Ahmadinejad vs. The Ayatollah

Ahmadinejad vs. The Ayatollah

Mini Teaser: A battle royal between the president and the supreme leader has engulfed Tehran. The result? Khamenei and his allies are methodically and ruthlessly establishing the planet’s most unabashed theocratic despotism.

by Author(s): Abbas Milani

AHMADINEJAD AND his oligarch cronies have been having a rough couple of months. The ayatollah is out for blood, and those in “elected” office are under attack. In fact, the dominant narrative taking over the Islamic Republic has lately sounded a great deal more like the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez than the realpolitik of Hans Morgenthau. It has been two months of bizarre allegations of voodoo and venal sins taking place in the offices and homes of the president’s closest aides and confidants—not to mention the far more run-of-the-mill charges of their financial corruption and sweetheart deals in places like Belarus. It has been a time of repeated open threats of the president’s impeachment, the same president who was not too long ago the darling of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, close as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to the supreme leader’s own ideas and ideals. It has been a time when more than a hundred members of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, have requested an investigation into the last presidential election and the allegation that 9 million votes were purchased through cash payments from government coffers. Amazing how the tables can turn. Indeed, just like the police chief in Casablanca, these conservative (ayatollah-backing) members of the Majlis are “shocked, shocked” that electoral cheating is going on in Iran. Lest we forget, Mir Hussein Moussavi (the “losing candidate” in that same presidential election), his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, Mehdi Karroubi (the other “losing” candidate) and his wife, Fatemeh, have been under house arrest for months—for making the same accusations of fraud. Thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned, and about a hundred of the regime’s past ministers, deputy ministers and directors were put on Stalinist-era-like show trials to confess to the crime of alleging a bought-and-paid-for vote. Hundreds of young women and men were tortured, dozens raped and thousands forced into exile for questioning the June 2009 presidential-election results. It was of course all, according to Khamenei, a sinister U.S. plot to create a “velvet revolution” using Gene Sharp’s model and George Soros’s money.

And it has been months filled with charges of an even broader American-Zionist conspiracy. Naturally, they are the real masterminds behind the recent crisis, placing their “infiltrators” in the president’s entourage. The public has been told not to be fooled when the Western media or governments try to use these reports of voodoo, exorcism and demonic powers in the Iranian president’s office against the clerical regime; a high-ranking official close to Khamenei just announced that while these heresies were rampant and unacceptable among Ahmadinejad’s confidants, it should be remembered that the U.S. military has been tapping into such demonic forces for decades. He went on to opine that European militaries have also begun emulating America in the use of the devil’s powers.

For much of the spring, Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime have stood on the edge of a political precipice. In early May, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) predicted that forces loyal to Ahmadinejad, now called “the deviationist line”—yet another reminder of Stalinist- and Maoist-era monikers and purges—would “stand up” to the regime, creating a far greater threat to the country than the instability circa June 2009, when an estimated 3 million people in Tehran came out to protest what they considered a fraudulent election. Another IRGC commander predicted “a bloody year” ahead. And evidence that the looming clash might well be approaching came when forces close to Khamenei confronted the man Ahmadinejad had named governor of Shiraz Province, bringing the local government to a standstill. The president is increasingly attacked by much of the regime’s vast propaganda machine, portrayed at best as a gullible dupe. He is surely “possessed,” declared Mesbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s onetime guru and spiritual guide.

As spring came to a close, pressure against Ahmadinejad increased. It became clear he had few options left. He chose at least a temporary retreat, agreeing to humiliate himself by appearing on television and reassuring the nation that he is a docile soldier of the supreme leader. Yet even that was not enough to create at least the appearance of a truce. No sooner had Ahmadinejad performed his act of public contrition and reaffirmed his “father-son-like” relationship with Khamenei than the ayatollah’s representative to the IRGC attacked the president for his unsatisfactory formulation of fealty. Your relationship with the supreme leader, Ahmadinejad was reminded in a tone of reprimand, is not one of a son to a father but of a mere follower to a saintly leader (imam vs. mamum).

