Iran President's Bark May Be Worse than His Bite

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Iran's rhetoric on the nuclear standoff may be sounding increasingly confrontational, but the headline-grabbing saber-rattling of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often masks an important reality: Ahmadinejad is not in charge of Iran's foreign or security policy, and his sentiments may not be entirely shared by those who are.

As the April 28 deadline looms for Tehran to comply with the U.N. demand that it suspend uranium-enrichment activities, Iran's position has appeared to grow even more defiant: Last week, it announced that it had actually succeeded in enriching uranium in a laboratory setting for the first time, and Ahmadinejad followed up with some trademark bellicosity, threatening Israel and vowing to "cut off the hand" of anyone who attacks Iran.

But the significance of Iran's enrichment announcement, and Tehran's next moves, may not quite match Ahmadinejad's sanguine rhetoric. Iran's enrichment experiment was in defiance of U.N. demands, but it has not ended cooperation with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the IAEA — in fact, IAEA inspectors are currently in Iran taking samples to verify Iran's enrichment claims.

Even the enrichment announcement itself bears some scrutiny. Ahmadinejad was actually upstaged by his most detested domestic political rival, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — the former president who, despite the backing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, lost his bid for a third term against Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani broke news of the enrichment to an Iranian radio station several hours before Ahmadinejad, spoiling the surprise in an effort to deny Ahmadinejad the credit for the politically popular achievement.

Then, Ahmadinejad's speech emphasized not only that Iran would not compromise on uranium enrichment, but also that “nobody has the right to compromise.” That statement appeared to be directed at those who may be in a position to compromise over the president's head; the enrichment announcement, after all, actually gives Tehran more room for a face-saving compromise, since it can now claim to have kept its promise to its own people that Iran would not be stopped from mastering nuclear technology. But in so doing, Ahmadinejad was inadvertently reminding the world that although he's the elected president, he does not actually run the country.

As the Bush administration consistently points out, Iran is ultimately run by unelected, clerical leaders, and Ahmadinejad is not one of them. President Bush's opposite number in Iraq is really the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Khameini makes the final decision on all matters of security and foreign policy — including and especially the nuclear issue — although he typically abides by the consensus of the National Security Council. The Council is led by Ali Larijani, appointed by and answerable to the Supreme Leader, and a man who also ran for president against Ahmadinejad.

It is Larijani rather than Ahmadinejad who is managing the negotiations over the nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has only one vote — out of around a dozen — on the Security Council. So as much as he rattles his saber at the West, the President is in no position to act on any of this threats. He has to lobby for his position within a power structure in which his is not the dominant voice. And while Ahmadinejad thunders against compromise, Larijani and other elements of the regime have made clear that Iran still seeks a deal, preferably in direct face-to-face talks with Washington.

As usual, Iran's intentions are not yet clear, but one thing is. Its true aims are probably not going to be revealed in the fire-and-brimstone speeches of President Ahmadinejad.