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How Iran's president is being undercut

The US report on Iran's nuclear aims may actually hurt Ahmadinejad.

By Vali Nasr, Ray Takeyh / December 14, 2007

Medford, Mass., and New York

It is clear that the Bush administration's policy of sanctions and tacit threat of war toward Iran has lost all credibility. This became evident as soon as the National Intelligence Estimate released this month contradicted the White House depiction of the Iranian threat.

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But the report isn't a total win for Iran. Though it has nullified the threat of war and will embolden Iran in its march toward nuclear self-sufficiency, it may also undermine the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who thrives on international crisis and tension.

President Bush may take comfort in his rhetoric that nothing has changed. Yet, since the release of the NIE, everything has changed. A single intelligence report has done what all of Iran's protestations could not: It subverted America's coercive policy. The facts that the weapon design research has been suspended, and that the claim of an imminent threat was exaggerated, have undermined the administration's case for war at home and abroad. They have even dashed its hope of isolating the Islamic republic: Russia and China are resisting new UN sanctions, and some of America's European allies may soon relax financial restrictions they agreed on to avert war with Iran.

To add to US concerns, a careful reading of the report indicates that Iran has seemingly suspended the weaponization aspect of its program but is still constructing an elaborate enrichment infrastructure – one that will give it the option to construct a bomb in the not-too-distant future.

Because the theocratic regime now feels immune from military retribution and is confronting a fragmented international community, it is likely to be fortified in its efforts to complete the fuel cycle. Meanwhile, Iran is cooperating with inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency and is judged by the CIA to have suspended critical components of its nuclear network. It has no reason to cease any of its activities.

But inside Iran, the NIE may have a negative effect. The silver lining of the report may well be the weakening of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his politics of defiance. The president might celebrate the report's findings as a victory for Iran, but he can not take credit for it. Nor will it in all likelihood favor him in his ongoing tug-of-war with political rivals. It is not Ahmadinejad's hard-line rhetoric and uncompromising posture in negotiations that are to credit for the change in Iran's fortunes. Rather, they come from a decision to halt the nuclear weapons program that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blessed in 2003, when reformists were in charge.

With war no longer imminent, the supreme leader may see less value in Ahmadinejad's confrontational politics. And he, not the president, has the last word in foreign policy matters.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March. Much rides on the outcome. It can either give Ahmadinejad momentum going into the presidential elections in 2009 or turn him into a lame duck. His international grandstanding not withstanding, Ahmadinejad's presidency is in trouble. His faction lost in the December 2006 elections for municipal councils and the Council of Experts that will choose the supreme leader's successor. Since then, popular discontent with his administration has continued to grow. This week, former president Mohammad Khatami publicly criticized the president at the prominent Tehran University, whose students protested Ahmadinejad in September. In a recent poll, two-thirds of those who had voted for him in 2005 indicated that they will not vote for him again.