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Iran’s political shadow war

Sanam Vakil
29 May 2008

We should be careful not to misconstrue the recent snowballing criticisms mounting against Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad. Indeed in the months gone by, such criticism has been escalating. Not only is the President the main target of public jokes circulated through text messages and email, but he also has earned the ire of the clerical and factional elite. Ahmadinejad has gained quite a worldwide reputation for his confrontational politics and flamboyant statements so it is likely that Ahmadinejad's detractors are enjoying this public disproval of the Iranian president in hope that he could be discredited and discarded in advance of the 2009 presidential elections.

Sanam Vakil is 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 2008)

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

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

For Iranian watchers alike though, it is important that we don't count our chickens before they hatch. In fact, this criticism of President Ahmadinejad is no different that that which was experienced by all Iranian presidents of the past including Khatami, Rafsanjani, Khamenei, and Bani Sadr. And with the exception of Bani Sadr, each of these presidents was elected to a second term. The power of the Iranian president as one position amidst the landscape of factional competition not only fuels this derision but perpetuates it too. The coral of voices against Ahmadinejad appear louder than those against his predecessors. Of late, due to growing economic pressures resulting from the president's policies, Ahmadinejad has experienced repeated attacks. He has been accused of mismanaging the economy which while band aided by high oil prices is experiencing inflationary trends. He also received criticism on May 15 from Central Bank Governor who said the president's decision to set bank interest rates well below inflation is unworkable. He was more recently admonished by his foe Hashemi Rafsanjani for replacing his experienced cabinet ministers with others who often not. In fact, since his election, the president has replaced scores of officials with appointees from among his former colleagues in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Tehran City Council.

More damning to the president has been his recent run in with the clerical establishment.

In a speech, made last month, Ahmadinejad claimed that the twelfth Imam or the Mahdi who has been in occultation for over one thousand years has been directing his government's policies. Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani among others criticized Ahmadinejad for invoking the Mahdi's name in vain. Three clerics, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, also resoundingly called on Ahmadinejad to take responsibility rather than blame his opponents for the economic issues plaguing the country. Such outspokenness and unity on the part of the clerical establishment is extremely unusual. Moreover, their comments on the economy are even more so.

A rain of scorn

Former President Khatami was no stranger to similar criticism while in office. Coming to power on a wave of reformist momentum, Khatami was criticized for his reformist ambitions encouraging the promotion of civil society. This new freedom while embraced among the general population was viewed with suspicion among conservative circles and levers of power. Fearing further challenges to the institutional and ideological framework of the theocratic regime, conservatives united to contain the momentum of the reformist activities a move that intensified factional rivalries. Attempts were made to constrain Khatami's advisors while also to signal that the free press and youth activism was not to be tolerated. The factional struggle for power culminated in the conservative strategy against the press. In July 1999, Salam newspaper, the first of many to be targeted was shut down leading to large student protests. The demonstration ended in violence, death and many casualties. Indeed, it was Iran's biggest anti-government demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Only through military response from the Basij and IRGC were the student disbanded. Khatami too was directly implicated by twenty-four commanders of the IRGC who publically admonished him for his non response against the demonstrations. As such Khatami earned the ire of the conservative and traditional elite being caught between his constituency and the institutional levers of power.

Among openDemocracy's articles about Iran and the United States:

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

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

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

Rasool Nafisi, "Iran's cultural prison" (17 May 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) Former president and born again pragmatist Hashemi Rafsanjani has also been dealt his fair share of public attack. Rafsanjani's tenure as President came in the aftermath of the death of Khomeini and the humiliating conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war. In an effort to bolster economic reconstruction, Rafsanjani pursued a pragmatic policy of liberalization including a moderate foreign policy of regional and international engagement in the hope of fortifying Iran's economic and foreign relations. However, Rafsanjani too was subject to increasing criticism throughout his two terms as traditional and radical forces within the regime were threatened by his moderate policies that were perceived as against the revolution's principles. As such Rafsanjani was heavily criticized for serving the interests of the elite both domestically and internationally. He earned himself the nickname "Ahmad Shah" after the last Qajar monarch who was known as an ineffective and corrupt ruler.

The nature and history of the Iranian political system stimulates factional competition and as such perpetuates the cycle of criticism and rivalry within the political establishment. Modeled after the French system with a parliament, president and judiciary, the government maintains clerical oversight bodies all appointed by the Supreme Leader that provide a special system of checks and balances. The Constitution defines the President as the highest state authority after the Supreme Leader. He retains a mandate as Head of State to determine economic and foreign policy. However, it is the Supreme Leader that sets the tone for foreign and domestic policies. Moreover, foreign policy is formulated through the National Security Council and only after seeking the Supreme Leader's approval. At the same time, the President must contend with numerous institutions such as the Parliament, the Judiciary, the Expediency Council, the Guardian Council, the clerical establishment and the vast bureaucracy.

Factionalism was tempered under the tenure of Ayatollah Khomeini due to his unifying presence as the charismatic leader of the revolution, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war and the period of revolutionary consolidation. However, Khamenei's ascent to the position of Supreme Leader to the position of the velayat-e-faqih or Guardian of the Jurist fueled antagonism within the political system. Khamenei was handpicked by Khomeini himself. However, he had neither the overwhelming support of the public nor that of the clerical establishment which looked upon Khamenei's appointment with disdain. As a cleric, Khamenei had only a limited clerical education having never obtained the necessary credentials of an Ayatollah to ascend to the position of the faqih. Having served as the first clerical president of the Islamic Republic, a long time revolutionary with the blessing of Ayatollah Khomeini himself, Khamenei was guaranteed to inherit the theocratic throne, but not without considerable factional challenges.

A supreme judgment

While at times, Khamenei like his predecessor appealed to the factions and groups within the system to maintain unity, unresolved domestic rivalries and ideological contests over the future and direction of the Islamic Republic have continued to dominate the political arena. As Khamenei neither possessed the charisma nor the popularity of Khomeini, he partook in fomenting a new base of support for his political power: the ideological underclass of the revolution. Finding allies in the Islamic Republic Guards Corps (IRGC) and other ideological supporters of the revolution, Khamenei consolidated his power by surrounding himself with a cadre of loyalists willing to adhere to the revolutionary creed that would protect and preserve the umbilical cord of the Islamic Republic.

Using factionalism and institutional control to his advantage he further pitted those who support him against those who do not further entrenching the pattern of political rivalry. Tactically he also used the unelected institutions such as the Guardian Council to vet candidates prior to elections and to negate legislation passed by the parliament. Through these moves Khamenei enabled the consolidation of conservative power evidenced in the recent round of elections where only clerically approved candidates were permitted to run for political office. Additionally, in the quest for political power factional rivalries have intensified.

The President is no stranger to such factionalism. As a subordinate to the Supreme Leader and as one among many vying for political influence, the president faces a tremendous task. In reviewing the assaults on president's past, it is clear that President Ahmadinejad is one among many to have been caught amidst this web of factional politics. As such, in our hope for a less controversial and more pragmatic Iranian president, we should not be swayed or read too closely into this regular exchange of criticism. If the past should be a guide for the future, Ahmadinejad will likely not only survive this barrage of disapproval but will also be reelected in 2009.

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