Since then, many in Ahmadinejad’s close circle of friends and allies have “been arrested and vigorously interrogated.” Soon thereafter, a prominent Friday-prayer leader (all of whom have great influence as religious figureheads—their statements would normally be read as signs that these were the words of the supreme leader himself) announced that these arrests and interrogations had taken place on direct orders of Khamenei. For reasons that are not clear, only hours after this proclamation, the supreme leader’s press office issued an elliptical statement in which it did not directly challenge the allegations but suggested that deeds and words attributed to Khamenei must come only from his press shop and no other. All said and done, it is simply hard to believe that Ahmadinejad’s closest aides could have been arrested without Khamenei’s approval. There are rumors that of those taken into custody, the one accused of being the president’s chief devil conjurer has confessed to receiving his demonic powers only after desecrating a copy of the Koran. When websites reported that the unlucky disciple of the devil had been condemned to ten consecutive hangings, another site, this one close to Ahmadinejad, indicated its support of the punishment—one more sign the president is willing to make tactical retreats in order to cling to power.

The only indication that some respite is coming to this stranger-than-fiction fight has been the declaration of a prominent member of parliament (generally considered to speak for Khamenei) that the supreme leader now seems inclined to allow Ahmadinejad to serve out the rest of his term—only, of course, if he mends his ways, rids himself of his unsavory aides and accepts his role as a mere foot soldier in the divine deliberations of the ayatollah. Ahmadinejad supposedly has two years left in office. As things stand today, it is unlikely that he will make it that long. And if, at the end, he is still somehow president, Ahmadinejad will surely be but a mere empty shell of the bombastic, combative, feverishly messianic persona he created for himself before the crisis began.

What on earth is going on in Iran? Is it simply a battle over turf and ego, oil money and the perks of power, or is there something more structural, even historical, behind this sudden emergence of tension between the supreme leader, Khamenei, and his handpicked two-term presidential choice, Ahmadinejad?

THERE IS a deep incongruity embedded in the Islamic Republic’s body politic: the mix of the modern republican principle of popular sovereignty (and the election of a president by the people as the embodiment of this republicanism) with the medieval notion of velayat-e-faqih, absolute personal despotism allegedly anointed by God and altogether independent of any need for the public’s support or votes of approval. The forced marriage of these two mutually discordant ideals was the result of the 1979 revolution gone awry. Democratic in nature and aspiration, that revolution was itself the result of a historic crisis of leadership faced by the institution of absolutist monarchy in Iran. Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, every monarch either died in exile or by an assassin’s bullet. Mozaffar ed-Din, in power from 1896 to 1907 (and the only king to die peacefully on the throne), saw the writing on history’s wall, signing a decree that gave up all the powers of an absolutist ruler; he agreed instead to become a constitutional monarch, modeled on the Belgian system in which the king’s powers were curtailed by the creation of a constitution and a parliament. It did not take long, however, before another absolutist, albeit modernizing, monarch came to power in 1925, creating the Pahlavi dynasty. In fact, the 1979 revolution that finally ended the Iranian royal tradition was launched to protest the shah’s (the second Pahlavi monarch’s) usurpation of absolutist prerogatives.

That revolution was, of course, abducted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who cleverly and disingenuously used it to implement his peculiar theory of clerical dominance. Then, as now, a majority of Shiite ayatollahs reject this notion, suggesting instead that only upon the return of Shiism’s Twelfth Imam—believed to be in hiding, or occultation, until the apocalyptic day when he will emerge and usher in a just and perfect society—can a true Islamic state be created. And only an infallible imam can lead such a state, as its rules and commands are divine, absolute and incumbent on every citizen. Khomeini, on the other hand, suggested that the clergy could seize power anytime the occasion allowed. Thus in the constitution, inspired partially by his ideas, a disproportionate share of authority was placed in the hands of the unelected supreme leader. At the same time, as a nod to the democratic nature of the revolution, the constitution gave space for a presidency in charge of the executive branch, elected by direct popular vote, and a legislature, also brought to office by the will of the people. Though this division of power was in direct breach of the often-repeated social contract offered by Khomeini to the citizens of Iran in 1978 when he was jockeying to become the leader of their democratic movement—more than once he promised a republic with absolutely no direct role for himself or the clergy in governance—when he eventually took charge, the incongruent constitution, giving Khomeini the lion’s share of the power, was passed.

