The Middle East Channel

Ahmadinejad's impotence

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant to kick off his annual visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York with the grand gesture of releasing two U.S. hikers held captive for over a year. Instead, he was humiliated in public by Iran's powerful judiciary, which stated on Wednesday that the president could not fulfill that promise.

Nothing could more clearly symbolize Ahmadinejad's fading fortunes. Gone is the self-confident rhetorician of revolutionary outrage and nationalist fervor. In his place stands a broken man. The hikers' episode is only one more piece of evidence that the last eight months have proven to be the beginning to the end of the president's political career. Ahmadinejad's U.N. speech will probably be as loquacious as ever, and may contain interesting surprises -- such as his declaration last year that it was the United States Government which launched the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But his words should not be taken as a message from anyone other than Ahmadinejad.

Even before the judiciary embarrassed Ahmadinejad, many in Tehran doubted that the president would be allowed to travel to the U.N. General Assembly to deliver the official speech on September 22. The institutions and political elites which once formed the bedrock of his power have all left him, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence minister, and important conservative clerics. The president has challenged the authority and legitimacy of supreme clerical rule, and he cast doubt on the divine attributes of the clergy -- without which the Islamic Republic could not exist in anything like its present form. At this point, it is unclear whether Ahmadinejad will even be allowed to finish out his term.

In recent days, as if to run victory laps around the president, key regime figures have all made it clear that the president's political faction -- labeled by his foes as the "deviant faction" -- will not be permitted to run candidates in parliamentary elections in March. The word "deviant" stems from the desire of Ahmadinejad and his cronies to do away with the traditional structures of cleric rule. His in-law and closest confidant, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaiee, who has been completely ostracized from the regime, has repeatedly made statements hinting at his disregard for the way Shiite jurisprudence is interpreted, practiced, and enforced by the clerical establishment.

In a Friday prayer speech on August 31 to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Khamnei acknowledged the lack of unity among the factions within the regime and noted the shortcomings of the current government -- a rare admission but one aimed directly at Ahmadinejad and his administration. "Elections are the manifestation of religious democracy," said Khamenei. "However, enemies seek to misuse elections to harm the country." Here, the word "enemies" is not a reference to traditional adversaries, such as the United States or Israel, but to Ahmadinejad's political faction, which has caused havoc within the regime.

According to Ali Falahian, Iran's former intelligence minister, the traditional conservatives are now drafting a list of potential candidates for the parliamentary elections, but it will not include representatives from Ahmadinejad's faction. "Drawing clear boundaries with the deviant faction is one of the main goals of conservatism," he said. He also chastised those who have remained silent as Ahmadinejad defied orders from Khamenei and many other senior clerics over the last several months. 

As for the release of the hikers, it was clear even as Ahmadinejad made the announcement on Tuesday in the U.S. media that the decision was not made by him. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ahmadinejad referred to the release of the hikers as a "unilateral humanitarian gesture." When pressed for a guarantee for the release of the two hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, Ahmadinejad enigmatically replied, "I hope so. I hope I will do that," according to the Post.

Ahmadinejad's inability to know what he will do next is due to the fact that Iran's judiciary, not its executive, presides over the fate of the two U.S. men. Having recently lost a fierce, drawn-out battle against the loyalists supporting the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad is anxious to appear relevant on the world stage and simultaneously reluctant to admit he does not have the final say in the two hikers' case.

This is not Ahmadinejad's first clash with the Iranian judiciary. His attempts to annex certain key government ministries to his control, such as trying to create a parallel foreign ministry and takeover the oil ministry last spring, were one of the key drivers of his political downfall. In a pointed counterattack, the judiciary began corruption proceedings against a number of high-ranking pro-Ahmadinejad officials within the executive's highest levels. Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, and his brother, Ali Larijani, head of the legislature, are both inveterate critics of Ahmadinejad and his camp and have worked hard to ensure his political faction is finished.

Ahmadinejad has long served as the much-needed anti-Israeli foil, the embodiment of a modern Iran, which is a strange mix of Islamic orthodoxy, post-revolutionary nationalism, and Third World Marxist-socialism. Until the Arab awakening, he was also a hero for Arabs as the U.S. irritant par excellence. Now, the Arabs have found their own, direct means to defy the United States and Israel.

But his usefulness has come to an end. As he distracted the world with his rhetorical excesses, Iran moved ahead steadily with its nuclear program and extended its reach into Iraq and other countries in the region. The paradox of today's Iran is that it is the ruling elites who have rendered him politically irrelevant, not the protesters demonstrating in the squares of downtown Tehran. For many Iranians, this is a blessing and also a tragedy: while Ahmadinejad makes his exit, the regime is still alive and well. 

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation. Shayan Ghajar and Reza Akbari, researchers for the program, contributed to this article.

