10 Questions: About Iran

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor for CBSNews.com.
With so much controversy swirling about the visit to the United Nations this week of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and wild headlines galore -- we thought we needed some perspective.
(Center for Contemporary Conflict)
So we called Vali Nasr, who teaches international politics at Tufts University, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is the author of "The Shia Revival" and "Democracy in Iran."
1. Many other world leaders came to New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, but we barely heard a word about them. Why is all the attention on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president?

His comments on wiping Israel off the map, his comments denying the Holocaust . . . he¹s a controversial fellow. He¹s in the crosshairs of the United States because not only have the two countries not had relations for the past 27 years, but Iran¹s profile has risen with its pursuit of nuclear technology. There¹s also the Iraq war. And Iran¹s been instrumental in supporting Hezbollah. They¹re a big player in Palestinian politics and in southern Iraq. So in the past two or three years, the Bush administration has viewed Iran as an impediment to the peace process.

So you have a president who¹s particularly bombastic, who presents the worst image of a country you¹re already having problems with. For the American public, Ahmadinejad captures the Bush administration's demonization of Iran.

2. While the New York Daily News ran screaming headlines, ``Go to Hell`` and ``The Evil Weasel," on Monday the New York Times ran a story headlined, ``U.S. Focus on Ahmadinejad Puzzles Iranians," reporting that he has far less power than we tend to give him credit for. What's the disconnect?

He doesn' have that much power. The Iranian president is not the head of the Iranian state. The head of the state is the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Ahmadinejad, as head of the executive branch of the government, does have certain powers. He appoints ministers and governors. But he does not control the Parliament, the Judiciary. He does not appoint the commander of the military forces. And especially when we talk about the nuclear issue, he does not control the Guardian Council, the Expediency Council, the Assembly of Experts, all of these powerful councils that oversee elections and legislation. None of them are under his mandate. And the more powerful foundations that control most of the wealth of the country, those aren¹t under his command.

The paradox is this: When his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was president, the U.S.'s position was, There's no point in engaging with him because he's powerless and meaningless. And now we have all this focus on the current president.

3. How did that happen?

It's a decision by the American media, he's seen as the man with his finger on the button that can annihilate Israel and Iran¹s neighbors, that he makes foreign policy decisions.

The Iranians know that the president is not as powerless as Khatami was made out to be, or as powerful as Ahmadinejad is made out to be.

And in Iran, the Supreme Leader himself has to rule by building consensus.

4. Tell us about the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the 1980s, he was Iran¹s president. When the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, died in 1989, Khamenei was elevated to the status of Supreme Leader, and his powers increased.

That's what baffles Iranians, there's no real change in Iran¹s leadership, in the sense that the same man has been ruling Iran for the past 20 years.

Presidents have come and gone, but most of the power is still in the hands of the Supreme Leader. Khamenei¹s style is consultative, he likes to get everybody on board and negotiate, give a little to one faction, give a little to another.

The idea behind his office is that he¹s a kind of Ceasar/Pope. The state is based on Islamic law, and the thinking is, Who knows Islamic law better than the clerics? Like the Pope is the spiritual leader for Catholics and the ruler of the Vatican state.

And when it comes to foreign policy, while Ahmadinejad is one of the actors, the last word belongs to the Supreme Leader.

5. What's their relationship like?

Khamenei does have some sympathies for Ahmadinejad.

First, in his own youth, he had populist tendencies, economically his views were leftist. Ahmadinejad stands for the poor, he¹s seen as working class, he dresses working class, he lives in a two-bedroom house in southern Tehran.

Another reason is that the Supreme Leader ultimately is the person whose job is to protect the Islamic republic, so he clearly favors a figure who is committed to those revolutionary values. He might have liked the previous president, Khatami ¬ they shared an appreciation for literature, for instance ¬ but as a reformist, Khatami ultimately wants to destroy the system. Ahmadinejad wants to take it back to the 1980s, the system the Supreme Leader is trying to cherish.

And the third issue is that the Supreme Leader endorsed Ahmadinejad in subtle ways. Most Iranians believe he still favors him, and therefore he¹s stuck with him. He can¹t ditch him without losing face, without his own wisdom and judgments coming into question.

