Adrian Hamilton: Let's not overestimate the threat from Ahmadinejad

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The Independent Online

Should we be worried about the sudden change in Iran's negotiating team on the nuclear issue? In an obvious sense, the answer has to be yes.

At the very least it signals a hardening of Iran's stance in nuclear negotiations at a time when Washington, and London, are ramping up the rhetoric on their side. Yes too, because it marks a further consolidation of power within Tehran by Iran's radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But no, because it doesn't take us any further forward in understanding whether Iran is really determined to develop nuclear weapons or inflame the conflicts in Iraq, the Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Indeed you could argue that the sudden resignation of Ali Larijani as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and his replacement by Saeed Jalili, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, is proof that Iran isn't the monolithic dictatorship of President Bush and Tony Blair's fevered imaginings.

The mere fact that the Larijani's resignation has been greeted with outspoken and very public criticism within the parliament and political circles in Tehran is an indication of how fluid politics are there.

We're not talking here of a Western-style democracy, of course, although the tensions within the Iranian government are mirror-imaged by the divisions within Bush's administration. Iran is a theocracy where final authority rests with the supreme leader and where the clerics of the Council of Guardians make sure to cut out of the electoral system anybody considered of a liberal or radical. let alone secular, bent.

Within those confines, however, there is considerable room for dissent and competing ambition and that is what we seem to be witnessing now. Contrary to Western assumptions, Ahmadinejad is not the creature of the conservative clerics.

Indeed, it was Larijani who was generally assumed to have the blessing initially of the establishment in the presidential elections of 2005.

Ahmadinejad came in as an outsider, a non-cleric, an educated professional and, like his close colleague, Jalili, a veteran of the war with Iraq.

His appeal was to the urban dispossessed, the unemployed youth and the rural poor who felt that they had been left out of the wealth that was coming to the country through higher oil prices and resented what they saw (rightly) as the corruption and complacency of the older generation of clerical leaders, including the still powerful Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the runner-up in the elections.

In that sense, Ahmadinejad does represent a new and assertive Iran, hardened by war, technically educated, determined to break out of the confines of what they see as the failure to build on Khomeini's original revolution.

In that sense, too, he presents a much less acceptable face to the world, feeling beholden neither to the West, who tacitly approved Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran and the consequent war in which Iran lost at least half a million dead and seriously wounded, or to Russia, which armed and supported Saddam.

But he is not a tyrant, let alone the Hitler of Blair's recent manichean vision.

For a start, he doesn't have untrammelled power. The clergy and the establishment, who regard him as much an incompetent as a threat, have moved to restrict his ability to introduce legislation or form his own foreign policy.

His all-too apparent failure to steer the economy or reduce the gap between rich and poor has deprived him of a good deal of his domestic constituency, as the recent local elections proved. For the moment, he seems to have Ayatollah Khamenei's support, but it is not unequivocal. In 18 months' time, Ahmadinejad faces re-election. On present trends, he could well lose it.

Nor, in terms of the outside world, does he seem to be seeking a different or more radical foreign policy. His argument with Larijani is, on his own account, not about aims – all the government is united in insisting on Iran's right to enrich uranium – but on tactics. Larijani seemed, in Ahmadinejad's eyes, to be temporising on the fundamentals by appearing willing even to discuss enrichment.

But Ahmadinejad has never wavered from his insistence that Iran does not want nuclear weapons nor in his willingess to discuss broader questions of regional security and peace.

The danger with Iran is not with the personality or the international posturings of the Iranian president, unwelcome though they may be.

It is that in ratcheting up the confrontation, and continually demonising Iran as the enemy, we will find ourselves driven to a war that is neither necessary nor without consequence.

Ahmadinejad knows that. He's been in one. But do Bush, Cheney, Brown or Sarkozy,who haven't?

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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