Archive for August, 2010

Part III: The Future of Factionalism

August 28, 2010

(Continued from part II)

The pressing question is that with all this establishment infighting and recent sniping at Ahmadinejad’s faction, what, if anything, does this change? I think the best way to answer this question is to look at things in the short and long term.

Some of the short-term developments could be seen almost right after I began posting this three-part post. At the height of the criticism against Ahmadinejad the president wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader asking for his help in resolving the differences with parliament, and Khamenei even had a sit-down with Ahmadinejad, Ali Larijani and Sadegh Larijani (the judiciary chief, who has his own problems with the president). What exactly was discussed at this tea summit’ wasn’t reported, but a week or so later the president and Ali Larijani emerged in some photo with both of them smiling and, as the pictures would have you believe, getting along famously.

On the surface Khamenei seems to have done his job as balancer-in-chief and quelled the fighting for the time being. There was talk of MPs gathering signatures to summon Ahmadinejad to parliament for questioning–and in the most extreme case, to begin impeachment proceedings–but talk of this seems to have died down for the moment. Of course the criticisms haven’t totally been put to rest, and even after their chummy photo-ops there has been isolated criticism of the president for the same reasons as before. But in the short term, at least, the bleeding has stopped.

With regards to the clergy, I have a strong suspicion the re-introduction of the extremely controversial family planning bill was meant as a gesture to either satisfy or distract those conservatives who were criticizing the president for being to lax in enforcing Islamic morals. Better still, it is being debated in and must be passed by the parliament, so the hardline clerics can focus their wrath on MPs who, like they did today, vote down an amendment legalizing temporary marriages. Qom seems to have quieted down and calls for the head of Rahim-Mashaei are no longer mainstays of the news, so for the short term this mini-crisis seems to have been averted.

These tensions may have been swept under the rug and dealt with in the short term, but nothing about how this was done will stop these problems from re-emerging in the future. Rahim-Mashaei is going nowhere, and may have even racked up another job title, bringing his official appointments to upwards of 20, much to the chagrin of his (many) detractors. Ahmadinejad and Larijani may be smiling together now, but from what I’ve read there are no new solution or procedure established for instances of disagreement between the parliament and the president–of which there will surely be many more in the not-too-distant future. The conservative clergy may have their attention set on another issue, but when that one is dealt with there will surely be another instance of tension with the president, especially if he is, as some commentators have speculated, re-positioning himself as a Iranian nationalist to win votes from the disaffected (and irreligious) youth in the next parliamentary election.

With this said, I would expect to see more instances of heightened factionalism within the establishment in the medium and long term. Nothing has been done to address the root cause of their problem–the struggle for power amid the rising ‘neo-conservative’ block–and as elections approach and conservative factions feel more worried that they may meet the same fate as the reformists, they will fight back, and do so as if they are fighting for their very survival.

The determining factor will of course be Khamenei. In the past he has served his role as balancer-in-chief, making sure every faction is content and maintaining the broad support of as many groups and political blocs as possible. After the 2009 election he lost any pretence to be above the political fray and without a preferred faction, but at the same time, that was a choice he made when it was between the unpredictable but loyal Ahmadinejad and ‘seditious’ reformists. This dichotomy will not be repeated come the next parliamentary elections, so he may very well want to restore some credibility with other members of the establishment that have felt marginalized since July 2009. On top of this, Ahmadinejad may not be as loyal as the Supreme Leader may have previously believed, so he might want to humble the president and his ‘25 million votes’. It’s far too early to tell that far in advance, but we’ll get a glipse of this when the next conservative crisis hits. And that should be right around the corner…..


Part II: The Roots of Dissent

August 22, 2010

(continued from Part I)

As a bit of background, establishment in-fighting is in some ways the status quo of Iranian insider politics. The structural and political make-up of the Islamic republic lends itself to factionalism. Structurally, the state is composed of institutional bodies on top of the standard legislative, judicial, and executive branches. In addition to this usual triad there are clerical bodies like the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, and Expediency Council, and then revolutionary bodies like the Revolutionary Guards and bonyads (or foundations). These institutions add to the standard checks-and-balances of the state, and more important for the issue at hand, serve as additional places where various factions and political blocs establish themselves and compete for political relevance and access to resources. Simply put, the more routes to political power, the more factionalism.

Politically, factionalism within the establishment dates back to the Islamic Revolution itself. The forces that overthrew the Shah and ended 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran were anything but homogeneous. Revolutionary forces were made up of groups as disparate as aggrieved members of the clergy, leftist intellectuals, unemployed urban dwellers, neglected farmers, bazaar merchants, radical students, and various others. Their desire to oust the Shah from power overcame their differences in background and political outlook, but once that initial goal was accomplished their alliance quickly dissipated and in-fighting began in earnest. Even after leftist groups like the mujahedin were purged during the first decade of the Islamic Republic, the political establishment has been made up of these heterogeneous groups. They are united by their desire to ensure the survival of the regime—and hence, their own survival—but besides this have profound differences.