Remarkably, even this disproportionate appropriation of authority in his favor was not enough to sate what one writer called his “lust for power,” and the few remaining freedoms in the governance structure were soon co-opted. The ayatollah immediately sent out to every institution, every city, every province and every branch of the military his own emissaries, called “imam’s representatives,” who gradually became the real sources of power and decision making in their respective organizations. (Khamenei has continued this tradition; only now the emissaries are called “leader’s representatives.”) And Khomeini’s office began to bring centralized, regimented control to the appointment of Friday-prayer leaders, who are each in charge of a mosque and wield great power in their individual neighborhoods, towns or cities. Oftentimes, these individuals can, in fact, be more powerful than any official member of the city or district government. Every week, every Friday-prayer leader receives his talking points from the supreme leader’s office and is expected to shape his sermon around these instructions. Thus, on top of directly controlling the country’s radio and television networks (as stipulated in the constitution), the supreme leader dictates the contents of sermons, affording him yet another lever of power—and a critical tool for shaping public discourse in the country. The sudden surge of orchestrated attacks on Ahmadinejad is only the most recent example of this disciplined, centrally controlled power of the pulpit in action.

Moreover, when the first and only free and fair elections to the already-marginalized offices of the president and the Majlis ended in results unfavorable to the clergy and to Khomeini—or more specifically, when Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected president and soon developed a surprising streak of independence from Khomeini and his cronies, and when many unaffiliated nationalists and democrats were elected to the Majlis—the clergy soon decided to introduce the concept of nezarat-e estesvabi (beneficent supervision), appropriating for themselves the added right to decide who can stand for election to any office in the country.

Further curtailing the republican component of the constitution is the tendency of the supreme leader to micromanage the country and thus enter into domains set aside by law for the president or those in other governmental branches. Khamenei has shown a decided proclivity for this kind of intervention. No surprise, a concept has conveniently been developed to legitimize these encroachments as well. The supreme leader can, at will, issue what is referred to as a hokm-e hokumati, or governing order. Like papal encyclicals, these orders trump all existing executive, legislative or judicial rules, and adhering to them is incumbent on everyone in the country.

This seizure of power to build a monolithic clerical despotism in a country that fought a revolution to win republican freedoms has created a governing structure rife with different sources of tension. On a popular level, the people have continued to use every occasion to protest the fact that the rights of mature citizenship they fought for are still denied them. The personal power now concentrated in the hands of the supreme leader is far greater than that of the shah, overthrown precisely for amassing too much authority for himself.

Many of Iran’s most prominent ayatollahs are clearly disgruntled with the status quo. The clerical coalition that helped bring the current regime to power is no longer unified. Some of them disagree with Khomeini’s theory of governance, some doubted Khamenei’s clerical bona fides to replace Khomeini in the first place, and some are increasingly vocal about Khamenei’s attempt to disregard the historic independence of seminaries, trying to control them as he does by giving each school large sums of governmental funds.

And at the pinnacle of authority, lingering contradictions between the power of the president and that of the supreme leader and between democratic and clerical rule have created a house divided. Tensions between elected presidents and the unelected supreme leader have been a constant fact of life in Iran for the last thirty-two years. Ever since 1979 and the passage of the new constitution, every president has had some public falling-out with the supreme leader. Today, of the six presidents in the history of the republic, the first was impeached; the second was assassinated; the third (Khamenei) survived an assassination attempt and had two major face-offs with the then supreme leader, Khomeini; the fourth and fifth presidents, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, each served two terms, and each repeatedly butted heads with Khamenei—both are now considered virtual enemies of the state. And today, Ahmadinejad confronts the peril of impeachment and an inglorious end to his rule.

