The increasingly vicious power struggle in Iran between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is headed for a showdown on 14 June, scheduled date for the Islamic Republic’s 13th presidential election.
In recent weeks, the in-fighting that has ravaged the country’s ruling circle for the last two years has escalated sharply, with the President Ahmadinejad and supporters of the deeply entrenched conservative elite that has run the republic since the 1979 Islamic revolution tearing at each other.
The looming showdown in Iran’s complex politics will determine the country’s direction in the years to come and could affect the current confrontation with the United States and Israel.
The election is probably the most critical since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty and gave militant Islam its first stunning, ground-shaking triumph to change the course of history. The Middle East has never been the same since. The outcome of the current power struggle in Tehran may not have quite the same epoch-making impact, but it will determine where the Islamic Republic, now 34 years old, is headed.
The election is being held at a time when Iran is gripped by crisis. Its energy-based economy is deteriorating sharply because of ever-tightening international sanctions imposed three years ago because Tehran would not abandon its contentious nuclear programme.
The outcome of the election could determine whether Tehran will seek an agreement with the US led western powers on its widely feared nuclear project that could end the sanctions.
Oil production and exports have slumped to historic lows and the Iranian currency, the rial, is in free fall. Many manufacturing businesses have shut down in the last year. Prices of basic foodstuffs and fuel have soared as government subsidies have been steadily cut. Unemployment and disaffection is growing.
At the same time, there has been a major press crack- down, with publications closed and dozens of journalists arrested, most of them because of their support for rival political factions ahead of the June elections.
Externally, the region is in turmoil. Iran is locked in a confrontation with the US over Tehran’s alleged drive for nuclear weapons.
Israel has threatened to launch pre-emptive strikes – probably a major air assault including its Jericho-2 ballistic missiles – against Iran’s nuclear facilities which the Jewish state views as an “existential threat.”
Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran’s aspirations for expanding its influence across the Sunni-dominated Gulf and westwards into the Levant, right up to Israel’s northern border, face uncertainty if the Alawite regime in Syria – its only state ally in the Arab world – is overthrown in a war now in its third year, which threatens to destabilise the entire region.
Ahmadinejad, Iran’s first non-clerical president since the 1981 constitution codified the Islamic revolution, has served two terms and under the constitution cannot run for a third consecutive four year term.
One of the main bones of contention with Khamenei is that Ahmadinejad wants his former chief of staff and close confidante, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to be his hand-picked successor. Mashaei’s son is married to Ahmadinejad’s daughter. Ahmadinejad made Mashaei his vice president in 2009. But amid growing opposition to the President’s push to reduce the clerical role in politics and separate mosque and state, Mashaei was forced to resign in the face of intense pressure from Khamenei.
This effectively set the stage for the political battles that ensued. The conservative establishment saw Ahmadinejad’s cabinet members, many of whom like him lean towards secular nationalism, as religious “deviants.”
The president’s personal prayer leader, a middle- ranked cleric, or hojatoleslam, named Abbas Amirifar, was arrested on a charge of “sorcery” in 2011 by religious police, acting on instructions from on high.
The ayatollahs and other critics say Ahmadinejad has been “bewitched” by his tall 52-year-old companion, conspicuously beardless in an Islamic society where beards denote piety. They have branded Mashaei a “heretic”, a “Freemason” and even a “foreign spy”, who is plotting to bring down the clerical regime installed by Khomeini.
“All presidents in Iran start out under the patronage of a powerful faction,” explained Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a former lawmaker who is critical of Ahmadinejad. “But after they gain power they create their own circles and claim they represent the people.”
The concern with the conservative leadership is that Ahmadinejad will seek, through Mashaei, to emulate Soviet leader Vladimir Putin’s double act with Dimitry Medevev, taking turns to be president and prime minister in a power-sharing plot with Putin clearly the dominant partner. But Ahmadinejad’s gripe is against the deeply conservative pillars of the clerical regime. These are the Majlis, or parliament, 260 of whose 290 members pledged allegiance to Khamenei in February; the judiciary; and, possibly most importantly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), or Pasdaran, the regime’s praetorian guard formed by Khomeini to be the ideological protectors of the religious rule he installed.
Right now, the Guards are hovering in the back- ground of the political battles. But the corps has become the most powerful military force in the country and in recent years a major economic power as well.
That gives it immense influence, particularly with the religious establishment that runs Iran’s complex and murky power structures.
The corps was once a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad, who was a decorated Revolutionary Guard field commander during the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The IRGC backed him when he first ran in 2005, and then again in 2009. In that bitterly disputed election Khamenei actually backed Ahmadinejad and ruled in his favour when his rivals challenged his victory.
But the Guards are answerable solely to Khamenei, and their ardour for their wartime comrade and his populist policies has dampened as their slice of the economic pie, and the wealth accrued by the corps’ leaders, has grown.
The 2009 election triggered a wave of pro-democracy protests, the worst rioting seen in Iran since the revolution, preceding the so-called Arab Spring by 18 months.
More than 100 protesters were killed by state security forces and the reform movement of former president Mohammed Khatami was solidly crushed.
Many of its leading lights were thrown into prison, Others, such as former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ran against Ahmadinejad in 2009, and former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader despite some questions about his religious credentials to become a grand ayatollah, became alienated toward his onetime protégé over his populist policies that were at variance with those of the clerical elite.
Iran’s presidency has long been dominated by the supreme leader, but Ahmadinejad has challenged that, and indeed the power of the deeply entrenched clerical leadership.
He “has managed to transform the presidency into a separate pole of power within the Iranian system, one capable of challenging the authority of the Supreme Leader,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
“At the root of the wrangling … is a broader ideological dispute. In fact, the battle between Ahmadinejad and the clerical system has substantially changed Iran’s political landscape. This is perhaps most visible in the slow but steady rise of the powerful IRGC.”
Ahmadinejad “wants his policies and political movement to live on, and the clerics’ repeated criticism reveal their unease with his ability to manoeuvre with Iran’s convoluted system of checks and balances,” Stratfor noted.
But the political system gives the mullahs significant oversight powers, including vetting candidates for public office. That means the pro-Khamenei 12-member Council of Guardians, which handles the vetting process, could block Mashaei from running in the June poll.
There is also the possibility that Ahmadinejad’s popularity with the poorer classes, and under international sanctions these are expanding, may not be carried over to Mashaei, if he is accepted as a candidate, or anyone else the president nominates.
“Khamenei wants the next president to be someone he can control,” observed Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “He wants people who have no personal backing.”
Each month we publish online a small selection of articles which appear in The MiddleEast magazine .
If you are interested in receiving the full monthly edition you may subscribe to the magazine on the home page of our website, www.themiddleeastmagazine.com
For digital subscriptions click HERE