Between the devil and the deep sea

Divisions within Iran’s ruling elite have widened and deepened since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term by a hotly disputed landslide in June 2009. Today bitter rifts are tearing apart conservatives who triumphed in that election and undermining the unity of the regime when Iran’s economy is sinking and sanctions imposed by the West are biting harder than ever.

Following the ousting of the Shah in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became supreme leader, played off conservative and liberal factions to create a balance of forces and ensure his grip on power. After his death in 1989, the power centres initially emulated him. While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a conservative, held the post of supreme leader, the first two post-Khomeini presidents were Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate, and Mohamad Khatami, a liberal reformer.

Khamenei not only neutralised them, but he also strove to concentrate power in the hands of the conservatives. He was aided in this endeavour by the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard corps, the Basij popular militia, the judiciary, and conservative political factions. The culmination of this effort was the election in 2005 of Ahmadinejad, an appointed mayor of Tehran who had reversed liberal policies pursued by predecessors.

Confrontational policies

As president, he has adopted controversial and confrontational policies which have marginalised liberals and maintained his mass support but alienated the West, particularly the US. Only a few credit his claim to have won 24 million votes over his nearest rival, liberal Green Movement candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

While Ahmadinejad has managed to counter accusations of fraud and personal attacks by the Green Movement, he has not been able to dismiss challenges mounted by fellow hardliners over the past 15 months. He has been criticised by conservative in parliament, the judiciary, and even Khamenei who has commented adversely on Ahmadinejad’s conduct, policies and appointments.

Two opposing camps have emerged. The Revolutionary Guards, Basij members, and officials have coalesced around Ahmadinejad and have taken on the clerics headed by Khamanei. Ahmadinejad’s aim is to erode the power of those who seek to check his rule. He has done this by developing a popular base and giving free rein to the Guards, Basij and the intelligence apparatus. Khamanei, however, continues to enjoy the backing of the still powerful politico-clerical establishment and parliament.

Ahmadinejad began his second term by offending Khamenei. He nominated an in-law and ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to the post of first vice president, and appointed three women to his cabinet. Mashaei is seen as suspect by the clerics because he is a proponent of Iranian nationalism rather than adherence to the regime’s promotion of Muslim identity. Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad made him chief of staff — an act of defiance of the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad also proposed the appointment of special envoys to West Asia, Afghanistan, Asia, and the Caspian region. This was rejected by the foreign ministry and parliament which argued that such appointments must have the approval of Khamenei.

On the all important issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment, he refuses to concede western demands to freeze the effort but has also signaled to the West that he is prepared for a dialogue. This is rejected by the clerics.


In the past two weeks, the president has suffered humiliating reverses. Ahmadinejad announced he would pardon Sarah Shourd, detained along with two other US citizens after straying into Iranian territory. He planned a major press event at the presidential palace as a prelude to his appearance at the UN General Assembly.  However, the judiciary said the correct paper work had to be completed, demanded a $5,00,000 ransom, and eventually sent her off on a flight to Oman.

Rafsanjani castigated Ahmadinejad for failing to take seriously western sanctions, imposed to compel Iran to end uranium enrichment. Rafsanjani also warned against ‘dictatorship’. Rafsanjani backed the Green Movement in 2009 but has recently swung behind Khamenei.

Iranian analysts argue that Khamenei will eventually ditch Ahmadinejad if his ambition to expand presidential powers threatens the survival of the regime. They also believe the Guards and Basij will go along with Khamenei who is seen by a large number of Iranians as the voice of God on earth. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad is in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly which he is set to address on Thursday.

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