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Turkey’s Kurdish cards

Turkey's air strikes in recent weeks in search of Partiye Karkaren Kurdistane (PKK) insurgents along the Iraqi Kurdish border have fueled a growing crisis. They have caused civilian deaths and displacements, raising criticisms by human rights organizations, local populations, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and even the Baghdad Parliament. This predicament has not only undermined possibilities for negotiating Turkey's Kurdish problem, but has also heightened tensions among Kurdish groups in Iraq and the region.

Still, complaints against Turkish incursions will continue to be checked by concomitant demands to control the PKK, assure regional security, and guarantee shared economic interests. The military interventions may therefore have less effect than expected on the alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, but may further fragment cross-border Kurdish groups and encourage regional unrest.

Turkish military interventions should come as no surprise to a region where the PKK is still active and borders are highly porous. They have been occurring sporadically for over two decades, since the Government of Turkey signed a hot pursuit agreement with Baghdad to search and seize terrorists along the northern Iraqi border area. That security agreement did not necessarily include bombing campaigns that violated Iraqi sovereignty, but aerial incursions were tacitly recognized by regional states with Kurdish populations of their own. They also were tolerated by the Iraqi Government, which had insufficient resources and checked political authority to monitor its northern air space.

The security pact eventually became part of a leveraged deal between Ankara and the KRG as well. In exchange for shared communications and border security assistance, Iraqi Kurds were given access to an open Turkish border that provided them with humanitarian goods and lucrative profits from the food-for-fuel smuggling trade. Given the double embargo placed on the Kurdish north at the time, it was in KRG's interest to maintain the deal with Turkey, which had become a lifeline to the landlocked northern region. The need for a security pact also reflected the shifting geography of the PKK. After being expelled from its Beqaa Valley base in Syria in 1998, the PKK relocated to the Kurdish safe haven, where it re-established training camps and military operations in the mountainous regions, as well as offices in Iraqi Kurdish towns and cities.

A triangular relationship soon emerged between Ankara, Iraqi Kurds, and the PKK that created a more regionalized Kurdish problem, although one that each party has used to its advantage. Ankara could pursue the PKK in Iraq with reluctant assistance from the KRG. Iraqi Kurds could keep minimal PKK forces in their region to leverage Turkey and regional security interests. The PKK could use its new base to exert pressure on uncooperative regional states and mobilize or oppose fellow Kurds. Even then, the relationship -- and the nature and timing of Turkish cross-border interventions -- was largely defined by Turkey's own Kurdish problem that waxed and waned between ceasefires and renewed conflict between Ankara and the PKK. 

Although unable to resolve its internal Kurdish problem, Turkey has increased its leverage over Iraqi Kurds, and its ability to maneuver the PKK issue. With the creation of a federal Iraqi state Turkey has become a key source of investment in the Kurdistan region, alongside the KRG and its affiliated families. Turkey not only provides Iraqi pipelines access to European energy markets via its Ceyhan port, but continues to control the only legally open border point for commercial trade into the Kurdish north. Turkey's guardianship role over the Kurdistan region, alongside its growing position as a regional security policeman, has allowed Ankara to pursue the PKK unilaterally without legal or political sanction from Arbil or Baghdad. In fact, the more embedded Turkey has become in the Kurdistan region, the more autonomy it has gained in influencing PKK activities outside its borders.

To be sure, the KRG has attempted to differentiate its economic and political interests with Kurdish nationalist demands, both internally and across borders. It has closed down PKK offices inside urban centers and condemned all forms of terrorism. While calling on the PKK and its Iranian Kurdish affiliate, The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), to cease all military operations, Iraqi Kurdish officials have also assured the PKK that they will not send their peshmerga (militia) to the border area to fight their Kurdish brethren. Kurdish President Mas'ud Barzani reiterated to the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament last week that if Turkey fails to control the PKK, the KRG would "not want to be part of this fight." 

Yet given its satellite status with Turkey and position as an emerging energy market, the KRG may indeed have to become part of the PKK fight. In contrast to the 1990s, when Iraqi Kurds had little to lose from internal instability, the political and financial stakes today are much higher, and the dependencies far deeper. Not only does the KRG have to protect its special status in Iraq and alliance with Turkey, but it has to assure regional states and the international community that it is serious about combating terrorism and keeping its region safe for investment. Protecting these security and financial interests will become increasingly salient as the United States withdraws its combat forces from Iraq, and Turkey asserts greater influence in the region. 

As long as the Kurdish problem in Turkey remains unresolved and the PKK can use the Kurdistan region as a base, Turkish military incursions in the northern Iraqi border area are likely to continue. Similarly, as discrepancies become increasingly evident between Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and Kurdish claims across borders, the Kurdistan region will continue to attract and repel Kurdish dissidents. Instead of disengaging from these cross-border conflicts, the KRG may find itself in the uncomfortable position of clamping down further on radical Kurdish nationalists in support of its own interests and its regional allies.

Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse University Press, 2010). The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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