Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Iran: Behind The Scenes Politics At Play In Ahmadinejad's U.N. Trip

Iran-watchers will be monitoring the sendoff and makeup of the delegation accompanying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the United Nations this month.
By Ali Vaez
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was facing a revolt by furious Iranian hardliners on Monday after he sacked a key conservative minister in an act of revenge.                
                       Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
With autumn comes the ritualistic visit of the Iranian president to New York City to attend the annual opening of the UN General Assembly. This September marks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's eighth junket to the Big Apple. No other Iranian president has represented his country at the General Assembly more than twice.
It is easy to predict that Mr Ahmadinejad will stir a media circus upon his arrival. He will address the member states (or at least the delegates who do not walk out), will use his peculiar bombast to slam Israel, will again raise controversy about the September 11 attacks and, most importantly, will boast about his country's controversial nuclear programme.
Yesterday the president was already embarked on a diplomatic gambit ahead of his trip, announcing the expected release of the two US hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who have been held for more than two years in Iran's infamous Evin prison.
But this trip could be different from others because the alliance between Mr Ahmadinejad and his former backer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has been torn asunder in the past few months. The "divinely chosen" president has been downgraded to the patron of the "deviant current" after he tried to assert his presidential prerogatives.
The Supreme Leader has emerged from the political row in Tehran as the apparent victor. But although Mr Ahmadinejad's political future remains uncertain, it would be premature to write him off as a lame duck president. He still has two years to plot a comeback.
As the US voyage looms on the horizon, Ayatollah Khamenei finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. If he forbids the trip, he would further expose fissures at the core of the regime - if the trip goes ahead, the outspoken president will have a platform on the highest international stage. Hence Mr Ahmadinejad's trip will be a litmus test of the prevailing balance of power in Tehran.
Traditionally, the Iranian president receives "guidance" from the Supreme Leader before embarking on the journey to the United States. On the day of departure, there is a farewell ceremony at the airport that is often revealing. Customarily, the man standing next to the president is Ali Akbar Velayati, a US-educated paediatrician, who has served as Iran's foreign minister for 16 years. He is considered Ayatollah Khamenei's confidant and personal diplomat.
On the other side of the president usually stands Mohammad Mohammadi Golpaygani, a cleric who is the private secretary of the Supreme Leader. Hence, the stage is carefully set to demonstrate whose envoy is being sent. The absence of Ayatollah Khamenei's acolytes at the departure ceremony could be telling.
Ayatollah Khamenei's disapproval paves the way for the president's rivals to poison the international climate by making bellicose anti-American statements. The Larijani brothers Ali and Sadegh, respectively the heads of the legislative and judiciary branches, are ardent critics of Mr Ahmadinejad. Through them, Ayatollah Khamenei can create internal and international pressure on the president.
A large contingent usually accompanies Mr Ahmadinejad during his visits, including members of his family, ministers, parliamentarians, advisers and security personnel. One of these men, who has always been at his side murmuring into his ear, is at the centre of this political storm. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the president's chief-of-staff and his son's father-in-law, is accused of bewitching Mr Ahmadinejad and attempting to secretly contact US officials.
Although Mr Ahmadinejad has not budged in his defence of Mr Mashaei, the controversial adviser has kept a low profile in the past few weeks. His presence or absence in New York might reveal the extent of Mr Ahmadinejad's confidence and his team's morale. At least 25 members of the president's circle have been arrested in the past few months as a result of the rift in the leadership.
Mr Ahmadinejad used his past visits to New York as public-relations campaigns to divert attention from economic and social disaffection at home. His inflammatory Holocaust denials and September 11 conspiracy theories could be considered the rational use of irrationality. By provoking international anger, he boosts his domestic position and silences foes in Tehran. The question of Palestinian statehood, likely to be tabled at the United Nations this September, would provide him with just such an opportunity.
In the past, the policy of Iran's state-controlled media had been to portray Mr Ahmadinejad's belligerence as an international victory against the "Great Satan" and the unjust world order. That praise has advanced the president's domestic agenda. If the Ayatollah Khamenei wants to rein in the president, this trip will not receive the same media coverage.
Just like in chess, these nuanced moves can offer some insights into the deeper political game being played in Tehran. By providing visas to Mr Ahmadinejad and his entourage, Washington may set the chessboard and take a step back. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said: "When your enemy is destroying himself, don't interfere."
-This commentary was published in The National on 14/09/2011
-Ali Vaez is a fellow for science and technology and the director of the Iran project at the Federation of American Scientists

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