Iran’s political shadow war

Sanam Vakil
16 July 2008

These are tense times in Tehran. In the past weeks, the Islamic Republic of Iran has repeatedly made global headlines amid an atmosphere of escalating unsettlement.

Even in the short period of mid-June to mid-July 2008, Iran has

* intimated that it might be willing to negotiate over its nuclear programme in response to the "freeze-for-freeze" offer extended by the "group of six" (United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and the Britain)

* been subjected to more sanctions imposed by the European Union that limit the international access of Iran's largest national bank

* responded to Israeli war-games and American covert moves by test-firing medium-range and long-range missiles; threatening to launch thousands more in the event of an attack; and announced large-scale air-force military exercises

* seen the French company Total withdraw from a natural-gas development project over fears of increased business and political vulnerability.

What is unusual is that this whirlwind of activity has occurred with little accompanying commentary from Iran's routinely bombastic president, Mahmood Ahmadinejad. It's true - even though this has not deterred him before from voicing his singular views on everything under the sun - that Ahmadinejad is under a lot of pressure these days. Iran's economy is suffering from the burden of United Nations and international sanctions, and is plagued too by exorbitant levels of inflation and unemployment. Ahmadinejad was elected in June 2005 on promises to ease the economic woes of everyday Iranians by distributing the fruits of Iran's oil wealth; he has failed to deliver, and into the bargain has ignited a fierce factional struggle over the country's domestic and foreign-policy agenda.

It is no wonder, then, that the criticism of the president escalated in the first half of 2008. Ahmadinejad is the main target of public jokes circulated through text-messages and email, and he has earned the ire of the clerical and factional elite; he has also gained a worldwide reputation for his confrontational politics and flamboyant statements. His many detractors are enjoying the widespread public disapproval of the regime's most prominent face in the hope that he could be discredited and discarded - perhaps even in advance of the presidential elections scheduled for mid- 2009.

There is a danger, however, of reading too much into the political moment; of overplaying the contrast between Iran's headline-making initiatives and the internal pressure on the president; and of underplaying the complexity of Iran's political life - especially the subtlety of its factional dynamics - in the interests of wishful thinking. st1\:* { BEHAVIOR: url(#ieooui) }

Sanam Vakil is a adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Also by Sanam Vakil in openDemocracy:

"Iran's nuclear gamble" (1 February 2007),

"Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007),

"The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within" (4 June 2007).

A president under fire

Thus, analysts of Iran need to be cautious in assessing these phenomena. In some respects, the severe (or mocking) criticism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can be compared to that experienced by Iranian presidents of the past including Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr (1980-81), Ali Khamenei (1981-89), Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Moreover, with the exception of Bani-Sadr each of these presidents was elected to a second term. The Iranian president's power and place amid the landscape of factional competition fuel this derision, perpetuate it - but also to a degree can lead to a misreading of its real political significance.

It is striking that the chorus of voices raised against Ahmadinejad does sound louder at present than that directed at his predecessors, and his own public utterances (such as a live TV address on 14 July 2008) somewhat quieter. In a sign of internal tensions, the foreign-policy adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned in a newspaper interview against "provocative" statements on the nuclear impasse - statements often associated with Ahmadinejad himself. Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign-affairs adviser to Khamenei, said too - if also without mentioning the president by name - that officials should avoid "illogical declarations and slogans" that undermine relations with the outside world.

The most consistent of the attacks Ahmadinejad has been experiencing - and not entirely without retaliating - have focused not on the nuclear issue but on the country's growing economic pressures. These criticisms target his alleged mismanagement of the economy, where the income boost from high oil prices is counterbalanced by inflationary trends so serious that the central-bank governor said in May 2008 that the president's decision to set bank interest-rates well below the inflation-rate would prove unworkable. More recently, the president's bitter foe Hashemi Rafsanjani admonished Ahmadinejad for appointing inexperienced cabinet ministers in place of tested incumbents. It's true that since his election in June 2005, the president has replaced scores of officials with appointees from among his former colleagues in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Tehran city council.

