The scene was like the Iranian answer to March Madness. At Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran this past December, a crowd of several thousand packed the school's auditorium. On one side were hundreds of members of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force controlled by Iranian hard-liners, who had been bused in to cheer their most prominent alumnus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They waved placards and roared as Ahmadinejad boasted about Iran's growing power and dared the country's enemies to challenge it. But in the back of the room, a group of 50 activists burned an effigy of the President, set off firecrackers and interrupted his speech with chants of "Death to the dictator!" Ahmadinejad grinned tightly and struggled to finish, but few people would remember what he said. At the height of his power, in a time and place of his choosing, Iran's President had been upstaged.
This is not the image of Ahmadinejad-- the bombastic, headline-grabbing populist --the world has grown used to. Since his election in 2005, Ahmadinejad has become the most prominent Iranian on the global stage since Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the guiding hand of the country's 1979 Islamic revolution. Ahmadinejad owes his visibility partly to Iran's rise as a regional power and partly to his penchant for spouting what U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns calls "the most abhorrent, irresponsible rhetoric of any global leader in many years." It's that rhetoric, along with Iran's meddling in Iraq and pursuit of nuclear technology, that has brought Tehran closer to a confrontation with the U.S. than at any time in the past three decades. "They are saying their words," Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Time two days after the protest at Amir Kabir University, "and I am saying mine."
But politics in Iran is not always what it seems. Behind Ahmadinejad's defiance, a struggle is under way that could determine the future of Tehran's nuclear program, its relationship with Washington and the potential for another war in the Middle East. Inside Iran's political establishment, Ahmadinejad has provoked a counterreaction from those who believe his posturing has damaged Iran's economy and its hopes for a rapprochement with the West. Most Iranian leaders and the public believe in Iran's right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. But a real split has emerged between hard-liners allied with Ahmadinejad, who are willing to risk international sanctions and even the threat of a U.S. military strike in a quest to become a nuclear power, and pragmatists, who might accept limits on Iran's program in order to win political benefits from the West that would preserve the current regime's hold on power. Reflecting the success of recent U.N. sanctions against Tehran, officials in Iran say the consensus seems to be tilting toward less confrontation, more negotiation.
No one believes a breakthrough is imminent. Burns tells Time that the U.S. is close to winning a consensus in the Security Council for a second set of sanctions targeting arms sales and export credits to Iran. "They need to suspend their enrichment program before we will sit down and talk to them," he says. "That condition is well known to the Iranians, and we will stand by it." The opposition to Ahmadinejad has yet to coalesce into a political movement. But, says George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "it has given internationalists in Iran space to engage the West, though they ... will be afraid to settle for less than Ahmadinejad rejected."
Western diplomats hope those pragmatists will ultimately gain the upper hand, but their ascendancy would likely be halted if Tehran and Washington went to war. And so the question is whether, having got so much wrong about the region over the past four years, the U.S. and its allies can get this one right.
To understand the sources of the backlash against Ahmadinejad, it's important to remember where he came from: nowhere. Until 2003, Ahmadinejad had had little experience in public life. He served as governor of Ardabil province before being replaced by reformist President Mohammed Khatami, who took office in 1997. Ahmadinejad was appointed mayor of Tehran in 2003 after a municipal-council election in which just 6% of voters participated. His victory in the 2005 presidential election was an even bigger fluke. He ran a low-key campaign, focused on corruption and directing Iran's oil wealth to the poor. After sneaking into second place past six other contenders, he beat former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the runoff.
Ahmadinejad is the first nonmullah to be Iran's President since 1981. Though Westerners are concerned by his inflammatory rhetoric toward Israel, it's his domestic policies that have irked Iran's already skeptical political establishment. Early in his tenure, he sacked thousands of bureaucrats and sought to replace them with unqualified cronies. He tossed Rafsanjani and Khatami out of fancy quarters in the presidential compound that they had maintained as former officeholders. He angered members of his own party in the Majlis, or Parliament, by refusing to put their supporters on the public payroll. In response, the Majlis rejected several of Ahmadinejad's Cabinet appointees, including three nominees for the crucial post of Oil Minister.
Opposition to Ahmadinejad transcends the split between conservatives and reformists that has defined Iranian politics for the past decade. Last summer 50 Iranian economists wrote him a letter decrying his policies, which have frozen investment and precipitated a 26% drop in the value of the Tehran stock market. In January some of the President's former allies formed a faction to oppose him. "The Parliament today is at the point of explosion," says Mohammed Atrianfar, a Rafsanjani adviser. "The volume of criticism emanating out is unprecedented in the last century of Iranian politics."
The opposition has revolved around two figures: Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate cleric who was once Speaker of Parliament, and Rafsanjani, the powerful former President, who prizes economic growth over democracy and Islamic ideology. Ahmadinejad also has problems outside Tehran. In the holy city of Qum, south of the capital, Ahmadinejad has offended the grand ayatullahs, who act as the country's spiritual leaders. Most irritating have been his frequent allusions to his connection to the Hidden Imam, the last in a line of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, who Shi'ites believe will return at the end of the world to bring absolute justice to mankind. "Not only does he not talk about the sort of things a President is supposed to talk about," says Atrianfar, "but he talks about religious beliefs, a subject for which he is wholly unfit. This is not appreciated."