February 27, 2007

Ahmadinejad Gets A Scolding

Remember when people started speculating that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have lost some political ground with his reckless rhetoric and nuclear brinksmanship? Many of us wondered whether it was for real or just a sop to international sensibilities. The veracity seems more clear now, as even the state-run newspapers have begun openly criticizing the Iranian president for his antagonistic approach to the West:

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came under fire from domestic critics yesterday for his uncompromising stance on the nuclear issue as the US and Britain launched a new diplomatic effort to agree harsher UN sanctions they hope will force Tehran to halt uranium enrichment.

Mohammad Atrianfar, a respected political commentator, accused the president of using "the language of the bazaar" and said his comments had made it harder for Ali Larijani, the country's top nuclear negotiator, to reach a compromise with European diplomats.

The president made global headlines at the weekend by declaring that his country's quest for nuclear energy was an unstoppable train, adding to the sense of crisis as emergency talks got under way in London yesterday.

Critics from across the Iranian political spectrum took him to task for his "no brakes or reverse gear" remarks, bolstering claims in the west that his hardline position may be starting to backfire.

"This rhetoric is not suitable for a president and has no place in diplomatic circles," said Mr Atrianfar, a confidant of Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential regime insider and rival of Mr Ahmadinejad. "It is the language people in the
bazaar and alleyways use to address the simplest issues of life."

Want to know how bad the criticism has gotten? The head of the so-called reformist party compared Ahmadinejad to Hugo Chavez. Instead of taking lessons from Vaclav Havel, Fayaz Zahed noted, Ahmadinejad opted to pander to populist sentiments and completely missed the mark.

Even his own allies took an opportunity to score a few points off of the man who promised Iran a world without Israel. The fundamentalist Islamic newspaper Resalat, which normally would support the mullahcracy and its policies, wagged its editorial ringer at Ahmadinejad's lack of nuance in tone, if not in substance. "Neither weakness nor inexperience and unnecessary rhetorical aggression is acceptable in our foreign policy," the editors instructed Ahmadinejad, who has managed to hit just about every fault they listed.

It seems that the saber-rattling -- such as it is -- has hit the mark in Iran. The mullahs appear to have decided to let Ahmadinejad absorb the criticism for the tenor of the conflict, while maintaining the policies that prompted it. Most of the pushback has followed along those lines, reflecting on the rhetoric while avoiding any criticism of the Iranian nuclear program itself.

This shows that little leeway for significant movement away from the nuclear agenda exists. We may get better diplomacy if the mullahs completely abandon Ahmadinejad, but the room for actual progress looks very limited. It also shows that staying tough on the Iranians has kept at least that much room open.


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