Paul Pillar

Rationality and Centrism in Tehran

Naghmeh Sohrabi, in a new monograph published by the Crown Center at Brandeis University, has an interesting analysis of the tussles within the Iranian leadership. Sohrabi assesses that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior conservatives allied with him are not looking to dump President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad before the end of his term but have come to realize that the future of the political system they lead “lies elsewhere than with the current president.” Especially noteworthy is Sohrabi's conclusion that countering Ahmedinejad is leading the Supreme Leader to move in the direction of the more moderate politics of the previous couple of presidents.

In a speech last month marking the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Khamenei invoked language strongly associated with the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. He spoke of “rationality” as one of pillars of Khomeini's school of thought—a key word in the presidency of Rafsanjani, who used it to indicate “his commitment to running the country’s political and economic affairs less on the basis of ideology and more in the service of reason and practicality.” Khamenei also spoke of “rule of the people”—a watchword of Khatami's presidency—as another principle he attributed to the Islamic Republic's founder. Sohrabi concludes:

After the past several years of implying that the presidencies of Khatami and Rafsanjani were “deviations” from the path of the Islamic Republic, there is now an understanding that the survival of the political system requires that these two centrist ex-presidents be brought back into the fold of politics. In the opaque political system of the Islamic Republic, all signs seem to point toward a return to centrist politics—one in which the multiplicity of groups vying for power ensures that the power scale does not tip in favor of one over the other.

The Iranian regime is often portrayed as some kind of alien, irrational, self-destructive entity that is fundamentally different from governments and political systems with which we are familiar. A careful look at the regime shows that it is not. Politics in Tehran is a lot like the politics that we know in the West, with leaders and factions maneuvering against each other and with their objectives being the maintenance or expansion of their power and the preservation of the system of which they are a part. And now it appears that centrists will have an even better chance of playing a significant role in Tehran than they usually do these days in Washington.