Leadership: Iranian Radicals Lose Another One


April 5, 2007: On March 23rd Iranian naval forces captured 15 British naval personnel. Over the following 12 days, while Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair undertook a series of diplomatic initiatives (shunning calls for immediate military action, but involving fortuitously scheduled Anglo-American naval maneuvers in the area), statements emanating from Tehran were characterized by increasing stridency, culminating in announcements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the prisoners would soon be put on trial for violating Iranian territorial waters, espionage, and more. Then, quite suddenly, on April 4th, Ahmadinejad made the surprising announcement that the prisoners would be released without any strings attached. What was that Ahmadinejad, who has little real power in Iran, had his own strongs pulled.

Naturally, Ahmadinejad's announcement was larded with phrasing that continued to accuse Britain of various offenses, and he took pains to praise himself. In fact, however, the release of the prisoners indicates that Ahmadinejad has suffered a major defeat in the covert power-struggle between Iran's revolutionary radicals and the country's conservative, but realistic, religious leadership, which holds the ultimate power.

The religious leadership, headed by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has a different agenda than the more radical elements of the country's revolutionary movement, represented by Ahmadinejad, and backed by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is the second major defeat that Ahmadinejad has suffered at the hands of the religious leadership. Just a few months ago Supreme Leader Khamenei stripped Ahmadinejad from any role in the country's nuclear power program, after his bungling efforts to develop nuclear weapons resulted in the imposition of stringent sanctions by an unusually united U.N. Security council.

Grabbing the British sailors angered Ahmadinejads superiors, but Ahmadinejad was on a roll for a while. Sticking it to Great Britain is immensely popular in Iran. Although the United States is the "Great Satan", Britain is more disliked. For centuries, before the U.S. showed up in the region during World War II, Britain thwarted Iranian ambitions, often to humiliating effect. But Iran has been a great regional power for thousands of years by avoiding reckless behavior. Britain is still a major player in the world of commerce and banking. Long term, a vengeful Britain could do much harm to Iran. Ahmadinejad may not have cared about this, but his superiors did.

Ahmadinejad is the front man for a coalition of factions that represent the more radical clerics running the Iranian religious dictatorship. Some of Ahmadinejads allies are openly contemptuous of democracy, while most simply believe is the worldwide Islamic revolution and the destruction of Israel and the United States. Some of Ahmadinejads buddies are in favor of forcibly converting Sunni Moslems into Shia. All this scares the hell out of most Moslems, and Arabs in particular. Thus the Iranian "Islamic Revolution", despite nearly three decades of effort, has little to show for it. To further complicate matters, Ahmadinejad is a major proponent of clean government and prosecuting corrupt officials. Most of the clerics running the country are dirty, in that respect, including some of Ahmadinejads allies.

Ahmadinejad has now suffered two major, more or less public, rebukes from the religious authorities. This may force him to curb his enthusiasm for radical action, or try again, in the hope of rebuilding his influence. Then again, Ahmadinejad is a true Islamic radical, believing himself on a mission from God. For someone like that, failure is not an option.




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