There is a new power strug­gle brew­ing which could put out of gear some key cogs in the for­ward march of the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran.

Southasia - - Contents Cover Story - By Semu Bhatt

Ira­nian lead­er­ships take on

a new power strug­gle.

When the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei placed his might be­hind Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad in the 2009 elec­tions, few would have imag­ined that the two would get locked in a bat­tle of wills that would threaten the sta­bil­ity of Iran. The face-off hap­pened in April over the in­tel­li­gence min­is­ter Hey­dar Moslehi, whom Ah­madine­jad fired and Khamenei re­in­stated.

How­ever, the mak­ings of an in­evitable power strug­gle were ev­i­dent from Ah­madine­jad’s first term in of­fice. In 2005, Khamenei wanted a pres­i­dent who could help shift the po­lit­i­cal scene back to the con­ser­va­tive right and take an ag­gres­sive for­eign pol­icy pos­ture in a bid to re­verse the con­cil­ia­tory ap­proach of the pre­vi­ous two pres­i­dents – Khatami and Raf­san­jani. Thus was born Ay­a­tol­lah’s re­la­tion­ship of po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency with Ah­madine­jad. What he least ex­pected was for Ah­madine­jad to slowly but surely build a wider sup­port base for him­self with an in­ten­tion to re­struc­ture Iran’s power con­sti­tu­tion by marginal­is­ing the Old Guard.

This per­sonal power strug­gle is ac­tu­ally a man­i­fes­ta­tion of two con­flict­ing out­looks on Iran’s fu­ture – one sup­ports the con­tin­u­a­tion of clerical rule, while the other is in fa­vor of marginal­iz­ing it. Ah­madine­jad falls in the lat­ter cat­e­gory; an ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist, he fa­vored di­lut­ing the clerical grip on power. In his first term, Ah­madine­jad had in­fu­ri­ated the cler­ics by fill­ing sev­eral po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary posts with his sup­port­ers – many at the ex­pense of clerical elite. Know­ing that he could never com­pete with the cler­ics on Is­lamic grounds, he charted a course of Per­sian na­tion­al­ism, which em­pha­sized on the pre-Is­lamic Ira­nian iden­tity. He also fo­cused more on the mes­sianic be­lief of im­mi­nent ar­rival of “Mahdi” – the 12th Imam – and Shi’ite Mus­lims’ con­nec­tion with him; im­plic­itly con­vey­ing that Ira­nian Shias do not need clerical guid­ance from Ay­a­tol­lahs.

Ah­madine­jad, who would be re­quired to step down after two terms, was groom­ing his chief of staff, Es­fan­diar Rahim Mashaei – a per­son not fa­vored by the cler­ics – to be the next Pres­i­dent of Iran. The whole ex­er­cise of putting his loy­al­ists in important min­istries was done with an aim to tip the 2012 par­lia­men­tary and 2013 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in his fa­vor. These elec­tions are ex­tremely important for the ul­tra­na­tion­al­ists if they wanted to shape the post-Khamenei era by ren­der­ing the po­si­tion of the supreme leader as sym­bolic.

Since April, Ah­madine­jad has seen both his power and his loy­al­ists, re­duce. Many of his sup­port­ers have turned their backs on him, most sig­nif­i­cant be­ing his spir­i­tual men­tor, Ay­a­tol­lah Mes­bah Yazdi. Those close to him are get­ting ar­rested (more than 25 of his aides so far) on the charges of cor­rup­tion, revo­lu­tion­ary de­viancy, es­pi­onage and even sor­cery. Ah­madine­jad has il­lus­trated that he has the courage to chal­lenge the cler­ics’ po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal dom­i­na­tion, and in the past have suc­cess­fully re­sisted pow­er­ful op­po­nents. So it is un­likely that he will rec­on­cile to be­ing a lame duck pres­i­dent. He would want to hang on to his post

till the 2012 elec­tions, and if al­lowed to stay in power till then, he will use his au­thor­ity to grab more power. If threat­ened, he may re­sort to leak­ing cor­rup­tion de­tails of his at­tack­ers, like how he re­cently is­sued a veiled threat to ex­pose fi­nan­cial mis­deeds in the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps (IRGC), if his op­po­nents do not stop tar­get­ing his peo­ple.

For the Supreme Leader, this has been a no-win sit­u­a­tion. His own protégé has turned against him, he has been co-ac­cused of the crack­down on pro­tes­tors in 2009, and worse of it all, he is now part of a pub­licly fought power tus­sle that has thrown him off his “holy pedestal” which he had care­fully built and guarded all this while by main­tain­ing a stud­ied dis­tance from the gov­ern­ment’s func­tion­ing. Hav­ing un­der­stand­ably dis­tanced him­self from Ah­madine­jad be­fore the 2009 elec­tions, po­lit­i­cal prag­ma­tism forced Khamenei to put his might be­hind the pres­i­dent, to avert the prospect of a much more lib­eral Green Move­ment’s win.