A routine disdain

The internal fire on the president over the economy and the nuclear issue has been severe enough. But even more damning has been his run-in with the clerical establishment over doctrinal issues.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed in a speech in June 2008 - the latest variant of a familiar theme - that his government's policies have been directed by the "twelfth imam" (or the Mahdi - the key "hidden" figure in a certain interpretation of Shi'a Islam, who has been in "occultation" for overa millennium). Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, among others, criticised Ahmadinejad for invoking the Mahdi's name in vain. Three clerics - Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, and (again) Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani - also resoundingly called on Ahmadinejad to take responsibility rather than blame his opponents for the economic troubles Iran was facing. Such outspokenness on the part of the clerical establishment - and the unity of view here displayed - is extremely unusual. Their comments on the economy are even more so.

Several former presidents, among them Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, were routinely the target of similar criticisms during their term in office. Rafsanjani's tenure came in the aftermath of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the humiliating conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Rafsanjani tried to accelerate economic reconstruction via a pragmatic liberalising policy, and sought to reinforce this by moderating Iran's foreign policy and building its regional and international engagements.

Among openDemocracy's many articles about Iran's internal politics and foreign relations:

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007),

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007),

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United States: back from the brink" (16 March 2007),

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's new political dynamic" (16 April 2007),

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 2007),

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's circle of power" (23 October 2007),

Omid Memarian, "Iran: prepared for the worst" (30 October 2007),

Jan De Pauw, "Iran, the United States and Europe: the nuclear complex" (5 December 2007),

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's new order" (28 January 2008),

Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's election signals" (18 March 2008),

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's majlis elections: the hidden dynamics" (11 April 2008),

Paul Rogers, "Iran and the American election" (5 June 2008).

This approach earned Rafsanjani increasing criticism within the regime throughout his two terms in office, from both traditional and radical forces that regarded his moderate policies as a threat to the revolution's principles. They scorned Rafsanjani as a figure who served the interests of domestic and international elites, and nicknamed him "Ahmad Shah" after the ineffective and corrupt monarch who brought down the curtain on the Qajar dynasty.

Mohammad Khatami succeeded Hashemi Rafsnajani in 1997. He rode to power on a wave of reformist sentiment, but his progressive ambitions - including encouragement of civil society - provoked a backlash. The new freedoms he promoted were embraced by the general population (especially the young) but were viewed with suspicion in conservative circles and those who held the levers of power.

Iran's conservatives feared further challenges to the institutional and ideological framework of the theocratic regime, and united to contain the reformist momentum that Khatami had come to personify. The conservatives thus attempted both to constrain Khatami's advisors and to signal that the evolving manifestations of change - a bold, critical press and energetic youth activism - were not to be tolerated. These moves intensified factional rivalries among Iran's elite, a process that culminated in a conservative strategy to subdue the media.

The first of many newspapers to be targeted was Salam, whose closure in July 1999 provoked a large-scale student protest which ended in violence, death and many casualties. These indeed were Iran's biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the student groups were only disbanded after military-style repression from the basij militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. At the time, twenty-four commanders of the IRGC publicly admonished President Khatami for his failure to respond to the demonstrations and champion the restoration of order. This direct challenge to the president's authority reflected the way that he was caught between his reformist constituency and the institutional levers of power that remained in the hands of the conservative elite.

A system of factions

The nature and history of the Iranian political system stimulates factional competition, and as such further perpetuates the cycles of criticism and rivalry within the political establishment. The tripartite ruling system of president, parliament and judiciary is modelled on France's contemporary governing structure - though, befitting the contrast between a theocratic and a secular state, the Tehran regime includes a number of clerical "oversight" bodies (such as the Guardian Council) whose members are appointed by the supreme leader. These operate a special system of checks and balances that both monitors and constrains the reach of the other state institutions; the combination highlights the way that in Iran, religious and political authority is intertwined (to the extent that even these categories themselves can be hard to separate).