THE PERKS and prerogatives of power are not only, in Henry Kissinger’s famous words, an aphrodisiac, they also tend to induce in those in authority delusions of grandeur. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been no exceptions to this rule. The middle class is discontent, both a presidential vote and elections to a new Majlis await—the opportunity is ripe for a power play. Ahmadinejad, a true “little man,” ended up with a big office thanks to the Machiavellian guile of Khamenei and some in the IRGC who used government funds and the vast network of members of the Basij (a gang-cum-militia on the regime payroll that numbers in the hundreds of thousands) and families of martyrs who receive regular stipends from the government to solicit support for Ahmadinejad. But suddenly the president began to believe the myth of his popularity and power. His well-known messianic fervor (his oft-repeated faith in the imminent apocalyptic return of the Twelfth Imam) also guaranteed that equally dogmatic fatalists, or a strange amalgam of opportunists out to use the president’s zeal and piety to pillage the public coffers, would gather around him with glee. The fact that during Ahmadinejad’s six years in office, Iran has received almost $500 billion in oil and gas revenue—equal to about half of Tehran’s entire oil income from the time the resource was first discovered in the country—has made public funds an even more appealing and rewarding prey for financial predators.

But concurrent with Ahmadinejad’s growing delusions about his sway over his domain, Khamenei developed an increasing appetite to concentrate more and more absolute power in his own hands. For months, Khamenei supporters and websites close to the IRGC have been attacking Ahmadinejad for a long litany of alleged sins. He stands accused of advocating Iranian nationalism—something anathema to conservative clerics who promote ummat (spiritual community) over mellat (nation). He was criticized for lauding past kings, particularly Cyrus, praised in the Bible for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Cyrus may have been lambasted by the infamous “hanging judge,” a close ally of Khomeini, as a “Jew boy” and a “sodomite,” but the president went out of his way to praise him for his promulgation of human rights. Ahmadinejad was further criticized for celebrating the Persian new year, Nowruz, considered pagan by the pious and the subject of numerous attacks by Khamenei himself. Some accused Ahmadinejad of starting secret negotiations with the United States and European powers, and even conspiring with them against Khamenei and his supporters.

In spite of the propaganda blitzkrieg against him, Ahmadinejad has yet to submit to the most important demand of his opponents, namely dismissing his closest ally and confidant Esfandiar Mashaei. Accused of financial corruption, moral turpitude and unsavory conjurations, he is at the heart of the controversy. The two men are old friends and spiritual soul mates. Mashaei is now also the father-in-law of one of Ahmadinejad’s sons. More than once, the president has waxed eloquent about Mashaei’s sublime spiritual accomplishments. In the language of a disciple heaping praise on his master, Ahmadinejad has talked of Mashaei as belonging to a higher realm and as possessing a kind of gnosis forbidden to the rest of us mere mortals.

Ahmadinejad has appointed Mashaei to a total of thirteen critical jobs, one of which was the position of cultural czar where he had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal. He used these funds to create a vast network of personal patronage. Soon enough, rumors began to spread that Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were planning to do a Putin-Medvedev political tango in Iran (though it is unclear whether either man has any idea how tense the relationship is between their Russian counterparts). In recognition of the opposition’s popularity, the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei team began to distance itself from the clergy and Khamenei. The police were reportedly ordered to be less brutal in forcing women to wear the Islamic hijab. Conservative clerics and a few commanders of the IRGC threatened to enforce the law requiring women to don Islamic garb themselves. One cleric claimed that “blood must be shed” to uphold the practice. There were even rumors that the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei team had sent secret messages to the United States and the EU, naming Khamenei the culprit in the violent suppression of the democratic movement and in Iran’s intransigence in nuclear negotiations.

