False comfort?

In the past few days, I’ve seen several stories about how leading Iranian clerics are becoming unhappy with the inflammatory comments of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This one from the New York Times is typical. One senior Iranian official is quoted as saying, “For 27 years after the revolution, America wanted to get Iran to the Security Council and America failed. In less than six months, Ahmadinejad did that.”

If the aggressive diplomacy of the Bush administration is weakening Ahmadinejad’s position, that’s certainly a good thing. If Iran doesn’t want to be before the Security Council (and I’m confident it doesn’t) that’s good too. Nonetheless, I don’t take great solace in these developments. It wasn’t Ahmadinejad who set Iran on the path to developing a nuclear weapons program, and there is no reason to believe that his weakening or his departure would take Iran off that path. The apparent disagreement between the current president and the powers behind the throne seems to be a tactical one. Ahmadinejad wants to talk big, perhaps to keep his base of disaffected Iranians happy. The more conventional theocrats want to speak softly in order to take less flak as Iran develops nukes.

Of course, the ouster of Ahmadinejad (if it were to occur) might make it less likely that Iran would use nukes offensively. On the other hand, the fact that he became president suggests that we might see someone like him take power in the future. Moreover, nukes in the hands of more astute fundamentalist leaders would still pose a serious problem. For one thing, they would make Iran the dominant player in the region, able to cause any form of mischief without needing to worry about facing serious consequences. In addition, Iran would be in a position to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists.

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