The Incredible Shrinking Ahmadinejad

Iran's president is looking weak, and that's just what the supreme leader wants.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now discovering what his predecessors in Islamic Iran's unique dual system of government all learned to their sorrow: You serve at the pleasure of the supreme leader, and he prefers his presidents weak.

In the aftermath of a failed attempt by Ahmadinejad to fire Iran's intelligence minister last month, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his surrogates have moved against supporters of Ahmadinejad and of his controversial chief aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Two dozen people close to the president and Mashaei have been arrested, including Abbas Amirifar, the prayer leader and head of cultural affairs in the president's office, who reportedly attempted suicide in prison last week. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's top vice president, Hamid Baghaei, was suspended last weekend from holding political office for four years because of unspecified "violations."

It now appears that Ahmadinejad will be forced to jettison Mashaei, a close friend of 30 years whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, if the president intends to remain in office through the end of his term in 2013. And even if he does get rid of Mashaei, Ahmadinejad will be a feeble lame duck, a pale shadow of the seemingly superconfident figure who has strutted the world stage since he was first elected in 2005.

"Everybody smells blood," said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation. "Ahmadinejad's fatal mistake was to challenge Khamenei head-on over the intelligence minister."

Ordered to retain the minister, Heydar Moslehi, Ahmadinejad refused to attend cabinet meetings for 11 days and sought to reaffirm his power by firing three other ministers, including the official in charge of Iran's crucial oil industry.

Increasingly, however, the president finds himself checked at every turn.

On Monday, May 23, a senior presidential advisor, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, announced that presidential trips to the provinces -- a favorite means for Ahmadinejad to distribute largesse, gain rural support, and make speeches covered by Iranian state media -- have been postponed for the time being.

Nor can the president escape abroad to represent Iran in Vienna next month at a major OPEC meeting. On May 20, the Guardian Council -- a powerful, clerical-run body that vets legislation and candidates for office -- declared that Ahmadinejad could not serve as caretaker head of the oil ministry and would have to name someone else. (Iran serves as president of OPEC this year and needs to keep the price of oil as high as possible to finance its budget, pegged to $81.50 a barrel.)

In a further and deeply personal blow, Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, published an interview in which Ahmadinejad's son-in-law, Mehdi Khorshidi, accused the unnamed leader of a "deviant group" of daring to comment on religion even though he had no theological training. The reference was clearly to Mashaei, who has endorsed Ahmadinejad's discourse on the imminent coming of the Hidden Imam, a messiah-like figure for Shiite Muslims who is supposed to return at a time of his choosing. This embrace of folk religion infuriates clerics who claim a monopoly on religious interpretation.

Mashaei has also been criticized for saying that he has nothing against Israelis, for showing liberal attitudes toward women and Iranian expatriates, and plowing millions of dollars into a new conference center on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf. Nader says, however, that the current campaign is really directed against Ahmadinejad and that "Mashaei is just a proxy."

Ahmadinejad is hardly the first Iranian president to face challenges from the supreme leader, who has the final say on all policies under Iran's theocratic system. Reformist Mohammad Khatami, Iran's president from 1997 to 2005, endured repeated blows, including the arrest and imprisonment of his close aide and interior minister, Abdollah Nouri, and of other top supporters, including a mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi.

The latest developments, however, are striking in view of the fact that Khamenei so strongly backed Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 election, going so far as to call the president's reelection a "divine assessment."

Since then, the regime has weathered unprecedented opposition protests and surmounted another major challenge by phasing out costly subsidies on consumer staples. Ahmadinejad has served the regime's purposes; his usefulness now appears at an end. As parliamentary elections approach next year, followed by a new presidential vote, Iran's conservative establishment appears intent on preventing Ahmadinejad from designating a successor and planning a possible Putin-esque comeback in 2017. The best way to block that is to weaken him now.

"You know how this works," said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This is what happened to Khatami and to [Khatami's predecessor Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and to Khamenei when he was president. Khamenei has no problem with any president as long as he is weak."

However, the swiftness of Ahmadinejad's fall and the degree of invective -- charges against his entourage have ranged from sorcery to treason -- are shocking even to those inured to Iran's brutally personal politics. This may reflect in part the pressure the regime is facing in areas ranging from foreign policy -- where ally Syria is struggling to contain mass protests -- to the anemic, sanctions-plagued economy. Growth this year will be flat, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a specialist on the Iranian economy at Virginia Tech.

Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, thinks that Ahmadinejad has basically been given a choice: submit or be removed. Given the president's history, she said, "I can only assume that if he is to go down, he will make sure that it is as painful as possible for everyone concerned.



Blinded by the Right

The GOP's blatantly partisan love for Bibi obscures a dangerous reality: that unwavering support for Israel actually hurts wider U.S. interests in the Middle East.

In 2003, Democrats upset about President George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq invited French President Jacques Chirac, an opponent of the war, to address a joint meeting of Congress. It was blatant political play, an attempt by the opposition to work with a foreign leader in offering a counterargument to the president's invasion plans and limit his ability to carry though with his decision to go to war in the Middle East. Chirac was feted across Washington by liberal think tanks and pro-French lobbying groups as American politicians and Democratic activists fell over themselves to be identified with a strong anti-war leader.

This, of course, did not happen. The idea that Congress would openly side with a foreign leader against the president of the United States seems too far-fetched to believe. Remarkably, however, something not dissimilar happened in Washington Tuesday, May 24, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of Congress (a speech interrupted more than 25 times by a rapturous standing ovation). While these types of congressional addresses are rare, this particular event is even a bit more unusual: The speech's intention -- with the full assistance and backing of the Republican leadership in Congress and implicit support of Democrats -- was to give Netanyahu a public forum to offer a rebuttal to President Barack Obama's recent proposals for moving forward with the Arab-Israeli peace process.

