The West pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric. In Iran’s hierarchy, he is nobody. Ahmadinejad is formally powerless: the Council of Guardians has veto power even over the parliament’s decisions, and much more over the president’s. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, makes all foreign policy and national security decisions. Iran’s president is also powerless for a more informal reason: the bureaucracy does not heed his decrees. Ahmadinejad is a laughingstock among the Iranian power elite, which never tires of telling anecdotes about him.

The extent to which Ahmadinejad is ignored can be seen from the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei supports him despite what would be seen as a vicious affront if it were staged by any sensible person. Ahmadinejad is increasingly adopting a messianic persona, claiming direct revelations from the lost imam and even hinting that he is the imam. Such an allusion was reserved for the Aytollah Khomeini, and even Khamenei is very careful about such things, allowing others to make messianic claims about himself but claiming none on his own. He only can tolerate Ahmadinejad’s messianic posture by taking him for a clown.

many things are rotten in Iranian kingdom

Khamenei keeps Ahmadinejad afloat to divert the world’s attention from the clerical regime. Though little is known for certain about Iran’s internal power struggle, it seems that Khamenei uses Ahmadinejad to discredit the Revolutionary Guards who back him. The Guards followed the familiar path of the Russian KGB, from a volunteer organization to power elite, becoming an organization of ideologically motivated conscripts to an economic empire. In the last decade, the Revolutionary Guards have looted the Iranian economy, winning government orders for billions of dollars without tenders. The combination of strong ideology, a huge demographic base due to conscription, extensive parliamentary representation, and wealth has transformed the Guards into possibly the major power in Iran. Unable to confront them directly, the clerical establishment plays along by welcoming Ahmadinejad and allowing him to discredit both himself and the Guards.

The most puzzling thing about Iran’s elections was Khamenei’s early welcome to Ahmadinejad as the reelected president. The ayatollah was expected to wait until the Council of Guardians had approved the election results. Khamenei’s action was scandalous, and it deeply offended many Iranians, permanently undermining his authority and almost making him appear to be the Revolutionary Guards’ puppet. It might be that Khamenei expected a pro-Mousawi statement from the council headed by Rafsanjani, and sought to establish facts on the ground by pronouncing Ahmadinejad the winner.

Neither Ahmadinejad nor Mousawi has anything to do with Iran’s nuclear program. Those decisions are made by Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who as head of the Council of Guardians has the authority to impeach the supreme leader. The fact that Mousawi oversaw the creation of Hezbollah two decades ago is irrelevant; Gorbachev too had been a hard line communist before dismantling the Soviet empire. Today Mousawi is a typical middle-class politician who presumes to know the answer to Iran’s economic problems, which surely are unrelated to Ahmadinejad. Neighboring Arab countries abandoned massive subsidies twenty to thirty years ago, but Iran still clings to up to 80 percent subsidies on gasoline, electricity, and foodstuffs. The Iranian situation is not so much a crisis as an inability to financially support a socialist paradise.

As usually happens with nice guys, Mousawi lost the election. Though Tehran’s middle class cannot reconcile itself to Mousawi’s loss, no amount of rigging can explain the 34 percent vote difference between him and Ahmadinejad. The throngs love Mahmoud both for the massive giveaways and simply because he is one of them.

It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad will arrogate power to himself, developing into a typically Western populist autocrat. During his last presidential term he showed himself domestically to be a hapless official, and showed no signs whatsoever of readiness to engage in a power struggle. His forays into the international arena probably compensate for his lack of domestic authority.

Popular support for Ahmadinejad is conditioned on his powerlessness. The population can afford to vote for a demagogue because it knows he matters not. Fiery words are the best you can get from a president. If the balance of power changes and the presidency becomes functional, Iranians will have the good sense to vote for a more responsible candidate.

The real power struggle is between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. Years ago, Rafsanjani made Khamenei the supreme leader by claiming, probably falsely, that Ayatollah Khomeini had appointed him as his successor. Khomeini actually left no heir, and Khamenei was appointed on Rafsanjani’s word. Rafsanajani’s importance subsequently faded, and now he again wants to play the kingmaker. The idea is to limit the supreme leader’s term, thus allowing Khatami to succeed Khamenei.

Khamenei is not very authoritative; Rafsanjani likely envisaged him as a puppet. That weakness must be an important motive behind Khamenei’s quest for an Iranian nuclear weapon. Trying to maneuver between the Council of Guardians and the Revolutionary Guards, Khamenei will go down. If he is elected the supreme leader, Khatami will reach an understanding with the Revolutionary Guards’ bosses, who are now in business and parliament. The situation is reminiscent of the last days of the Soviet Union, when the generals became big-mouthed, money-hungry, and concerned about military issues least of all. Even a decade ago, the Guards refused to confront the crowds during massive riots. Their unquestioning obedience to the ayatollahs is gone. Basij and similar militias are too small to influence domestic politics.

The Council of Guardians is itself under clerical assault. After Rafsanjani betrayed him and accepted the election results, Mousawi arranged for ayatollahs from Qom to denounce the council.

The ayatollahs today are religious functionaries rather than zealots. Even Khomeini was a calculating, cynical politician, and his successors struggle for power in this world rather than bliss in the next one. Whatever some orientalists-turned-journalists have to say, assured mutual destruction remains a huge deterrent to the ayatollahs rather than an incentive. They were eager to end the Iran-Iraq war, waged cowardly proxy wars through Hamas and Hezbollah rather than open conflicts, and are certainly not inclined to be fried by Israel, whose nuclear deterrence they misinterpret as credible.

Dissatisfied with the clerics, international sanctions, and the slumping economy, Iranians seem to be heading toward moderation.

After an Israeli strike, Natanz will again be famous only for its pears.