From the moment he came to power in a surprising election victory last June over Ayatollah Khameini's preferred candidate, Ahmedinajad has been assailed from two sides: the Old Guard of clerics who backed the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and mistrust Ahmedinajad as a young upstart; and the Reformers who had rallied around his predecessor, Muhammad Khatami, and don't like his revivalist radicalism.
One telling indication of Ahmedinajad's woes was the enormous difficulty he faced in appointing an oil minister: his first three choices were summarily rejected by the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament. It didn't help that the man he had beaten in the election, Rafsanjani, is head of the powerful Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the parliament and the ayatollahs. That power allows Rafsanjani to undermine Ahmedinijad's policies. As a result, the President was reduced to moaning that none of his predecessors had ever faced such hostility at home.
His back to the wall, Ahmedinajad resorted to the tactic favored by cornered politicians everywhere: distract attention from yourself by pointing to a bogeyman. In Iran (and other Middle Eastern countries) the most convenient Bad Guys are (a) Israel and (b) the West. Hence Ahmedinajad's much-publicized remarks about wanting to wipe Israel off the map. But by all accounts that was not enough to draw off his domestic rivals.
So, Ahmedinajad played the only other card he had. The nuclear issue is possibly the sole question that unites all factions of Iranian politics they all agree that the West has no business denying them their right to pursue a nuclear energy program. Even Iranians who dislike the President bristle at the suggestion that their country should not be trusted with nuclear-fuel techonology. By engineering a confrontation with the West over the nuclear issue, Ahmedinijad has forced his rivals to defend him. This week, even Rafsanjani took time off undermining the President's power to attack the West for trying to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Had Ahmedinajad been a totalitarian tyrant, like Saddam, he would not have needed to play the nuclear card to disarm his domestic rivals: he'd simply have tossed someone like Rafsanjani in jail, or sent him to the gallows. As an elected leader hemmed in by the checks and balances of the parliament and the ayatollahs, Ahmedinijad needs to play politics in order to survive.
And he has played this round very well. So strong are Iranians' feelings on the nuclear issue, I believe they will back Ahmedinajad all the way up to and beyond economic sanctions. In trying to pressure Ahmedinajad to retreat, the West risks making him politically stronger; he can portray himself as a determined and indomitable leader who stands up to the mighty and malign forces of the West. The more the West makes him out to be a villain, the more heroic he will seem to his domestic audience. Don't expect him to back down anytime soon.