Iran’s top mullah may be on our side

Dariush Zahedi teaches international political economy and political science at UC Berkeley. In 2003, he was imprisoned in Iran on charges of espionage and later acquitted. Ali Ezzatyar is a doctoral candidate at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

THE UNITED STATES has a surprising ally in its impatience with the new Iranian president. Since his inauguration, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pugnacious demeanor has not only roiled the international community but also a significant portion of Iran’s ruling elite. A coalition of traditional conservatives, pragmatists and reformists is emerging within the government to oppose Ahmadinejad’s brand of governance. With Iran saying it will resume nuclear fuel research, the U.S. should do all in its power to boost the bargaining power of these more moderate Iranian leaders.

The rise of the anti-Ahmadinejad faction defies the expectations of Iran analysts, who believed that the post-Khatami era would produce a monolithic conservative bloc in control of most major levers of power. Instead, the coalition is strengthening and attracting many of the regime’s powerful personalities, perhaps even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Evidence of the latter is Khamenei’s recent decree giving the Expediency Council, a non-elected body headed by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, oversight of the presidency.

Ahmadinejad’s primary supporters have always been the rank and file of the country’s paramilitary forces. Renowned for their fearlessness and passionate commitment to the populist ideals of the Islamic revolution, they had not dominated government before or since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989.


The political struggle of Iran’s security establishment has come full circle with Ahmadinejad’s rise, which makes dealing with Tehran more difficult. The paramilitaries are the ultimate guarantors of the regime’s survival. Their leaders wield enormous influence in the Islamic Republic’s coercive security establishment, particularly those associated with the Revolutionary Guards. The militants also dominate the volunteer, or Basiji, militia force, believed to have more than 1 million members.

The paramilitaries are not fully tied to any one of the groups vying for power in Iran. Rather, they seek to influence domestic and foreign policy through their numbers and martial strength. They know international tensions that heighten security threats to Iran enhance their status in the power struggle. Although Ahmadinejad owes his presidency to allies in the guards and the Basiji forces, they are not totally beholden to him.

The unlikely counterbalance to Ahmadinejad could be Khamenei. He has frequently cultivated the paramilitaries since his elevation and relied on them to consolidate his power. But should the radicals attempt to direct policy without his explicit consent, Khamenei could move toward pragmatists allied with Rafsanjani and reformist supporters of former President Mohammad Khatami. The two former presidents don’t want one of their few achievements in the last 16 years -- Iran’s moderately improved relations with the outside world -- to disappear.

Contrary to popular belief, the traditional conservative clerical establishment is apprehensive about the possibility of violence inside and outside Iran. It generally opposes an aggressive foreign policy and, having some intimate ties with Iran’s dependent capitalist class, is appalled at the rapid slide of the economy since Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. The value of Tehran’s stock market has plunged $10 billion, the nation’s vibrant real estate market has withered and capital outflows are increasing.

Khamenei has intimated his readiness to distance himself from the radicals. Apart from authorizing nonpresidential bodies to supervise the three branches of government, he has instructed the Supreme Council for National Security to more fully cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency in the development of Iran’s nuclear program. These moves have strengthened his institutional power and helped prevent Ahmadinejad’s administration from undermining the regime’s credibility.

Here is where the United States comes in. The history of U.S.-Iran relations shows that the more Washington chastises Tehran for its nuclear ambitions, the more it plays into the hands of the radicals by riling up fear and nationalist sentiment. Instead, the U.S. needs to offer Iran an acceptable face-saving mechanism to allow it to master, under appropriate international supervision, the nuclear fuel cycle. A seed planted now could even grow into the long-awaited detente between the two countries and help the U.S. extricate itself from Iraq.