'He threw in the towel': Stanford's Abbas Milani discusses Ahmadinejad's tumble

Iran's controversial president challenged the nation's "divinely anointed" leader, Ali Khamenei  – and now Ahmadinejad must dance to the cleric's tune.

L.A. Cicero Portrait of Abbas Milani

Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford and a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pronouncements on the West, Israel, women, the peace process, human rights and just about everything else used to be headline news. His election gave rise to Iran's 2009 "green movement" protests –  and their bloody suppression.

What a difference two years make. Now, discord between Iran's controversial Ahmadinejad and the archconservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have again raised questions about the nation's political stability.

Abbas Milani, a former political prisoner under the shah in the 1970s and a pro-democracy activist, is today one of the leading international experts on Iran.

He is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. He is also a research fellow and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. His biography, The Shah, was published this year by Palgrave Macmillan. He spoke with Stanford Report about the internal politics of Iran.

These are unhappy days for Ahmadinejad. What's happening right now?

Ahmadinejad seems to have believed his own hype that he actually won the last election. Based on that mandate, he decided to challenge Khamenei.

By law, there is no comparison between the powers of the unelected, "divinely anointed" leader – now Khamenei – and those of the president. The leader controls the military, the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary forces, the state-controlled media, the judiciary and about 30 to 40 percent of the economy.

Khamenei unleashed a remarkable barrage of attacks on Ahmadinejad. Overnight, the once-pious and populist president and his most senior aides and advisers were called lawbreakers, agents of American imperialism, rapists, practitioners of dark arts like conjuring and consulting with the devil and, of course, massive financial corruption. One aide was even accused of raping 340 virgins in one year!

The president's opponents are now claiming that the last contested election – the one Khamenei had called divinely inspired – was in fact stolen by Ahmadinejad. Impeachment proceedings have begun.

Ahmadinejad saw the writing on the wall. He realized that no one is going to come to his aid. He had apparently assumed that the billions of dollars of no-bid contracts he had given to the Revolutionary Guards would convince them to side with him. He was wrong. He threw in the towel and there is now a temporary lull.

What the next few months will bring is anybody's guess. But Khamenei has clearly clipped Ahmadinejad's wings and might prefer to not risk the potential instability an impeachment might bring about.

Ahmadinejad has been told, in no uncertain terms, that only if he behaves – that is, follow everything Khamenei commands – will he be allowed to finish out his term.


So how is this situation different from Ayatollah Khomeini and the rule of the mullahs in the 1980s?

The situation is radically different from the time of Khomeini in one critical manner: Khomeini had banned the Revolutionary Guards from entering into the political or economic domain.

Khamenei, a comparatively minor cleric, lacks Khomeini's charisma and political capital. Khamenei enlisted the Revolutionary Guards to protect him with a solid base of power.

With every passing year, the power of the guards has increased. In a remarkably blatant exercise of power, the guards' commander recently made clear pronouncements about who can and can't run in the upcoming election.

What impact is this dispute likely to have on Iran's nuclear program, and how can we expect that to play out?

Iran's nuclear policy has always been in the hands of Khamenei. There is a National Security Council that supposedly formulates policy on such matters but they follow what the leader says.

Moreover, the actual, physical control of the nuclear facilities is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. Today, they are the ones who actually keep the regime in power.

I think there is little evidence of any change in Iran's nuclear policy. The reality, however, is that they are facing serious technological difficulties. Most of them result from a virus that was, by all accounts, created in a joint effort by U.S. and Israeli scientists and that virus has delayed the start of the nuclear reactor – a reactor that was 75 percent complete in 1980 but has yet to start!

The president is courting the moderate middle classes of Iran – but aren't these the same people who took to the streets in 2009?

I think this might well have been one of the key miscalculations of Ahmadinejad.

He had been courting the middle classes. He supported allowing women to watch soccer in a stadium – they are banned, based on the argument that they might get aroused watching men in shorts run around the field. He opposed his own minister's attempt to segregate classes by gender in the university. But it has been for naught.

The middle and working classes are feeling the economic pressures that have been the direct result of Ahmadinejad's colossal mismanagement of the economy and the oil revenue. The country is facing double-digit unemployment – for college graduates the figure is more than 40 percent unemployed – and double-digit inflation.

The first budding of the "Arab Spring" actually happened in Iran in June 2009, and was brutally suppressed. What should happen now? What should the United States do?

Today, the same tactics are being used by [President Bashar] Assad in Syria. Reports say that units of Revolutionary Guards are helping Syrian security forces suppress the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

The United States should increase pressure on Assad and Iran, making both regimes understand that they will feel increasingly isolated from the international community if they continue on their current path.

The United States should also allow the transfer of technologies that break these regimes' monopoly of news and domination of the Internet.

The Obama administration has taken some important steps in that direction on Iran but much more is needed.

Some fear that if the United States pulls out of Iraq, then Iran will move in. Would that be one way for an increasingly isolated country to boost morale and reassert its dominance in the region?

Iran has already increased its economic influence in Iraq.

Many Shiite-dominated cities like Najaf are now dominated by Iranian companies, many of them owned and operated by the Revolutionary Guards. Some of the Iranian regime's old allies are now in key positions.

What has limited Iran's influence has been pressure from Saudi Arabia, who is emerging as the leader of the Sunni coalition against Iran. The other critical factor in mitigating Iran's influence has been Iraqi and Arab nationalism. For centuries, sadly, the two sides of this divide have had strong feelings against one another.

You have said you are still "strategically optimistic" about long-term prospects in Iran. Why?

I am strategically optimistic about the future because I think the Iranian society has already undergone a change; a kind of renaissance has happened at the societal level.

Look at the films, novels, music, poetry, even journalistic articles that are coming out of Iran. They all indicate a society anxious for and capable of democracy. Iran is a multi-ethnic quilt; only democracy can hold the country together.

Only democracy can create the requisite jobs and invite the needed capital to solve the country's problems. Iran's diaspora is large and successful, particularly in the economic field. Only democracy will convince any of them to go back, or invest in Iran. Add to all of these the economic incompetence of the regime, its massive corruption and its ideological sclerosis, and you are reminded of the Soviet Union in the '70s.

The future is bright for Iran. The road to that future is fraught with many dangers.

Abbas Milani, Iranian Studies, (650) 387-4901, amilani@stanford.edu

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, cynthia.haven@stanford.edu