These are tense times in Tehran. In the past weeks, the Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly made global headlines amid an atmosphere of escalating unsettlement.
Even in the short period of mid-June to mid-July 2008, Iran has
- intimated that it might be willing to negotiate over its nuclear program in response to the "freeze-for-freeze" offer extended by the "group of six" (United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and the Britain)
- been subjected to more sanctions imposed by the European Union that limit the international access of Iran's largest national bank
- responded to Israeli war-games and American covert moves by test-firing medium-range and long-range missiles; threatening to launch thousands more in the event of an attack; and announced large-scale air-force military exercises
- seen the French company Total withdraw from a natural-gas development project over fears of increased business and political vulnerability.
What is unusual is that this whirlwind of activity has occurred with little accompanying commentary from Iran's routinely bombastic president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad. It's true - even though this has not deterred him before from voicing his singular views on everything under the sun - that Ahmadinejad is under a lot of pressure these days. Iran's economy is suffering from the burden of United Nations and international sanctions, and is plagued too by exorbitant levels of inflation and unemployment. Ahmadinejad was elected in June 2005 on promises to ease the economic woes of everyday Iranians by distributing the fruits of Iran's oil wealth; he has failed to deliver, and into the bargain has ignited a fierce factional struggle over the country's domestic and foreign-policy agenda.
It is no wonder, then, that the criticism of the president escalated in the first half of 2008. Ahmadinejad is the main target of public jokes circulated through text-messages and email, and he has earned the ire of the clerical and factional elite; he has also gained a worldwide reputation for his confrontational politics and flamboyant statements. His many detractors are enjoying the widespread public disapproval of the regime's most prominent face in the hope that he could be discredited and discarded - perhaps even in advance of the presidential elections scheduled for mid-2009.
There is a danger, however, of reading too much into the political moment; of overplaying the contrast between Iran's headline-making initiatives and the internal pressure on the president; and of underplaying the complexity of Iran's political life - especially the subtlety of its factional dynamics - in the interests of wishful thinking.
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Sanam Vakil is a adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).