Despite some typically incendiary remarks, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attendance at the U.N. General Assembly's 65th session in New York was marked by a low-key tone noted by many. The change in tone, including a reported willingness to resume talks with the U.S. and its allies, reflects the impact of Iran's domestic politics. For increasingly, Ahmadinejad's real battle is at home, against the mullahs who brought him to power. And in that struggle, Ahmadinejad and his allies are increasingly embracing Iran's venerable 2,500-year-old national heritage to attack its recent three-decade Islamist experiment.
The latest salvo, via a Web site called Mashanews run by Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, didn't mince words. "Iran needs to remove the mullahs from power once for all," it read, "and return to a great civilization without the Arab-style clerics who have tainted and destroyed the country for the past 31 years." The executive branch's current stance on the Shiite clergymen who have shaped Iranian politics since 1979 is summed up as, "din (religion) should be distinct from dowla (state)." Indeed, Ahmadinejad's supporters have begun comparing him to King Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire who kept those two institutions separate.
The shift is based on the political realities in Tehran. Having survived the last election thanks to his allies in the civil bureaucracy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij paramilitary, Ahmadinejad now has little to fear from the mullahs and their supporters. So he has begun to insist that "the executive is the most important branch of government," thereby challenging oversight by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Islamic political institutions. Moreover, Web sites and newspapers that support the president now publish criticisms of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurists), the theory forming the religious basis of Iran's constitution.