6. What's Ahmadinejad's support like among the Iranian people?

Increasingly fewer Iranians like him. At the beginning, the poor liked him, he was anticorruption, he was for the distribution of wealth. He campaigned on a platform of protecting the poor, of protecting government subsidies when the government was talking about privitization. He argued that the first generation after the 1979 Revolution had become corrupt fat cats. I remember Iranian businessmen saying, What we like about him is that his desk doesn¹t have any drawers, meaning he¹s not on the take.

And many people like his defiant attitude toward the United States. There¹s a sense in the Arab world that their own leaders are so pliant toward the U.S.

But ultimately he was elected because he had promised jobs and improving the country's economy.

7. And how's he fared on that?

He hasn't been able to create jobs. He¹s scared the stock market and the banks away, he¹s scared away foreign investment. He's tried to deal with the problems of the poor, but by spending the oil money and not creating more goods, he¹s created high inflation and high unemployment in an economy that wasn¹t heading in the right direction to begin with.

Ultimately you can talk nuclear issues or his stance on the Holocaust, or what happened at the United Nations or at Columbia University, but for Iranians, "it's the economy, stupid." The heart of the matter is jobs, jobs, jobs. All these other issues divert attention away from his economic and domestic record. If he were to stand on this in an election, he would be creamed.

8. Not to put it too indelicately, but Ahmadinejad is not really supported ¬ and interim elections have not favored his candidates – can't someone tell him to shut up?

Well, it's not easy to shut up a politician.

And within the Iranian system, you cannot shut the mouth of the President.
You can challenge his legislation, you can make trouble in Parliament. There are ways that they can make him stumble. Seventy parliamentarians have censured his economic policy. A number of his cabinet appointees have failed to get confirmation. He¹s received several rebukes from senior ayatollahs for his positions on various things. The head of the judiciary has severely criticized him. This past December, his followers didn't get more than 30 percent of the vote in elections.

But for Iranians, it's important that the Supreme Leader still supports him.
Second, the kind of attack the United States levels against Ahmadinejad immunizes him from attacks from inside the country. Nobody wants to make it look like they¹re doing America's bidding.

You often hear from Iranians, that Ahmadinejad has to fail on his own, he has to be kicked out on his own. If you remove him, you create a martyr.

When he comes to the United Nations, nobody can muzzle him. Nobody told him to go and say that Iran is looking to wipe Israel off the map or to deny the Holocaust, but once he said those things, he forces the Iranian government to catch up with him and it becomes part of the international dispute with Iran.

Ahmadinejad's power in Iran comes not from controlling the lever of power, but controlling the debate.

9. Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University, a move that caused discussion, dissent and protest. Lee Bollinger, the school's president, probably reacting to the criticism preceding the visit, introduced Ahmadinejad by saying he had ``all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,`` that his denying the Holocaust was ``either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.`` How will Iranians react to this?

He's going to go home victimized. He was bullied by a bad American, that's how people will see it. Whether you like him or not, whether you have a job or not, whether you¹re suffering from inflation or not, these comments benefit him.

It's much easier to undermine, get rid of, or sideline a leader if the world doesn¹t know his name. When he's on the front page of every daily in America, it's much harder. Ahmadinejad is relishing this controversial relationship, the whole circus benefits him.

10. As you said at the beginning of our conversation, one of the reasons the United States is paying attention to Ahmadinejad is the nuclear issue. How do you think the U.S. should be handling this issue. How should we be handling Iran and its bombastic president?

The nuclear issue is a big issue. But it's not an Ahmadinejad issue. If he's removed, it will still be on the table. The nuclear issue predates him, and it will survive him.

I think one of the important things is to stop treating Ahmadinejad as the all-powerful leader of Iran. He's saying, I am Iran, and we're saying, Yes, you are.
The issue is not the personalities in a discussion. When we say that we don't want to talk to Ahmadinejad, it means we haven' decided to talk to Iran at all.

If we want to influence Iran, we have to be realistic. There are diplomatic ways to handle this. The U.S. could say that the Iranian president isn¹t the head of state, so President Bush will meet with the Supreme Leader. If the Supreme Leader declines, then we have a meeting at another level. You let Iran, you let the country decide who is going to speak for them.

The stumbling block is not Ahmadinejad' personality, it¹s whether there¹s a will to actually engage. Ahmadinejad is not the head of state. He's an important element in Iran, but he's not the head of state.