Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs

Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs

By Jed Babbin - May 12, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may soon be ousted from office by the ayatollahs who control Iran. More importantly, there may be a split within the principal Iranian military/terrorist force that is destabilizing the regime.

This is not another popular uprising like the one that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But it may be related to the so-called "Arab spring" in an oddly Iranian way.

For at least two months, Ahmadinejad is reportedly saying that the uprisings in many Arab states are a sign that the Mahdi's reappearance is imminent. The Mahdi is the mythic "twelfth imam" whose return to earth is supposed to be brought about by an apocalyptic event and result in an all- Islamic paradise on earth.

A cult of personality has grown around Ahmadinejad. Though he denies it, Ahmadinejad has been identified by several former American hostages as one of the hostage-takers in the 1979 seizure of American embassy in Tehran. He joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guard after the 1979 revolution and was appointed mayor of Tehran in 2003. He was "elected" to Iran's presidency in 2005. Feted various times at the UN and Columbia University, Ahmadinejad has been an almost-Westernized public face of the regime, an Izod ayatollah, dressed in a blue blazer and tan slacks for an interview in 2009 with CBS's Mike Wallace.

The proximate cause of the apparent split between Ahmadinejad and Iran's "Supreme Leader", Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is hard to pin down because the Iranian press is tightly controlled and our intelligence community has little or no reliable information from inside Iran. The split began after Ahmadinejad was "re-elected" in 2009 when Khamenei decided to keep him instead of letting Mir Hossein Mousavi (who had apparently won the vote) replace him.

The most likely cause is Ahmadinejad's attempt to remove Khamenei loyalists from ministerial positions, and - even more worrying to the ayatollahs - a growing split in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps between those loyal to Ahmadinejad and the majority who are believed loyal to the theocratic regime.

Last December, in an apparent reaction to international pressure on Iran's nuclear programs, Ahmadinejad fired foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, one Khamenei loyalist. When Ahmadinejad fired intelligence minister Heyder Moslehi last month, Khamenei rejected the firing and kept Moslehi in place. In response, Ahmadinejad reportedly staged a walkout of his office that lasted almost two weeks.

Ahmadinejad may be arrogant and overly-ambitious, but he's not mad. It's hard to see why he would think he could succeed in a political fight against Khamenei. There are two possible explanations, and neither is confirmable.

The first is that there is a real split in the IRGC. and that Ahmadinejad had reason to believe that his IRGC loyalists had the ability to defeat those loyal to the regime. IRGC is the politically (and economically) privileged force which controls Iran's missile forces, its terrorist proxies such as Hizballah, and reportedly runs its nuclear weapons program. If the IRGC wants to remove the ayatollahs, it probably could. But why it would choose Ahmadinejad over a military regime to replace the ayatollahs? It likely would not.

Second is the possibility that Ahmadinejad may have been captured by his own apocalyptic rhetoric. He has promised that the Mahdi would return before his term as Iran's president expires, and time is running short. If this is the reason, compounded by Ahmadinejad's arrogance, he will not be the first would-be dictator who overestimated his own abilities.

Now, it appears the clash between the ayatollah and the president is coming to an end, and it won't be to Ahmadinejad's benefit.

On May 5, the UK Guardian newspaper reported that many of Ahmadinejad's closest political allies, including his chief of staff, had been arrested on charges of witchcraft. The paper also reported calls for Ahmadinejad's impeachment. He could be removed at any time. The ayatollahs, if at all chastened by Ahmadinejad's actions or by international pressure, are giving no sign that they will change their behavior.

One partial proof is in the report that Iran is planning to send a "humanitarian flotilla" to Bahrain to counter the Saudi troops sent to stabilize the Bahraini regime. According to a May 10 report by the Iranian Fars News Agency, the flotilla will depart the port of Bushehr on May 16. If the ayatollahs are chastened by Ahmadinejad's contumacious behavior, they aren't letting it show.

Whatever instability there may be in Iran presents no clear opportunity for American influence to help topple the Iranian kakistocracy. In June 2009 and again last February, President Obama spoke very cautiously, calling on the Iranian regime to allow free speech for protestors but declining to endorse regime change in Iran. The Green Movement and other dissidents won't be able to remove the ayatollahs, at least for the foreseeable future.

One Iran expert tells me that our principal deficiency is our failure to make contact with Iranian dissidents. This gentleman, who I know to be in contact with many Iranian dissidents and opponents of the regime, says that none of our intelligence or diplomatic agencies are in contact with those in Iran who oppose the regime.
That should be corrected forthwith. America has no strategic interest at stake in many Middle Eastern nations such as Libya where NATO's intervention has reached the predictable stalemate. But in Iran our interest is clear. Whoever the Iranian dissidents are, we should be actively engaged with them, determining if they can help topple the regime and giving covert aid to those determined to do so.

Whatever happens to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime he serves has been our enemy since it took power forty-two years ago. Iran remains the most dangerous and prolific sponsor of Islamic terrorism. Neither a continuation of the ayatollahs nor a replacement by a military regime offers any chance of weaning Iran from terrorism or from its nuclear arms ambitions. Because President Obama, and President Bush before him, decided against military action to stop Iran's nuclear program or interfere with their sponsorship of terrorists world-wide, the only course left is to support the Iranian dissidents.

We should begin today. And we should continue until a future president reaches the conclusion that both Bush and Obama should have: that no diplomatic or economic means exist to stop Iran from achieving nuclear weapons and end its sponsoring of terrorism. Covert action and, if needed overt military action, are the only solution to the threat Iran poses.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense under George H.W. Bush.

Jed Babbin

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