I know this may come as a shock to people who follow major broadcast and print news in the US but it's true. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, is not - I repeat, not - the ruler of Iran.
- He does not set national policy.
- He does not command Iran's armed forces.
- He cannot pursue a nuclear weapons program without explicit permission (which he does not have).
- He cannot order attacks on Israel, the US or anyone else.
- He is a figurehead analogous to a hood ornament, put there to give the illusion of democratic rule.
The President of Columbia University, where Ahmadinejad spoke today, called him "a petty and cruel dictator". But given the set of powers listed above that he does not have I have to wonder what kind of "dictator" this is.
Well, it turns out that in addition to the office of President, which Ahmadinejad holds, the Iranian government has another official executive position called the "Supreme Leader".
Who holds more power in the Iranian Government?
A) The democratically-elected President, currently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is subject to term limits.
B) The rarely-mentioned, unelected Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamanei, who practically serves for life.
D) None of the above.
Sorry, Christian conservatives, if you chose 'C' you are incorrect (but keep trying, I may ask who calls the shots in the White House later).
The correct answer is actually 'B', the Supreme Leader (the title itself is a bit of a hint). Let that be a lesson to you, test takers. Studies have shown that 'B' is the most frequently correct choice for mulitple-choice questions.
You see, the real power in Iran is wielded by a triumverate consisting of the Supreme Leader, an Assembly of Experts which selects the Supreme Leader and an unelected Council of Guardians, selected by the Supreme Leader by the way, which screens the field of Presidential candidates down to an officially-approved list for a popular election.
This is all well known to our news establishment. Still, on a daily basis we are bombarded with reporting focusing obsessively on the temperment, attitudes, idiosyncrasies and statements of Iran's President to the near exclusion of any coverage of that nation's Supreme Leader.
This is odd in and of itself. But it's particularly odd because it's not as if our learned and serious news givers are unaware of the structure of Iran's government and the existence of a Supreme Leader there. They were certainly aware of Ayatollah Khomeini when he held the position. So what happened in the interim? How and why did the identity of the actual leader of Iran slip down the memory hole?
What's more, I don't recall similar coverage being focused on Ahmadinejad's perfectly tame and reasonable predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami and his platform of reconciliation with the west. I hear tell that Mr. Khatami's electorial defeat at the hand of Ahmadinejad was made possible by the failure of his reconciliation efforts with the needlessly truculent and belligerent George W. Bush, who responded to Khatami's overtures by naming Iran a member of the mythical "Axis of Evil" in what I still view as the single most idiotic speech given in the history of the American Presidency, his 2002 State of the Union Address.
Despite all this, you never heard much about Khatami from our news media. But today it's all Ahmadinejad all the time.
I wonder why that is.
For whatever the reason the coverage we're getting on Iran these days is absolutely ludicrous to point of being completely unreadable.
Yes, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a nut. Fine.
He denies the Holocaust. Idiotic.
But he did not, and cannot threaten to "wipe Israel from the map", not only because there is no such idiom for saying such a thing in Farsi but because he has no power to attack a mole-hill, let alone another country.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not run Iran. Lets stop pretending that he does.
UPDATE: As fate would have it, as I was typing this post yesterday this was just published on the pages of the NY Times:
In demonizing Mr. Ahmadinejad, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and in the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies, according to Iranian politicians, officials and political experts.
Political analysts here say they are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying that it reflects a general misunderstanding of their system.
Unlike in the United States, in Iran the 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 an Iranian political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “He is not that consequential.”
...unless you want to use him as an excuse to start a war.