Sunday, September 23, 2007

Khamenei has real power in Iran

Just like Sistani has real power in Iraq.

A parade featuring a Ghadr missile was held the day before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's departure for the United States. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

Ahmadinejad is noisy, but look behind him to find real power in Iran

By Michael Slackman
Published: September 23, 2007

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president, he said that Iran had more important issues to worry about than how women dress. He even called for allowing women into soccer games, a revolutionary idea for revolutionary Iran.

Today, Iran is experiencing the most severe crackdown on social behavior and dress in years, and women are often barred from smoking in public, let alone from attending a public event in a stadium.

Since coming to office two years ago, Ahmadinejad has grabbed headlines around the world and in Iran for outrageous statements that often have no more likelihood of implementation than his soccer plan. He generated controversy in New York last week by asking to visit the site of the destroyed World Trade Towers - a request that was denied - and by agreeing to speak at Columbia University on Monday.

But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle the firebrand president, say politicians, officials and experts in Iran.

In demonizing Ahmadinejad, they say, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and across the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies.

Political analysts here are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying the denunciations reflect a general misunderstanding of their system. Unlike in the United States, say, the Iranian president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this president's power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up.

"The United States pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad," said a political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "He is not that consequential."


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