Iran: The Next Generation

Pundits have it wrong. The clerics are on their way out. Ahmadinejad is leading a revolution.

FOR SEVERAL weeks now, observers and analysts of Iran have been referring to an emerging rift between the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The recent back-and-forth between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei reflects a deeper generational shift. After three decades of Iran’s clerical network dominating the political scene, the emergence of the Islamic Republic’s next generation of leaders—nonclerical, war-veteran technocrats—may well portend larger ramifications for Iran’s inward and outward orientation.

The common narrative argues that all Iranian leaders—especially given the vetting system that one must go through to enter politics—are cut from the same cloth. “He is one of them,” or “He is like all the rest,” has increasingly become the mantra of a society and much of its Diaspora who have grown tired of decades of disappointment. At the moment, though, Ahmadinejad and his cronies have emerged as an unlikely group challenging the status quo in Iran; simply put, when looking at the trajectory of the Islamic Republic and what it has stood for since its inception in 1979, the current president and his cabinet have done more to shake the system to its core than any other group, including their reformist predecessors.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of Ahmadinejad, or a suggestion that he intends to dismantle the system—far from it. But continuing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable by the Islamic Republic’s own standards is certainly a trend worth tracking. It is through this paradigm that the recent rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei tells the real story: It’s not about Ahmadinejad as much as what and who he represents: a generation of war veterans who felt the Iranian power structure had cast them aside. This generation increasingly personifies everything that Iran’s clerical establishment is not; they are seen as young and confident; as the real reason for Iran’s revolutionary survival and at the heart of a dissipating mistrust of the West in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. Above all, they represent a belief system predicated on Iranian self-reliance and self-sufficiency. They have remained loyal to the Supreme Leader for religious reasons, but are hostile towards clerics who grabbed power while they fought to protect Iran from Iraqi aggression. To that end, they believe that the Islamic Republic has become corrupt and deviated from the true path of the 1979 Revolution. Perhaps more than seeking to profit from their inclusion amongst Iran’s political elite, this new generation of technocrats seeks to include Iran more fully in the global economy.

Many policymakers and pundits have long predicted a consolidation of the conservative faction in Iran, and this is the latest example that proves the notion incorrect. The recent Ahmadinejad-Khamenei spat personifies a larger truth: Iranian conservatives are as varied and divided as the reformists were during former President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure. And given the various power networks in the Islamic Republic—clerics, technocrats, merchants, the military, the Revolutionary Guard (current and former, high-level to rank-and-file, and far from monolithic)—the consolidation of power in the hands of a single faction is practically impossible. Herein lies the strategy behind the Ahmadinejad camp’s gambit: these “developers” (or “Abadgaran” in Persian – the name of their political faction) are betting they can get the aforementioned generation of Iranians behind them, and they have managed a certain degree of success. But even if the Abadgaran’s gamble fails to pay off, their repeated challenges to Khamenei and the clerical network he represents have created previously non-existent political space for rival factions from the new generation of political elite to continue systematically shifting influence to Iran’s non-clerical power networks.

IN THE beginning, the Abadgaran had the tacit blessing of the Supreme Leader and, unlike today, intentionally placed Iran in a state of international isolation to systemically eliminate domestic political opponents. Ahmadinejad, who had stumbled upon his anti-Israel remarks, quickly realized their potential and utilized them to effectively kill any prospect of U.S.-Iran rapprochement during his first term. With Iran’s international disputes capturing headlines, its increasing isolation provided space for a new round of domestic political fratricide. From 2005-2009, despite beneath the surface rifts among conservatives, they worked together to marginalize the reformists. Now that there are no reformist scapegoats left to target, conservative factions are now openly fighting one another. Having seen what happened to the reformists, it is clear to all those vying for power this is about political survival and the future of the Islamic Republic.