But the almost exclusive focus on what Ahmadinejad does has been misplaced, because all the evidence indicates that it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is directing Iranian foreign policy.

Despite Ahmadinejad’s clever exploitation of the nuclear issue to strengthen his domestic political position, he is a second-stringer on the issue. As David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, the most experienced non-governmental expert on Iran’s nuclear program, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty immediately after his election, Ahmadinejad “doesn’t have much to do with the nuclear issue.” Albright observed that the policy on Iran’s nuclear program is run by the Supreme National Security Council “directly under the supreme leader.” ~Gareth Porter, Antiwar.com

As with so many other things related to Iran, the hysteria over Ahmadinejad has been focusing on the sensational rhetoric of the elected front man while entirely ignoring the supreme authority in the country. There is a convenient assumption that “the mullahs” and “the ayatollahs” must share not only Ahmadinejad’s convictions but also his combative temperament. This is, I’m afraid, to conflate the the sensibilities and attitudes of a Richelieu and a Thomas Muentzer. Conservative clerical authorities and common demagogues might make tactical alliances when it suits them, and they might both be committed to some of the same general goals, but they are fundamentally different types of people with entirely different priorities.

What obtuse pundits typically miss is that Ahmadinejad was originally the anti-regime candidate, the representative of poor Iranians fed up with the mismanagement, corruption and anemic economy of the current authorities. Rafsanjani was the Ayatollah’s preferred candidate. Khamenei could very well see Ahmadinejad as a political threat to be handled and contained, and has allowed this bellicose rhetoric because it serves to deflect attention away from the economic “reformist” reasons why Ahmadinejad was elected in the first place. Ahmadinejad is useful for making all the right nationalist noises, but real policy will be decided by those with a much more long-term stake in the Iranian regime’s survival.