As the New York Times reported last week, the invitation was initially requested by Netanyahu of the GOP leadership before the president's Middle East speech plans had even been formalized: It was "widely interpreted as an attempt to get out in front of Mr. Obama, by presenting an Israeli peace proposal that, while short of what the Palestinians want, would box in the president." In turn, Obama's May 19 speech was scheduled purposely so that the president could get out ahead of Bibi's remarks.

It's one thing for Republicans to oppose the president's position on Arab-Israeli peace. In the hours after Obama's Middle East speech, Republican presidential contenders like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney did just that, arguing that the president had proverbially thrown Israel "under the bus." (Never mind that Obama simply reiterated long-standing U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli peace process.) They were joined -- in a bipartisan manner -- by prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in offering pushback on the president's words.

It is certainly appropriate for members of Congress to disagree with the president's foreign-policy agenda. But it's something else altogether to be appearing to work in concert with the leader of another country in trying to put the president on the defensive -- and seeking to score a partisan political advantage in the process. By openly siding with Netanyahu against Obama and making Arab-Israeli peace a partisan issue, Republicans in Congress are at serious risk of crossing a dangerous line and in the process undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.

This behavior follows a concerning pattern. Last November, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after a meeting with Netanyahu, suggested that a Republican Congress would serve as a check on the Obama administration when it came to Israel policy (a position he later sought to walk back). In the fall of 2009, Cantor criticized the Obama administration for its rebuke of the Israeli government over the eviction of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Most surprising of all, the attack was lodged from Jerusalem, where Cantor was heading a 25-person GOP delegation -- an unusual violation of the unspoken rule that members of Congress should refrain from criticizing the U.S. government while on foreign soil. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took a similar position this February while traveling in Israel. He called the Obama administration's opposition to Israeli settlements (a position long held by Democratic and Republican presidents) equivalent to "racism" and "apartheid."

Last week, as Netanyahu lectured Obama at a frosty White House news conference and issued statements on what he "expected to hear" from the president about his commitment to Israeli security, Republican lawmakers barely batted an eye at behavior that by any other foreign leader would spark outrage from their caucus -- and instead aimed their attacks at Obama.

This seems at pace with the GOP's default position on Israel. This February, writing in the pages of National Review, Romney stated that "Israel must now contend with the fact that its principal backer in the world, the United States, is seeking to ingratiate itself with Arab opinion at its expense." It's a view that no doubt would have been met with astonishment in Arab capitals, where America's image remains largely negative. One can't help but wonder whether the tail isn't wagging the dog -- after all, is there a reason that the United States shouldn't seek to ingratiate itself with Arab public opinion? There is an implicit assumption here that no matter what Israel says or does the United States must continue to be blindly supportive -- an odd stance for an American politician to take, particularly when Israel's actions occasionally run counter to larger U.S. interests.

Although one cannot ignore the fact that strongly held empathy for Israel is, in part, motivating this position, there is of course a healthy dose of domestic politicking at work. Democrats have long relied on Jewish support -- both electorally and financially. Republicans, though less reliant on Jewish voters, have successfully made support for Israel a litmus test for Democrats to prove their national security mettle. Moreover, with strong backing for Israel among the party's conservative base, defending Israeli behavior has become a surefire way for Republicans to politically cater to social conservatives and evangelical voters. In fact, Israel probably enjoys more clear-cut support for its policies among social conservatives than it does among American Jews! (And Netanyahu, in particular, didn't just fall into this love fest: He has long supported and helped spearhead the alliance between the Israeli right wing and American religious conservatives.)

All this is a very far cry from George H.W. Bush's open conflict with Israel and the American Jewish community in 1991 over loan guarantees for Israeli settlements. That the perception continues to exist that Bush's aggressive stance cost him severely in the 1992 presidential election no doubt haunts the Republican Party -- and any American politician inclined to put public pressure on Israeli leaders.

But ultimately there is more than politics at stake here. At a critical moment in the political transformation of the Middle East, America's steadfast and unyielding support for Israel -- underwritten by both parties in Congress -- risks undermining America's long-term interests in the region. Last year, Gen. David Petraeus commented in congressional testimony that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region]." His statement provoked controversy in Washington, but ask any seasoned Middle East observer and you'd be hard-pressed to find one who disagrees with the general's assessment. It is not Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya which is the greatest source of anti-American attitudes in the Arab world -- it is the continued lack of resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the view of many in the region that the United States has its thumb on the scale in favor of Israel.

None of this is to suggest that Washington should turn its back on the Jewish state. But this is also a time when a more evenhanded position on the conflict is desperately needed -- particularly as the United States will need to deal with a new government in Cairo that will likely be less supportive of Israel, a wave of unsteady democratic reforms spreading across the Mideast, and a U.N. General Assembly that appears ready to endorse Palestinian statehood this fall. These events will have serious repercussions not just for Israel but for U.S. policy in the region. Obama at least seems to realize this fact and has -- albeit tepidly -- challenged a recalcitrant Israel to get serious about peace. Yet Congress seems intent on restraining his leverage, effectively holding U.S. actions hostage to the whims of partisan politics -- and in the process working in concert with a foreign leader to do it. At some point, it raises the legitimate question of who is looking out not for Israel's interests, but America's.