There are politicians in every country’s history who have gone to great lengths to cling to power. In doing so, they often make pre-election promises far removed from their previous policy. But there are few places where policy underpinned by the preservation of power is as ubiquitous as it is in Iran. This is because in Iran, the stakes are higher. It is not the future of a political party which must be protected, but the future of an entire political system. It is a system so pervasive that it even adorns the country’s name, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The system is no typical dictatorship installed through a military coup d’état. It is an Islamic regime which came to being after mass protest, revolution and ruthless political manoeuvring. It is a regime steeped in sacrifice and strict adherence to Islamic doctrine. This powerful combination has been exacerbated by war and sanctions. Thus, the Iranian regime is a regime that many have given their lives for, a regime that is intrinsic to the faith of many and a regime that feels it is under threat. The end result is that every political policy dictated by the Supreme Leader has in mind how it will serve to safeguard the revolution.
At times, the actions of the Iranian political establishment appear inconsistent, fickle and confrontational. Yet if its actions are interpreted by looking at how they best serve the preservation of the revolution, they become more rational, predictable even if defensive.
Preserving the revolution from dissent
The recent protests in Iran’s third largest city, Esfahan, provide a striking example. A few weeks ago farmers living on the outskirts of Esfahan drove by tractor, into the centre of the city. Their destination? The Ministry of Energy. They arrived there to protest because the Zyandeh River, which is essential to the irrigation of their crops, was bone dry. The river was dry mainly because an upstream dam controlled by officials was withholding the water. In a regime regularly criticized for its human rights abuses, the reaction was surprisingly gentle. Officials were if anything conciliatory and assured the farmers that the dam would soon be opened. The strictly censored media has even given its tacit approval to the protests. A local newspaper included a front page article which lamented the state of the river and listed all those who suffered from it, including the farmers.
These protests were tolerated because they did not challenge the ultimate power of the regime. The protesters were simply calling for water to be restored to the river so that their livelihoods would not be ruined. It explains the stark contrast with the reaction to the green movement’s protests two years ago.
Green movement in Tehran May, 2009. Demotix. Mohtaj. All rights reserved.
After the first few days of protest, the green movement was still not a direct challenge to the regime. After all, both Mousavi and Karroubi were regime insiders and had played important roles in the revolution. The regime looked to be heading towards negotiation; the Guardian Council offered a partial recount and Khamenei ordered an inquiry into the opposition’s allegations. But as it became apparent that this would not satisfy the green movement and the chants of “Death to the Dictator” grew, the regime’s response toughened. The revolution was now under threat. Ahmadinejad received the Supreme Leader’s unconditional support and the opposition was stamped out. Thus, freedom of expression is allowed so long as it does not challenge the authority of the revolution.
Curbing Ahmadinejad's power
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Demotix. All rights reserved.
The obsession with safeguarding the revolution has ironically led to the political decline of Ahmadinejad. As many as twenty-five members of his inner circle are reported to have been arrested whilst the hatred of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Mashaei, is almost visceral in conservative circles. It seems to be only a matter of time before Mashaei himself is arrested. The targeting of Mashaei is particularly revealing. Ahmadinejad is widely seen to be grooming Mashaei as a successor to the Presidency. This dynastical power structure clearly runs counter the revolution’s political system. Furthermore, many conservatives believe that Ahmadinejad is trying to rival the Supreme Leader’s authority. This was most evident when he effectively sacked his intelligence chief Moshlehi, only for Khamenei to reinstate him. Ahmadinejad reacted to this by insisting that he would not attend cabinet meetings if Moshlehi was present. Accordingly, Ahmadinejad is perceived as a possible threat to the revolution and it is likely that his days are numbered.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran
It is of no surprise therefore, that the Revolutionary Guards have acquired so much power in Iran. As their mission is to “safeguard the revolution”, they almost by definition, cannot fall out of favour with Iran’s political elite. It is no surprise either, that Ahmadinejad has attempted to stifle the political attacks against him by nominating Rostam Ghasemi as his new oil minister. Ghasemi also holds a senior post in the Revolutionary Guards.
Preserving the Revolution from the rest of the world
Another corollary of the fixation with preserving the revolution is an aggressive international rhetoric. When the regime tests its latest missiles and emphasises its ability to strike Israel or American bases in the region, it is not a provocation. It is because the desire to preserve the revolution borders on paranoia. Iran feels threatened by America and Israel. With Israel having the most technologically advanced military in the Middle East and a large American military presence on many of its borders, their worry is understandable. The regime goes out of its way to deter any assault from these western forces. This translates into aggressive rhetoric.
Similarly, even if the regime does develop nuclear weapons, as many western powers warn is imminent, it is not because they wish to use them for war. Rather, the weapons would serve to safeguard the revolution from outside attack and give the regime greater license to subjugate any opposition. Those who are predicting an impending war with Israel would do well to look past the rhetoric and at the self-preservationist nature of both regimes.
The preservation of the revolution is omnipresent in the minds of the Iran’s political elite, the reasons for which run deeper than simple greed. Ultimately, most of the regime’s actions are shaped by this; the revolution must survive.