US must take care not to play into hardliners’ hands

The cracks in the Iranian regime

Sanctions have aggravated infighting among Iran’s ruling clique. Now the US must take care not to play into hardliners’ hands

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the ceremony inaugurating the Karrar drone  aircraft Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the ceremony inaugurating the Karrar drone aircraft. Photograph: Vahid Reza Alaei/APLooking at the Iranian press over the past few weeks you would be forgiven for thinking that Iran is in a state of hypertension. The long list of new military hardware ready to fire against the “enemy” is mindboggling.

While punitive sanctions are taking effect, Iran continues to face the threat of a military strike from Israel. At the same time the US refuses to remove from the table the possibility of military action. The inauguration of the Bushehr nuclear power plant on Saturday – described by Israel as “totally unacceptable” – seems to have made matters even worse.

On Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards naval force commander, Ali Fadavi, announced the production of two new high-speed boats with missile launchers. He said Iran had “reached unparalleled power” in cruise missile defence. These are new versions of Zolfaqar and Seraj 1 rocket launchers. They are “unrivalled” in high speed, according to Iran’s defence minister, Ahmad Vahidi. He warned the “enemies” of Iran that they are “playing with fire”.

On Sunday, Iran unveiled its homemade, unmanned, long-distance bomber drone, described by the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as “an ambassador of death” to Tehran’s enemies.

On Saturday, while the world was watching the opening of Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iranian TV was repeatedly showing the latest surface-to-surface missile, Qiam1, which follow Sajil and Shahab.

Meanwhile Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stressed on “keeping unity” among the ruling clique. He warned in a speech last Thursday against “intentional” opposition to government, especially from “high office”. They should “confess and repent” in the holy month of Ramadan.

The internal feud between the “pragmatist” right – led by the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, and the hardline president, Ahmadinejad, has not been a well-kept secret. Larijani has blocked several of Ahmadinejad’s policy proposals and Ahmadinejad has in turn refused to implement those that the parliament ratified. Larijani then had to intervene and order the executive branch to implement what parliament had ratified.

And his brother, Sadeq Larijani, who is the head of judiciary, has openly criticised Ahmadinejad’s interference in the work of the judiciary and for his lack of “appropriate political language” in internal and international affairs. In turn, Ahmadinejad supporters such as the rightwing member of parliament, Fatemeh Alia, criticised the judiciary for encouraging attacks on Ahmadinejad. The opposition to Ahmadinejad is also supported by a leading member of parliament, Ahmad Tavakoli, and by Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as by Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor. There are also two other potent opponents, both sons of respected ayatollahs: Ali Motahari and Hassan Khomeini.

The same group have also been actively pursuing the president’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai. Yet, Ahmadinejad has just given him an added portfolio as the president’s special representative for the Middle East. He is regarded as the president’s protege for the next presidential elections. The constitution bars Ahmadinejad from a third term. Instead he has been nurturing support in a group called the Sweet Scent of Service.

So, the infighting among the ruling clique has been persistent and serious. The official conservative media has given it coverage since the powerbrokers have their own mafia-like groups inside the media.

The Fars news agency, close to the IRGC, quotes Ahmad Karimi-Esfahani, the head of the powerful bazaar merchants’ guild, apparently criticising Ahmadinejad for his “non-diplomatic” language, which is “provocative” and leads to international sanctions. If our leaders did not quarrel so much, says Esfahani, “the west would not be able to use internal problems as justification for sanctions”.

Insecurity about the punitive sanctions has clearly aggravated the tension at the top. “Under the threat of sanctions,” Iran’s supreme leader warned, “no one must speak in a way that implies tension between the parliament, the judiciary and the government.”

Another effect of sanctions seems to have been an official rapprochement towards the United States. We know that Ahmadinejad and the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, have recently repeatedly spoken of their willingness to talk. However, far more important was the clearest green light given by the supreme leader, Khamenei. In a somewhat unnoticed part of his speech last Thursday he said:

“Speaking to the US under conditions of threat and pressure cannot be regarded as talks. We are happy to hold talks but not with a US that wants talks under sanctions, threats and pressure. We are ready for talks if they [the US] could climb down from their superpower ladder and stop sanctions and threats.”

Under these changing circumstances two steps could be regarded as immature: first, if the US fell for the ploy and began talks before sanctions took full effect, and second, if there was a decision by Israel or the US to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. Both would play into the hands of the hardliners. The most prudent response could be to continue with the present policy while ensuring close scrutiny of the nuclear sites by the IAEA.

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