IRAN’S HARDLINERS….Nazila Fathi reports from Tehran that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been losing the support of Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

There are numerous possible reasons for Mr. Ahmadinejad’s loss of support, but analysts here all point to one overriding factor: the United States National Intelligence Estimate last month, which said Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure. The intelligence estimate sharply reduced the threat of a military strike against Iran, allowing the Iranian authorities to focus on domestic issues, with important parliamentary elections looming in March.

….Liberal commentators, here and abroad, have long argued that hard-line policies in the West only strengthen hard-line politicians in Iran, and conversely that lowering the threat level enhances the position of moderates. With conservative politicians who supported Mr. Ahmadinejad in 2005 increasingly turning into his fiercest critics, and with Ayatollah Khamenei saying recently that Iran’s lack of contacts with the United States “does not mean that we will not have relations indefinitely,” the pundits would seem, for now, to be on the right track.

This comes via Eric Martin, who comments:

The diminishing fortunes of the respective Iranian and American hawkish sets does certainly add an interesting backstory to the recent showdown in the Strait of Hormuz — as discussed yesterday on this site. There is a definite possibility that one or more groups was/is trying to, once again, ratchet up tensions in order to reassert relevance and influence.

That seems likely. What’s more, there’s not really much evidence yet that Khamenei is actually ready to ratchet down Iran’s traditional anti-American rhetoric, just as there’s not much evidence that America’s hawks are ready to ratchet down their rhetoric either. And, as Fathi notes, Iran’s internal economic problems play a big role in Ahmadinejad’s falling fortunes too.

Still, it’s hard not to think that the NIE has had a significant effect. If both sides can avoid doing anything unusually stupid over the next year, it’s possible that a new Democratic administration might have a genuine chance to reset the American-Iranian relationship. It won’t happen overnight, but with the right approach it might happen eventually. Here’s hoping.