Ahmadinejad has also kept in place another controversial deputy president accused of massive financial malfeasance. Moreover, the president continues to defy the parliament on key issues, including his decision to merge ministries against their will, while refusing to create an independent ministry of sports. Even more critically, Ahmadinejad declared he would place himself in the role of acting minister of oil, a key position in a regime that survives on petroleum-funded patronage and where the government budget is more than 80 percent dependent on oil and gas revenues. And though the Guardian Council, in charge of interpreting the constitution in Iran, declared the decision to play the dual roles of president and minister of oil illegal, Ahmadinejad continued to insist on keeping both jobs. Only when his case was sent to the judiciary by the Majlis in early summer did he back down, appointing a “caretaker” for the oil ministry. In reality, this effectively leaves Ahmadinejad in control while abiding by the letter of the law.

The brewing crisis came to a boil when Ahmadinejad fired the clergyman in charge of the ministry of intelligence. This was the second cleric he had fired from that position in less than two years. Both had been allies of Khamenei. A few weeks earlier, Ahmadinejad pointedly sacked and embarrassed the foreign minister, another key Khamenei supporter. The hapless official learned of his own dismissal through local African media and leaders with whom he was supposedly negotiating. Khamenei showed no public reaction to the first two challenges to his authority. Even the third time, he initially sent a private letter to Ahmadinejad ordering him to reinstate the minister. When Ahmadinejad still refused, Khamenei finally decided to teach his handpicked president a lesson in power. He wrote and published a letter to the dismissed minister, ordering him to return to work. Ahmadinejad was neither copied nor even named in the missive. (For eleven days after the minister’s reinstatement, Ahmadinejad refused to go to work in protest of what he saw as an egregious interference with his power.) Websites close to Khamenei then published reports that those in “the deviationist line” had a “mole” in the ministry of intelligence and that the minister had been fired for the sin of finding and dismissing the mole! Indeed, it was alleged that the president and his allies had taken sensitive classified documents from the intelligence ministry and intended to use them against their enemies. Ahmadinejad, praised until but a few months ago as the most reliable devotee of the notion of velayat-e-faqih, refused to heed the allegedly divine commands of Khamenei.

Khamenei’s supporters have since offered a variety of theories to justify the supreme leader’s encroachment on the power of the executive (and according to the constitution, naming ministers is a clear prerogative of the president). Some have suggested that past presidents deferred to the supreme leader in choosing ministers of intelligence, defense and foreign affairs—it is Ahmadinejad who stepped over the line. A few have used a more honest “explanation,” suggesting that in Iran today the supreme leader enjoys “divine legitimacy” and speaks for God, and thus his words and wishes trump any law or tradition. One sycophantic mullah—and a Friday-prayer leader in the holy city of Meshed—declared that “all the zeros in the number of votes a person gets” mean nothing until the supreme leader “validates” the vote and appoints the man president. Another claimed that challenging Khamenei’s words is tantamount to shirk, or heresy. Yet another apologist argued that Khamenei was not elected to his post by the eighty-six-man body of experts, as stipulated by the constitution, but was “discovered” by them, clearly implying that only God, having imbued him with his saintly sagacity, can “undiscover” him. In short, the crisis is being used to jettison any vestiges of republicanism left in the constitution.

In the apparent random maze of these allegations, there is a common thread: Ahmadinejad is seen as trying to distance himself from the clergy and endear himself to the moderate middle classes of Iran. While the president’s assumption that there, in fact, exists the possibility that the democratic opposition or the wealthy and erudite will coalesce around him might be an indication he’s truly gone off the deep end, to the outside observer, the effort itself should indicate the continuing appeal of democratic ideals.

WHILE THE world is rightly rejoicing a much-belated Arab Spring (a spring that saw its first blossoms in Tehran in June 2009), in Iran, Khamenei and his allies are methodically and ruthlessly establishing the planet’s most unabashed theocratic despotism. And as many thinkers and scholars have long pointed out, the spirit and rhetoric of republican democracy is inevitably founded on respect for reason, science and the rule of law. The recent assault on the faint hints of republicanism in the Iranian constitution has been, as expected, accompanied by a frightening attack on rationalism, the social sciences and democracy as tools of “Western arrogance” intended to undermine true Islam. Just as the rise of Khomeini in 1979 bred radical Islam, the success of Khamenei in his new antidemocratic project can only reinvigorate the now-declining forces of that radicalism. Without a democratic Iran, the Arab Spring is unlikely to change the face of the region.

