike up a nuclear deal with the West failed in 2009 when the ayatollahs sided with naysayers in the parliament. Once again, and this time under much greater economic strain, Iran's government has another chance of negotiating accommodations that would mitigate and perhaps even lift sanctions. But Iran's ruling factions may again prove unable to unite behind a deal that will benefit their country. Parliamentarians and mullahs may balk at enabling a triumph for Ahmadinejad and his allies.

Ordinary Iranians have been the inadvertent beneficiaries of all this political gridlock. Ahmadinejad has used social liberalization as a way to shore up his support over the past year -- by encouraging women's involvement in politics, demanding that youth be free to date and wear clothing of their choice, and similar actions, much to the chagrin of theocrats and parliamentarians. The public has enjoyed greater personal freedoms as a result. Of course, that may only be a temporary reprieve. Domestic unrest over the economy is growing. Whatever their differences, it's easy to imagine Iran's warring factions agreeing to put them aside and focus on the real long-term threat to their power: the Iranian people themselves.


The False START Debate

The critics and the boosters are both wrong: Obama's nuke treaty with Russia is a huge nothingburger. But Republicans should vote to ratify it anyway.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and its allies on the left would have us believe that the Senate's failure to ratify a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia before the end of the year will significantly damage the security of the United States. "There is no higher national security priority for the lame-duck session of Congress. The stakes for American national security are clear, and they are high," Obama intoned last week.

Meanwhile, some on the right are arguing that ratification of New START would put the United States at a disadvantage in its strategic relationship with Russia, lead to a surge in nuclear proliferation, and empower rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

Neither side is correct. New START is a rather meaningless arms-control agreement notable more for what it fails to do than what it achieves.

Obama hoped to accomplish much more in his negotiations with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. When he laid out his goal of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague in April 2009, he described New START as a concrete step toward achieving his vision. "To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year," he said. "And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear-weapons states in this endeavor."

By the time the treaty was signed a year after that speech, it had largely been stripped of these lofty goals. After months of tortuous negotiations, it became evident that Russia had no interest in drastically reducing its nuclear stockpile, which currently stands at roughly 1,700 warheads. In fact, Russia is already technically in compliance with the treaty's new limits on deployed delivery systems -- 700 -- even before New START has been ratified.

As Obama struggles to get his first step toward a nuclear-weapons-free world past the Senate, the further cuts he promised in Prague also look increasingly unlikely. The Russians have made clear that they will only discuss cuts to their tactical nuclear forces -- estimated at as many as 2,000 operational weapons, many of which sit across the border from America's NATO allies -- if the United States withdraws its much smaller number of tactical weapons from Europe, which is certain to be a nonstarter for Washington and its allies in Central Europe.

Much of the criticism from the president's Republican critics about New START has been well intentioned but exaggerated. The fact of the matter is that New START could have been much worse. If anything is worth criticizing, it is the president's singular focus on a fanciful vision of nuclear disarmament. This has come at the expense of serious action on efforts to prevent and halt proliferation, distracting him from real challenges such as North Korea, which just revealed a new uranium-enrichment facility, and Iran, which despite problems with its centrifuges at Natanz, continues to make steady progress toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

Setting aside the limited nature of the actual cuts, conservative critics have raised some valid concerns about New START. Early statements from the Obama administration and Russian officials on the relevance of missile defense to New START were contradictory and confusing. The Kremlin issued a statement implying that further U.S. development of its missile defense systems "quantitatively or qualitatively" would be grounds for Russian withdrawal from the treaty. But the ratification resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and subsequent statements by administration officials make clear that New START does not limit America's ability to deploy a robust missile defense system. Other important questions about possible limitations on U.S. plans to develop a conventional prompt global strike capability, which will be all the more important as the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal, also are addressed by the ratification resolution.

New START has been the centerpiece of the president's much vaunted "reset" with Russia. Now that the administration has overplayed its hand by making promises to the Russians about a ratification timeline that it cannot keep, it has undermined its credibility with Moscow. Republicans should rightly criticize the administration's willingness to forgo serious criticism of Russia's abysmal human rights record, its increased stifling of freedom of expression, and its continued occupation of Georgia (a future NATO ally), but in time, the "reset" will collapse whether or not New START is ratified.

There remains serious criticism of New START's merits on the right, and it is troubling that the administration is attempting to argue that Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl are interested only in killing the treaty. Kyl and a majority of his colleagues are just asking for more time to explore their concerns about the treaty and continue discussions with administration officials about funding levels for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

From the rhetoric of the administration and its surrogates, one would believe that if New START is not ratified by the end of the year, nuclear weapons will suddenly fall into the hands of terrorists. Last week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry warned that a failure to ratify the treaty would mean that U.S. inspectors would continue to be unable to confirm the safety of Russia's nuclear stockpile, resulting in "no American boots on the ground in Russia able to protect American interests."

Kerry is correct to say that since the 1994 START agreement expired in December 2009, START inspections of Russian and U.S. nuclear sites have not occurred. But ironically, New START, unlike the agreement it replaces, would not have U.S. monitors at Russia's mobile missile-production facility at Votkinsk. If this was an overwhelming concern, the Obama administration and Russia could have agreed to continue inspections without a new treaty.

It is also ridiculous to argue that such inspections really provide that much knowledge about Russia's activities or somehow prevent Russian nukes from falling into terrorist hands. Like most similar arms-control measures, they are confidence-building measures. The United States relies on a variety of other means, including intelligence gained via methods other than arms-control agreements, to actually monitor Russia's stockpile. Through initiatives such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the United States also works with Russia on nuclear-security issues, cooperation that proceeds regardless of what happens with New START.

New START should be ratified, but only once the Senate has done its due diligence to take into account the strategic posture of the United States, including its need for a viable nuclear arsenal. Several more months will not change the strategic situation, nor should it lessen Russia's support for U.S. efforts on Iran or its (limited) support for U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Russian nukes will remain secure and U.S. security unthreatened by at least this potential avenue of attack.

By claiming otherwise, the Obama administration and its critics are doing the United States a disservice and engaging in a very unserious debate about U.S. national security.