Now again, po­lit­i­cal fea­si­bil­ity has pre­vented Ah­madine­jad’s im­peach­ment and ar­rest, and is likely to let him serve out his term, as his ouster will neg­a­tively im­pact Iran’s sta­bil­ity and badly re­flect on Khamenei’s judg­ment in hav­ing backed him. Iso­lat­ing Ah­madine­jad, turn­ing the heat of the Ma­jlis and the Guardian Coun­cil on him, and ini­ti­at­ing an in­quiry into the 2009 elec­tions, is all aimed at keep­ing the pres­i­dent quiet. Po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency has kept Khamenei teth­ered to Ah­madine­jad so far; but both have now reached a stage where they have out­lived each other’s use­ful­ness and the scale of ex­pe­di­ency might tilt against Ah­madine­jad if he re­fuses to stay shack­led.

The on­go­ing ten­sions be­tween the two Ira­nian fac­tions could not have cho­sen a worse time to sur­face. Reel­ing un­der the in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic sanc­tions over Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, the gov­ern­ment is forced to re­move sub­si­dies on var­i­ous items of daily use. Un­em­ploy­ment, in­fla­tion and brain drain - all are on the rise and so is pub­lic dis­sent against the gov­ern­ment. Khamenei too has lost fa­vor with many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and cit­i­zens alike due to his iron grip on power. The split at the top is only a small in­di­ca­tor of the frag­men­ta­tion of the polity of Iran. But de­spite the po­lit­i­cal rifts, eco­nomic prob­lems and the wave of anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian protests in the re­gion, the Arab Spring is not likely to find its way to Tehran. The Ira­nian clerical-mil­i­tary ap­pa­ra­tus is highly vig­i­lant and ex­pe­ri­enced to thwart any re­form/protest move­ments. Also, the youth is tired of protest­ing and is tak­ing “chang­ing the na­tion” in an em­i­gra­tional sense. The Green Move­ment has pledged its al­le­giance to the Ay­a­tol­lah to avoid the “de­viant” tag. Any ma­jor po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in the next elec­tions is un­likely as the IRGC has de­clared that it will not al­low re­formists who have crossed the bounds set by the cler­ics, to par­tic­i­pate in elec­tions. The most likely sce­nario is that of a com­pli­ant hard­liner man­ag­ing the na­tion on be­half of the Ay­a­tol­lah, to undo the dam­age done by Ah­madine­jad – some­thing sim­i­lar to Ah­madine­jad’s case. How­ever, this time around, Khamenei will pick his can­di­date more cau­tiously. But if the Supreme Leader dies, Iran will be ren­dered vul­ner­a­ble to a more se­ri­ous power strug­gle than ob­served in any other coun­try in the re­gion.

More than the Tehran Spring, the U.S. is more con­cerned about the fu­ture of the nu­clear talks with Iran. Ah­madine­jad and Mashaei were be­ing viewed as pos­si­ble can­di­dates for a com­pro­mise on the nu­clear is­sue. Now with Ah­madine­jad’s wings clipped and Mashaei’s fu­ture prospects all but over, the U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion is anx­ious that the nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tion may hit a dead end. What the cur­rent cri­sis pointed out is that till the time Iran’s po­lit­i­cal and guardian lead­ers are not in tan­dem, nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions with one of them is just a fu­tile ex­er­cise. In a sit­u­a­tion where even the Ira­nian op­po­si­tion is keen on pur­su­ing the nu­clear pro­gram, the U.S. should fo­cus on max­i­miz­ing eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal sanc­tions on Iran; and then wait for the mo­ment when un­der mount­ing eco­nomic, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal duress, Iran is forced to give important con­ces­sions on its nu­clear pro­gram to get rid of the eco­nomic sanc­tions.

The Ah­madine­jad-Khamenei rift has far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture and sta­bil­ity. Khamenei has al­ready spo­ken about how the in­fight­ing is giv­ing out a wrong impression to the “en­emy.” How­ever, given that the two have fundamentally con­flict­ing out­looks on Iran’s fu­ture, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween Ah­madine­jad and Khamenei is not pos­si­ble. And given that both are power-hun­gry, none of them is go­ing to take it ly­ing down. The U.S. has lit­tle to choose from a bag of rot­ten ap­ples. But it could cal­i­brate its diplo­macy by em­pha­siz­ing on hu­man rights on the one hand to gen­er­ate good­will amongst the Ira­ni­ans, and sanc­tions on the other hand to mount pres­sure on the rul­ing elite. In this tug of war be­tween the Is­lamic and repub­li­can no­tions of the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran, the only thing that is clear at the mo­ment is that the fight for Iran’s fu­ture is far from over.

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