Most dangerously, the more isolated the regime becomes, the more intensely it needs to attain the status of at least a virtual nuclear state—one that has demonstrated the technological capacity to build a bomb should it make the political decision to do so—and use this status as a deterrent against outside pressure and domestic challenges to its hold on power. The most recent statement by the IRGC cautioning the world about the nature of the Iranian regime’s military might, touting the country’s new domestically produced and reportedly nuclear-capable warheads, is perfect evidence of that. The IAEA’s recent statement indicating it is no longer able to guarantee the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is yet another sign of Tehran’s growing capabilities. It may be that only a democratic government can genuinely solve Iran’s nuclear issue, but the road to this transition is treacherous. For, though a war of attrition between the president and the supreme leader is sure to expedite the possibility of a more open political system, it is also highly likely to beget a kind of Bonapartist resolution in which an entrenched absolutist regime led by the IRGC is the result.

Indeed, the Iranian leadership has long followed the advice of one of Shakespeare’s characters who suggested that giddy minds must be kept busy with foreign wars. The regime’s true Achilles’ heel remains the economy, and so long as it faces these domestic pressures, there will be a distinct motivation to become increasingly belligerent with the outside world and more repressive at home. Almost a million young men and women are added to the labor force each year. The Islamic Republic faces an uphill battle in its attempt to end subsidies on most basic commodities without serious social dislocation. Up until now, leaders have navigated their way out of such disruption by ensuring cash payments to the poorest strata of society. Most economists predict that the current pattern is untenable, and the false quiet of today presages a storm tomorrow. Khatami, as a self-appointed peacemaker of conflicts of late, recently attempted to once again save the regime by finding a workable compromise between Khamenei and the opposition. In a speech, he claimed that both sides have been wronged and argued that they must forgive each other. His plea has been met with cold derision from all involved.

As the economic situation worsens, Khamenei and his allies in the IRGC have the perfect opportunity to confront Ahmadinejad and wrest him from power, whether figuratively or literally. The blame game has already begun. There has been a remarkable series of revelations and claims about Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy. Government sources have declared the real unemployment rate to be above 30 percent. And the inflationary rate for basic foodstuffs is rumored to be about 25 percent. A couple of leading members of parliament have accused the government of publishing false statistics about the economy, including announced rates of inflation and economic growth. With hyperinflation on the horizon, Depression-era unemployment numbers already a reality (a high-ranking government official announced that one in three young men and women is unemployed in the country), and the democratic winds in the region continuing unabated—not to mention that Syria, the Islamic Republic’s sole regional ally, faces grave challenges—Khamenei might soon need a sacrificial lamb. And Ahmadinejad is the perfect candidate. The IRGC will no doubt be happy to oblige; the fight between a populist president and an increasingly isolated supreme leader makes the latter more and more dependent on the power and muscle of the IRGC and the gangs of street thugs and bullies it controls and uses to intimidate the disgruntled population. In the short run, then, the IRGC is in a win-win situation in this confrontation. It is only how their power will be shaped in the future that remains to be seen.

Unless Ahmadinejad has a few still-unused aces up his sleeve, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he and his allies clearly overestimated his power and popularity. Hitherto, no one has shown any desire to defend the president. More than once, his allies threatened to bring out millions in support of his cause, but so far it has been all empty bluff and bluster. The rancorous fight between the ambitious, weakened president and the embittered, isolated Khamenei is both a symptom of a structural crisis and an added ingredient for its continuation. One can be but strategically optimistic about Iran’s future and tactically benighted about its immediate fate.

Image © Justin Lane/epa/Corbis

Image: Pullquote: Ahmadinejad is increasingly attacked by much of the regime’s vast propaganda machine, portrayed at best as a gullible dupe.Essay Types: Essay