The Myth of the All-Powerful Ahmadinejad

Contrary to popular belief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not top dog in Tehran. American policy should reflect this reality.

In the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's much-publicized visit to New York, we are hearing renewed calls for a "tough on Iran" agenda. But before Washington makes policy on the basis of his bizarre and often offensive statements, they should consider one important fact: his actual authority as Iranian president is very limited. Contrary to the assertions of Columbia President Lee Bollinger last week, Ahmadinejad is no "petty and cruel dictator." He is an elected president with very little power, frequently at odds with the country's religious leadership and its parliament. Even if Iran had a nuclear arsenal, which it does not, his finger would not be on the trigger. Ahmadinejad is extremely unpopular for a variety of reasons; if he runs for president again in 2009, he will almost certainly be defeated. He does not command the Iranian armed forces and he does not determine Iranian foreign policy. Far from being a belligerent expansionistic power, the last time Iran attacked a neighbor was in the seventeenth century.

This is not to say that the United States does not have genuine issues with Iran. They include containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, determination of its legitimate and possibly illegitimate roles in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, reducing its involvement with groups like Hamas and Hizballah, and improvement of its generally unsatisfactory human rights record. All of those bones of contention should be on the negotiating table with the ultimate objective of encouraging a peaceful and democratic Iran that has full and normal relations with all other countries, including the United States. But the Bush Administration has preferred the stick to the carrot, starting with consigning Iran to the "axis of evil" in January 2002.

The White House currently insists that it is exercising the diplomatic option with Iran, even though it is not. Bilateral sessions in Baghdad have consisted of little more than staking out adversarial positions. The United States is demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program as a precondition for serious negotiations, but Iran is legally entitled to carry out enrichment as part of an energy program and both the Iranian public and the government are strongly supportive of that right. The U.S. insistence on Iranian capitulation in advance of any talks means that the negotiations are intended to be a non-starter, leaving only a military solution to the Iran problem.

Many of the claims of Iranian interference in Iraq and Afghanistan are based on unverifiable assertions by the Defense Department or have been contradicted by the Iraqi and Afghan governments, both of which insist that they have positive working relationships with Tehran. Iran has every reason to favor a stable Afghanistan and Iraq in terms of its own self-interest. While Iranian military equipment has shown up in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no real evidence of Iranian government involvement due to the large gray and black arms market in central Asia.

Nor is there any solid information at the present time suggesting that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, even though the intelligence services of a number of countries agree that there most probably is a concealed program. Most analysts agree that an Iranian produced crude nuclear device is years away and may never be achievable given the technological problems that Tehran has reportedly been experiencing. U.S. media reports and commentary by American politicians suggesting that Tehran has been actively targeting American soldiers and is hell bent on becoming a nuclear power should be examined carefully and skeptically.

And it is particularly unfortunate that Congress has proven unwilling to do anything to slow the march to war. The passage of a more punitive Iran Sanctions Act in July, coupled with last week's approval by a 77 to 22 Senate vote of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment to the Defense Procurement bill, have provided a virtual carte blanche for the White House to attack Iran at will. Kyl-Lieberman called for classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group and provided the White House with language to justify the use of military force against Tehran. The unwillingness of the Senate and House to insist on a bill forbidding a new war without Congressional approval demonstrates that Democrats and Republicans alike have difficulty in seeing past Ahmadinejad to consider the genuine downside that would result from another conflict in the Middle East.


Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is the Francis Walsingham Fellow for the American Conservative Defense Alliance.