It’s all over the Iranian press: President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, self-described “street cleaner of the people”, is in deep political trouble at home, subjected to crossfire from conservatives and reformers alike. All the more ironic considering the biblical tsunami of Washington spin portraying Ahmadinejad as the newest “new Hitler” (Saddam Hussein, after all, fell victim to a lynch mob).
As far as geopolitical strategy is concerned, it’s as if Ahmadinejad might be as clueless as his US counterpart, President George W. Bush. Well, it’s not that simple. The conservative Etemad e-Melli newspaper rhetorically asked what exactly the Iranian president was up to in Latin America while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was lobbying dictatorial Arab regimes – from Egypt to Saudi Arabia – to deep-freeze Iran over alleged “interference” in Iraq.
Well, he was consolidating what the White House already regards as the new “axis of evil” – the strategic relationship between Iran and Venezuela, sealed last September during Ahmadinejad’s first visit to Caracas, right inside what the US historically considered its “back yard”.
The ultra-conservative Keyhan newspaper, very close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali al-Khamenei, could not help but consider it “a great victory for the diplomacy of Ahmadinejad’s government”.
In the lightning-quick Latin America tour that took him to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador, meeting re-elected leftist stalwart Hugo Chavez, the recently elected former guerrillero Daniel Ortega, and US-educated economist Rafael Correa, the key Ahmadinejad stop was in Caracas. A joint Iran-Venezuela US$2 billion fund for myriad projects will also benefit other friendly developing countries in Latin America and Africa that, in Chavez’ words, “are making efforts to liberate themselves from the imperialist yoke”.
Both Iran and Venezuela are key members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Washington’s nemesis Chavez once again was clear: “There’s too much crude in the market.” So both presidents agreed on Saturday to lobby OPEC for a further cut in production to boost crude-oil prices.
That’s not what major OPEC producer Saudi Arabia wants – or what Washington “suggested” Riyadh not to want. OPEC had already reduced production by 1.2 million barrels a day in November and will reduce by another 500,000 barrels a day from February 1.
Both Chavez and Ahmadinejad want more – Chavez to fuel his ambitious domestic social programs, Ahmadinejad at least to start a few. Even if global oil prices fell sharply – an unlikely scenario – Venezuelan analysts project that Chavez would still proceed full speed ahead with oil at $30 a barrel. But for Iran, that would be an economic disaster.
To boost Washington’s ire to stratospheric levels, Chavez once again stressed that the Bolivarian and the Islamic revolutions were “sisters” – a link impeccably translated by the official exchange of gifts: Ahmadinejad received a Persian translation of a book on Simon Bolivar, the great South American liberator, while Chavez received a Spanish translation of a book on ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 revolution.
Now shut up and work
Ahmadinejad being hailed as a post-modern co-liberator of South America was not enough to placate criticism back in his part of the world. For the conservative Iranian religious newspaper Jomhouri Islami – also very close to Khamenei – in an unusually blunt article, the president’s non-stop interference with the nuclear dossier was viewed as ruining Iranian diplomacy (Ahmadinejad expelled experienced diplomats from the Foreign Office in 2005, sprinkling it with his Revolutionary Guard allies).
The article aptly translates the fierce battle going on in the opaque nationalist theocracy’s corridors of power. And Ahmadinejad’s faction appears to be losing the battle. The Supreme Leader – who is responsible for the nuclear dossier anyway – seems to have had enough, and has in essence ordered the president to shut up.
Khamenei and his supporters – the clerics’ faction – believe that Ahmadinejad’s explosive tirades have been used as firepower by the US to persuade the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. In addition, Ahmadinejad’s faction – via his mentor Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi – lost ground in last month’s election to the Council of Experts, the only body that can hold the Supreme Leader to account. Victory went to perennial Machiavellian Hashemi Rafsanjani – who leads a moderate, semi-secular faction hostile to Ahmadinejad’s.
There’s now ample speculation in Tehran that new, Supreme Leader-appointed faces will shake up Iran’s nuclear negotiation team. And in the middle of all this, eyebrows East and West were raised when Keyhan slipped in an editorial last Friday saying that Iran “is only a few steps away from becoming a nuclear power”. Was that a fact, a warning, or a figure of speech?
Ahmadinejad anyway will have to shelve his rhetoric – and start delivering. A group of reformist and moderate Parliament members is signing petitions to force him to explain his (non-existent) policies. Jomhouri Islami even issued a prescription: “Speak about the nuclear issue only during important national occasions, stop provoking aggressor powers like the United States, and concentrate more on the daily needs of the people.” Not to mention fulfilling electoral promises of fighting inflation, corruption and the oil mafia.
Keeping Ahmadinejad on a leash will be a crucial part of the nationalist theocracy’s strategy of doing everything in its power not to incur further US wrath – as the Bush administration escalates its formidable array of acts of provocation. Ahmadinejad is now seen as too much of a loose cannon to be left to his own devices – especially when 45 centuries of accumulated Persian diplomacy can be effectively deployed.
Iran enjoys good political relations with the majority of countries around the world – especially in the South. The glaring exceptions are the US and Israel. Iran is not a backward, repressive regime like Saudi Arabia. The talk in Tehran is that the Supreme Leader and professional diplomats have concluded that the best course of action for Iran is to ride the tempest of provocations – sanctions, illegal raids on consulates, US intelligence infiltrating sensitive Khuzestan province, encirclement by nuclear-equipped aircraft carriers, propaganda over Iranian “networks” killing Americans in Iraq – while advancing Iran’s interests in Lebanon, Central Asia, China, Russia and South America.
Washington might need to start manufacturing another “new Hitler”.