"The Whole Awful Regime Will Come Crashing Down"
Simon Tisdall, The Guardian:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hostile jibes at Israel have caused almost universal offence. But Iran-watchers are divided over whether the president's statements mark a dangerous shift in Tehran's international outlook or form part of an internal power struggle.
Mr Ahmadinejad's threat "to wipe Israel off the map" should be taken seriously, said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel working at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Should Israel be satisfied that he scored an own goal, further isolating Iran?" he asked. "The answer to my mind is clearly no."
Mr Indyk said the president's threats were consistent with a decade-long "war by proxy" waged through Hizbullah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Nor was Mr Amadinejad alone in his views. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, declared in September that "jihad is the only way to confront the Zionist enemy". READ MORE
But Iran's military capacity is limited - and no match for nuclear-armed Israel. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran is developing an upgraded Shahab-3 ballistic missile capable of striking Israel. Its acquisition of nuclear weapons would radically alter the strategic balance. But Iran denies any such ambition; and talks on the issue are due to recommence in Vienna tomorrow.
Despite its anti-western rhetoric, the Islamic republic had no history of state-to-state aggression since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, a British official noted. Nor could Mr Ahmadinejad suddenly change its military posture. "In Iran's supreme national security council, he is but one voice among many," the official said.
One explanation is that Mr Ahmadinejad, a disciple of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, is trying to resurrect Iran's role as a revolutionary beacon, uncontaminated by contact with the west.
"He sees himself as a pan-Islamist leader speaking on behalf of the oppressed Muslim masses everywhere," said Karim Sadjadpour, an International Crisis Group analyst. "There is intense debate on Iran's radical right about the extent of any diplomatic accommodation over the nuclear issue. A younger generation of hardliners to which Ahmadinejad belongs opposes this. They are opposed by the pragmatists.
"Perhaps he is trying to curry public support for his position. But most Iranians will not react favourably. They see Israel as an Arab issue. Unemployment and the measures Ahmadinejad promised to improve the economy are what they care about," Mr Sadjadpour said.
Ray Takeyh of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations said Mr Ahmadinejad was "largely indifferent" to outside world opinion. But Iran could not afford to abandon its post-Khomeini efforts to open up to foreign trade and investment, particularly in the energy sector.
Key partners Russia and China joined the criticism of his anti-Israel statements. "What he said about Israel delighted the American neo-cons, it delighted our Arab rivals, it delighted the Israelis... But it was totally against Iran's national interest," an informed Iranian source said. But US hostility was partly responsible for Mr Ahmadinejad's rise. "Your hardliners have created our hardliner."
By claiming (like George Bush) to be on a mission from God and by predicting the second coming of the Twelfth Imam, Mr Ahmadinejad has shocked some observers. Charles Krauthammer, a conservative American columnist, called him a "certifiable lunatic".
But the most likely rational explanation for his behaviour was domestic political weakness, the British official said. His bid to purify the revolution had stirred up stiff opposition from old guard conservatives, reformists (who call his policies delusional) and corrupt "clerical oligarchs" who run the powerful bonyads - lucrative semi-official business enterprises which Mr Ahmadinejad wants to rein in.
Mr Ahmadinejad was trying "to be more religious than the mullahs", the official said.
"But he is very naive. He has thrown away a lot of support by not delivering on his promises to ordinary people. This is all about internal dynamics. It's not Iran versus the west, it's Iran versus Iran. And the more it goes on, the more likely the whole awful regime will come crashing down."