WHO RUNS IRAN? Mark Kleiman is bothered, rightly, by the tendency to treat Iran as a sovereign, Western-style country whose actions "are the results of political conflicts and agreements among Iranian politicians, interest groups, and factions." In other words, when we talk about Iran, we don't take the complexities and oddities of its politics into account. Agreed. Moreover, there's a bias towards evaluating states in basically the analytical frame we use for America, and so the guy called 'the president" who spends a lot of time attending international summits and appearing on the nightly news, is assumed to be basically in control of things. Which is why, of course, Iran is now a pluralistic, open democracy, much as President Khatami wanted it.
Oh, wait. That didn't happen. Because, as it turns out, president is not a particularly powerful office in Iran. Last night, I was talking with a pollster who kept insisting that Ahmadinejad was a nearly unique threat, as not only did he possess the means to eventually construct nuclear weapons, but he had a rationale for using them. I disagree on the last clause, but there is absolutely no reason to think President Ahmadinejad has the power to launch a nuclear strike. On anyone.
In the Iranian political system, the Supreme Leader controls the armed forces, the television, the judiciary, the prisons, and basically every other lever of power. The President, conversely, is a very high-ranking civil servant. His only intersection with the military comes in the appointment of defense and intelligence ministers, who must then be approved by the Supreme Leader and then by the legislature. He is impotent when it comes to the armed forces. Iran, remember, is a revoultionary republic, and Khomeini's "innovation" was to argue that the country should be run by those schooled in Islamist thought. The president, a popularly elected politician, not only isn't the highest leader, but his subordinate position is woven into the deepest fabric of the country's political structure.
So President Khatami, who just wanted to institute some political reforms, was completely stymied by the Supreme Council. And yet we think Ahmadinejad will be allowed to launch nuclear attacks -- which will result in massive reprisal against Tehran -- all on his lonesome? It's nuts! He doesn't have the power. And no one with the power has proven particularly reckless or hungry for annihilating confrontation. And yet, the media still presents the situation, and the administration still prortrays it, as if Ahmadinejad is George W. Bush rather than Mohammed Khatami. This is not clear thinking and it will not lead to sound policy-making -- but it does help with the fear-mongering.