Inside Iran’s Fight for Supremacy
Image Credit: Office of the Iranian President

Inside Iran’s Fight for Supremacy

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and virtually the entire conservative Iranian establishment – including leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – have unleashed a political firestorm against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his closest aides. Although the battle lines were drawn many months ago, an unprecedented power struggle erupted into full public view on April 17, when Ahmadinejad summarily fired Heydar Moslehi, Iran’s intelligence minister. An hour later, Khamenei reinstated Moslehi, and the two most powerful men in Tehran began an astonishing test of wills, in which Khamenei – who commands the leadership of the IRGC, the armed forces and the paramilitary Basij, and who has the loyalty of the largest bloc of conservatives in Iran’s parliament – holds most of the cards.

Within weeks, Ahmadinejad was engaged in a rearguard struggle to hold on, in the face of impeachment threats, a media onslaught, and charges from some of Iran’s most powerful cleric that he and his aides had abandoned the central principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, clerical supremacy.
 
The conflict, according to Iran analysts, revolves principally around manoeuvring in advance of next year’s parliamentary elections, in which conservatives loyal to Khamenei plan to isolate and weaken Ahmadinejad. Beyond that, at stake is the presidential election in 2013, where Khamenei is seeking to block an attempt by Ahmadinejad to run a favourite aide to succeed him as president. While it’s by no means clear that Ahmadinejad can maintain his grip on power much longer, the turmoil in Iran also has direct implications for Iran’s relationship with the United States, the West, and the rest of the P5+1 powers who are seeking to restart negotiations with Tehran over its controversial nuclear enrichment programme.
 
And to the extent that there are ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in Iranian politics when it comes to the nuclear issue, in this case the doves are actually centred in the Ahmadinejad camp.
 
Since the presidential election in June, 2009, when Ahmadinejad emerged victorious amid widespread charges of fraud, he has consistently tried to outmanoeuvre Khamenei, seeking to accumulate power in the president’s office. Khamenei, meanwhile, has repeatedly clipped Ahmadinejad’s wings. In 2009, when Ahmadinejad sought to install a close ally, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, as first vice president, Khamenei blocked Mashaei’s appointment. Although Ahmadinejad responded by naming Mashaei to the position of presidential chief-of-staff, Mashaei has since emerged as a lightning rod in the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.
 
Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been close friends and allies for three decades, since they served together in local government in West Azerbaijan in the early 1980s. Ahmadinejad’s son is married to Mashaei’s daughter. And there are reports that Ahmadinejad is grooming Mashaei to succeed him as president in 2013.
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Joe Staffmonna
July 6, 2011 at 21:39

It is obvious that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is basically the Shah of Iran, prefers not to share power with anyone – especially with people who are as ambitious as him and who could threaten him. That’s why Khamenei has always had a policy of strengthening the weaker side and then turning on it when it was too strong and a threat.

From 1979 to 1989, Iran was seen (rightly or wrongly) as a repressive, isolated, wartorn, unstable Eastern country. During this period, Ayatollah Khomeini was official leader though he was old and other forces were fighting away in the back. Rafsanjani, Mousavi, Khamenei being the main ones. By 1989, Iran began to look like its other Eastern European neighbours – a nation reeling from war and economic depression and in need of new leadership.

In 1989, a current of reform and change was sweeping Eastern Europe and Iran was not immune. Rafsanjani was sold to the world as the Iranian Gorbachev and Iran opened up to an extent (Rafsanjani more or less was Iran’s Brezhnev instead, avoiding conflicts but still sticking to what he saw as regime fundamentals). By 1997, Khamenei was tired to the reformists and even Rafsanjani had distanced himself from his earlier more liberal views.

The election of Khatami seemed to spell more disaster for Khamenei, so Khamenei undermined them and started supporting (ironically) non-clerical nationalist forces like Abadgaran. Orgs like Abadgaran had been stating their dispise of clerical rule but Khamenei saw them as less a threat by 2005 than a new Rafsanjani presidency. So, Ahmadinejad (viewed as a hardliner in the West’s media) was elected and he initially was an important ally with Khamenei to undermine other powerful clerics. Rafsanjani, Khatami, etc. all had less and less power and Khamenei was happy to preside over a regime with few clerics as long as they were obedient to him. However, the 2009 election saw 3 of the 4 candidates as nonclerics and Mousavi and Ahmadinejad (in whatever order!!) winning. First, Ahmadinejad had to work with Khamenei to rid the country of the Mousavi supporters and clerical supporters of Karroubi. However, Ahmadinejad and Abadgaran’s other leaders like Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei have one more part of their aim of installing a non-cleric nationalist Iran to achieve: getting rid of Khamenei and his supporters. For this reason, Ahmadinejad finds himself in the same position as Rafsanjani, Khatami and Mousavi. And speaking of the latter 3, what will they do now?

The trad role of the presidency is to try and democraticse the system more. Ahmadinejad has been a divicive president and thus has to prove for his party Abadgaran to survive that he can do it better than his predecessors. Ahmadinejad is not the hardliner the West make him out to be (in fact, he is more the pragmatist that Rafsanjani is and also shows shades of Khatami’s desire to let people have their freedoms) and perhaps his statement that “Iran should get back to its revolutionary values” scares the Iranian political hierarchy more than the West (we must remember always that what Iran now has become under the 30 year reign of Khamenei as (powerful) president from 1981 to 1989 and then Shah since 1989 was not what was ideally wished for by the people, many early revolutionaries and even Ayatollah Khomeini himself).

MattC
June 2, 2011 at 17:49

Liz,

Given Iran is so pivotal to Middle Eastern & Global politics its interesting and worthy of reporting what is what.

Liz
June 2, 2011 at 06:11

We’eve been hearing about similar “battles” in the Iranian government before — before Ahmadinejad, it was Khatami vs. Rafsanjani vs. Khamenei. THis is normal Iranian politics because their constitution sets up multiple, competing power centers. Same sort of battles go on in other countries. In short, so what?

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