Iran dismissed early reports today that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had survived an assassination attempt in the western city of Hamadan, saying instead that a firecracker tossed by a supporter had simply detonated after his convoy had passed.
Early reports on Iranian news services, one closely tied to the government, had it that a grenade had been tossed at his car. Whatever the truth, no one was hurt and Ahmadinejad went on to a local sports stadium to deliver a scheduled speech.
The populist leader made no mention of the incident during his televised address, instead lashing out at American and European efforts to rein in his country's nuclear program. "It will be one of your big mistakes if you think you, resorting to lies ... we will give you any concessions," he told supporters.
But the incident, involving a leader who publicly reviles America, is demonized by the United States in turn, and is the face of a nuclear effort that appears to be grinding inexorably forward, does allow for an interesting thought experiment. What would an Iran without Ahmadinejad look like? And would it to be any advantage to the outside powers like the US that are deeply hostile to his regime?
The short answers are: 1. Not much different. And, 2. Probably not.
The reasons why have to do with the nature of Iranian politics and the fact that Ahmadinejad is as much an expression of hard-line, anti-Western elements at the top of Iran's government now as much as he is their symbol.
Despite the fact that his reelection in June 2009 was badly marred by fraud and sparked democracy protests by reformers often referred to as the "Green Movement," Ahmadinejad and his allies have since consolidated their positions.
A brutal crackdown on reformers, with show trials, executions, and allegations of torture, has been largely effective in quelling opposition, at least on the surface. The Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the paramilitary group that is closely aligned with Ahmadinejad and led the crackdown, has expanded its financial and political power in the past year, leading to an unprecedented degree of militarization at the top of the state and making the group one of the handful of key power-brokers in the country.
Ahmadinejad's current position is as much a reflection of IRGC power as the IRGC's ascendancy is a reflection of their close alignment with Ahmadinejad. An Iran tomorrow without Ahmadinejad, whether through election, accident, or attack, is conceivable. An Iran without with the IRGC and the strong voice it would have in a successor, less so.
None of this is to say that change isn't possible in Iran or unlikely to happen some day. Just that no bolt of lightning appears to be on the horizon to shift Iran from its stance of confrontation with the West that has prevailed for most of the 30 years since the revolution.
Flawed practice of democracy
The flaws in Iran's practice of democracy are manifest, from electoral fraud to restrictions on who can run for office and the overall authority Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected cleric who is seen within Iran as the interpreter of God's will on earth. But that shouldn't obscure the fact that the country is far from a dictatorship like, say, the regime of Saddam Hussein that the US and its allies toppled in 2003.
Ahmadinejad is part of a generation of politicians who came of age during the Islamic revolution and its fiery anti-Western rhetoric in 1979 who now are larded throughout the senior bureaucracy. It's this generation of people -- not Ahmadinejad himself -- who stand in the way of Iran's reformers, so change will have to be about far more than just one man.
To be sure, a recent poll in Iran found that 56 percent of Iranians believe Ahmadinejad's popularity has declined in the past year and there's substantial anecdotal evidence that many millions of Iranians want a more open political system and better relations with the outside world. But their ability to effect top level politics and policy making is unclear, at best, for the moment.
Many analysts believe that tightening sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program may hurt average Iranian's far more than the leaders the US and its allies say are there intended targets, and could in fact end up bolstering hard liners. A decade of sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War crippled the Iraqi economy but did nothing to dislodge Saddam Hussein -- instead helping to fuel a criminal class allied with the Hussein committed to regime survival, and not the interests of average citizens.
There is anecdotal evidence that the Revolutionary Guards, by some accounts already the largest business entity in the country, are deepening their economic influence thanks to their taxation and control of the country's lucrative smuggling trade.
Mir-Hussein Mousavi, the political reformer who lost to Ahmadinejad in the fraud-marred election, has criticized the sanctions as hurting poor Iranians. He said the economic effect so far was ""like undergoing a massive attack by foreign enemies" and argued that the international community "turning back toward the people is the only solution and then you will see that again there is a backdrop of hope."
"There is a lot of skepticism about the utility of sanctions, in part because there are very few instances where you can point to sanctions directly delivering a result," Meghan O'Sullivan, a professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told CFR in July.
She says that sanctions could work if coupled with the right kinds of diplomatic engagement, but is skeptical that is going to happen. "There is the difficulty of translating the impact of sanctions into political change in Tehran. No one is very clear on how this is going to happen, mostly because this depends primarily with how the regime works and on internal Iranian dynamics."