By BRIAN MURPHY
and NASSER KARIMI
TEHRAN, Iran — There was nothing essentially new in the message to Washington from Iran’s president on Sunday: Repeating last week’s statement by the Iranian supreme leader that direct talks cannot happen as long as sanctions remain.
What drew attention was how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad injected himself into it.
Ahmadinejad told crowds marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that he personally was ready to take part in one-on-one dialogue with the U.S. if Western economic pressures were eased. Even in the twilight of his presidency, Ahmadinejad’s political ego remains as intact as ever — suggesting both a feisty prelude to June elections and efforts by Ahmadinejad to seek the spotlight after his second and final term.
While he was careful not to contradict Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the offer to represent Iran in possible future dialogue — whether real or rhetorical — was an indirect slap and suggests no easing of a political feud between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics. The supreme leader, not the president, oversees all critical matters of state, including picking envoys for international talks and setting policy toward Washington.
Iran’s political skirmishes pose no direct threat to the ruling system, but have become so much of a distraction that Khamenei has made a rare appeal for all sides to lower the tensions.
It’s gone widely unheeded. Ahmadinejad has even warned against attempts to “engineer” the June elections. It’s a reference to the powerful Revolutionary Guard and its plans to take an active role in the campaigning, but also a paradoxical swipe since Ahmadinejad’s re-election four years ago touched off enormous chaos over claims of vote rigging.
By most reckoning, Ahmadinejad should be limping into his final months.
His political capital has been sharply drained in a doomed bid to challenge Khamenei as the sole gatekeeper for all key policies and decisions. Key allies have been either arrested or politically neutralized over nearly two years. Last week, Ahmadinejad was publicly rebuked in parliament after trying to disgrace Speaker Ali Larijani — a longtime rival — with a purportedly secret videotape allegedly exposing corruption within the Larijani clan.
“Very ugly,” said Ahmadinejad after being lectured by Larijani about political ethics and then curtly dismissed from the chamber.
Yet every time Ahmadinejad has been rattled, he’s managed to regain his footing.
His resilience will now encounter even tougher tests. Khamenei and the ruling theocracy are expected to block Ahmadinejad’s protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from being on the June 14 ballot to pick his successor. This means that Ahmadinejad — with less to lose — may fight harder for political relevance in the coming months and lash back stronger at his critics.
At the same time, it appears increasingly likely that Ahmadinejad will try to position himself for some kind of political influence after his leaves office. He has given few hints of his post-presidency incarnation, but his showdowns with the ruling system suggest he will be forced to carve out his own fate.
His speech Sunday — his last revolution anniversary rally as president — showed his refusal to even acknowledge his lame duck status.
“You pull away the gun from the face of the Iranian nation, I myself will enter the talks with you,” Ahmadinejad said in a message to the U.S.
The pronoun, not the statement, was what brought notice.
Khamenei said basically the same thing on Thursday — even using the gun analogy — in response to proposals from the White House for direct U.S. talks over Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei’s declaration put the brakes on any momentum for breakthrough dialogue with Washington, which broke ties with Tehran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in the wake of the Islamic Revolution and fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days.
But despite the statements, Iran is still set for some dialogue: nuclear talks with world powers including the U.S. are scheduled to resume Feb. 26.
“Talks are better than conflict,” said Ahmadinejad at the anniversary ceremony, speaking under towering images of Khamenei and the revolution’s leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. “But it has its own formula. Talks are for improving integrity and cooperation, not for imposing the viewpoint,” of one side on the other one.
He also repeated Iran’s frequent pledge that it will not halt its nuclear activities — which include uranium enrichment — due to Western pressure. The West and its allies fear Iran’s ability to make nuclear fuel could eventually lead to weapons-grade material for atomic weapons. Iran insists it only seeks to run reactors for energy and medical applications.
“Your efforts had aimed at preventing us from becoming nuclear, but we did,” Ahmadinejad told the rally while also claiming Iran plans to put an advanced satellite into stationary orbit as part of the country’s next aerospace advancement.
Earlier this month, Iran claimed it successfully sent a monkey into space and back to earth — although doubts were raised by Iranian photos apparently showing two different animals in before-and-after images.
Even as the questions swirled, Ahmadinejad diverted attention by volunteering to be the country’s first astronaut aboard an Iranian-launched rocket if the space program ever reaches that point.
“Ahmadinejad is politically wounded, and nothing that’s wounded is usually quiet,” said Dubai-based security analyst Theodore Karasik.
There was a time after his 2005 election when he was a favored son.
Khamenei appeared to create a seamless bond between the theocracy and Ahmadinejad presidency — a noticeable change from the suspicion clerics had toward his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami.
Ahmadinejad, however, seemed uneasy with the limits of his office, which has sway over many economic and social affairs but not strategic issues such as foreign policy, intelligence or the nuclear program. His attempts to grab more power were swiftly snuffed out by Khamenei, leaving the president a target for payback from powerful groups controlled by the ruling clerics such as the judiciary and Revolutionary Guard.
In further signs of tensions, Larijani was stopped from delivering a revolution anniversary speech Sunday by chanting protesters in the seminary city of Qom, official news agency IRNA reported. In Tehran, meanwhile, the semiofficial Mehr news agency said some demonstrators protested against Ahmadinejad when he joined the rally.
It will be months before Iran’s ruling clerics vet and approve the presidential candidates. But all expectations point to a slate with no wild cards or strong reformists. The goal is to avoid any risks of a repeat of the bloody aftermath from the 2009 vote.
Among the perceived front-runners is Ahmadinejad’s nemesis, the parliament speaker Larijani. Others include former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and ex-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei.
“There may be lots of political fighting and mudslinging to come despite Khamenei’s effort to keep it quiet,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. “Then, after the election, no one expects Ahmadinejad to fade away. He’ll be a force from the outside looking in.”