Iran's post-revolution constitution defines the supreme leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and the president as in turn, the highest and second-highest state authority. The "balance" here is that the supreme leader sets the tone for foreign and domestic policy, while the head of state - though only via consultation and decision in the national-security council, and after the supreme-leader's approval - retains a mandate to implement the policy. But the president's authority is even further hedged by numerous other institutions: the majlis (parliament), the judiciary, the clerical establishment Including the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council, as well as other bodies), and the vast state bureaucracy.

The unifying presence and aura of the charismatic leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, meant that during his tenure the tendency towards factionalism was contained. To a great degree this remained true throughout the period of post-1979 revolutionary consolidation and of the Iran-Iraq war and its national mobilisations. But after Khomeini's death, the ascent of Ayatollah Khamenei to the position of supreme leader and velayat-e-faqih (or guardianship of the Islamic jurist) fuelled antagonism within the political system (and in particular the clerical establishment). Khomeini himself had handpicked his successor, yet Khamenei lacked great public or clerical support. Many religious figures regarded Khamenei with disdain on the grounds of his limited clerical education; he had, for example, never obtained the theological credentials that the position of the velayat-e-faqih required. These circumstances guaranteed that factional rivalries, even around the supreme leader himself, would persist.

A fury for fissure

Thus, although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have sought to portray himself as a steady beacon of calm and unquestioned guidance, he too has been an integral part of Iran's factional and fissured ruling system. During his own tenure, Iran's intra-regime politics have continued to be dominated by clashes between various influential groups, domestic rivalries, and ideological contests over the future and direction of the Islamic Republic. This has obliged Khamenei to emulate his revered predecessor and engage in factional "low politics"; but as he possesses neither the charisma nor the popularity of Khomeini, his options have been more limited.

In the event, the constituency in which he sought to foment a new base of support for his political power was among the ideological underclass of the revolution. There, in the IRGC and other militant supporters of the revolution, Khamenei surrounded himself with a cadre of loyal adherents of the revolutionary creed that would protect and preserve the hard core of the Islamic Republic - and in the process, enable the supreme leader to consolidate his own power.

Ayatollah Khamenei has used to his advantage both the institutional control the Iranian system affords him and its potential for factional advantage. This has included, for example, exerting influence on unelected institutions such as the Guardian Council to vet candidates prior to elections and to negate legislation passed by the majlis. Such moves have enabled Khamenei to consolidate the power of conservatives within the Islamic Republic - as reflected in the local elections of March 2008, where only clerically approved candidates were permitted to run for political office.

The web of Iran's factional politics catches all in its grip: supreme leader, president, their allies, rivals, predecessors, would-be successors, subordinates, appointees, ex-appointees, the power-stated and the power-hungry. The dance continues unabated. But if the only authority standing above the supreme leader is his maker, the president must - to secure re-election for another four-year term - face the people in the election of mid-2009.

The character of the problems, pressures and criticisms surrounding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - economic, nuclear, political, ideological - may alter in the period ahead. An armed attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, or the election of a new United States president committed to dialogue with Tehran could, for example, have unexpected effects on Iran's political outlook. But the underlying and longer-term institutional realities of this (now) almost thirty-year old regime endure: and factional politics is one of the most rooted.

This makes the dissection of the shifting cycles of power and influence inside the system both difficult and necessary; but it also means that the significance of the mutual attacks and open or coded denunciations that often dominate Iran's political landscape should not be inflated. The system is divided, and the system continues: at this stage, and if the past of earlier two-term presidencies is any sort of guide, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may well survive the current barrage of disapproval and be re-elected in 2009. Those outside who wish for a more pragmatic and less controversial leader should factor this likelihood into their calculations.

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