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

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.

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