During the past year, the various conservative factions, located throughout the edifice of the regime, united to fend of the challenge from the Green Movement. Granted reformists were able to peel off some conservatives allies and create some important cleavages within the regime, but the major challenge the administration faced was from without rather than from within. At present the regime has–or at least believes it has–subdued the Green Movement to a manageable and non-threatening existence. For the first time in over a year it feels confident enough in its own staying power, and certain factions that earlier banded together to fight the ‘sedition’ no longer have the need for their alliances of convenience.

With that said, the recent wave of criticism aimed at Ahmadinejad should not be solely attributed to politics as usual. The content of the criticisms, their frequency, and their sources are more than the usual level of factionalism. It would also be a mistake to view some of the particulars discussed above as predictable responses to current events–mainly remarks by the president and his chief of staff. Sure, if Rahim-Mashaei had not extolled Iran over Islam, we would not have the damning criticisms from hardline sectors of the clergy. And if Ahmadinejad didn’t debase himself in a speech during an Islamic Republic-sponsored junket for Iranian expats, he wouldn’t have been lambasted by conservatives for his unsavory remarks. Yet attributing this discord simply to a few isolated statements ignores the mounting frustration with the administration that has come to a boiling point. The level of bickering, and the behind-the-scenes build-up show that this is more than usual establishment factionalism or isolated outbursts. The true root cause of these differences, like all things in politics–even in the Islamic Republic–is power.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters represent a new group in Iranian politics. Unlike most of the other establishment factions they gained their experience after the 1979 revolution, specifically, in the ensuing 8-year war with Iraq. They have very few revolutionary credentials–they were too young to be fighting against the Shah during the 1970s or working with Khomeini during his years in exile–but claim political authenticity from their sacrifices during ‘the imposed war.’ Their political ideology was shaped by the war as well, and both their foreign and domestic policy, particularly when it comes to dealing with dissent, is militant and confrontational. As has been widely discussed, their support base are paramilitary institutions like the revolutionary guards and basij.

There is still much debate about how Ahmadinejad initially came to power in 2005 and what groups supported him. Paramilitary groups lobbied and performed get-out-the-vote activities for him–among other irregularities–but he was not thought to be the conservative candidate of choice. That was presumed to be either the above-mentioned Larijani, or the current mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf (also of the pragmatic-conservative stripe). Still, when the second round of the elections came and the choice was between himself and political kingpin Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad became the de facto conservative option.

The Islamic Republic, after all, does not take kindly to outsiders, and there is no way Ahmadinejad would have even been allowed to stand for national office, let alone be president, without some kind of support from inside the establishment. Yet wherever this came from, and how much the Supreme Leader (or his son, as one theory goes) had to do with this, he still had his own distinct base of support–one that was clearly on the inside of the establishment, but independent from the more ‘traditional’ ones like those that back the Rafsanjanis and Larijanis.

Herein lays the problem: Ahmadinejad’s group, call them ‘principlaists,’ ‘neo-conservatives,’ or whatever moniker you choose, is running rampant throughout the establishment, stepping on toes and pushing other groups to the sidelines. Sure there are ideological, and even generational differences, but it’s really all about power. This was certainly a problem during his first term in office. But with one full term and one year of a second gone by, this group has been able to steadily gain more power through political appointments, institutional reshuffling, and of course economic payoffs for its base such as huge no-bid contracts for the Revolutionary Guards.

Ahmadinejad seems to be more confident after ‘winning’ 25 million votes last year. He is being even more confrontational with other establishment groups, ones that he may not have felt confident enough to take head-on in years prior without his recent ‘political mandate.’ These battles and the ensuring struggle for power is what is really behind the heightened criticism of Ahmadinejad. It would be nice to believe the criticism levelled at Ahmadinejad from conservative MPs about the need to respect the legislative branch is genuine, but these same people had no problem overlooking this when the reformist-dominated majles was being undermined at every term during Khatami’s tenure.

It’s not about policy, it’s not about ideology, it’s all about power. When Ahmadinejad’s cadre first emerged on the scene they were still small enough in stock and power that they were manageable–and sometimes quite useful during episodes of reformism. Now, though, they’ve grown in number and influence, are starting to push the old guard out, and can no longer be easily reigned in. The establishment–ironically, the same groups that had a hand in bringing them into power–are fighting back, now for their own survival.

(next, Part III: Looking Towards the Future).

Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad

August 20, 2010
(As an aside, let me apologize for the lack of updates over the past month and a half. I was traveling for a few weeks and then got caught up in a few other things after I returned, but I’m planning on returning to bi- or tri-weekly posts from here onwards)

People who have been following Iranian politics (and/or those dutifully reading my updates), know that infighting and factionalism is nothing new to Iran. Politicians, other power-brokers, and even clerics regularly snipe at one another, often jostling for power within Iran’s political labyrinth. Ahmadinejad and his administration have by no means been spared from such criticism from non-reformist factions and political blocs, and more often than not have been the target of this criticism thanks to their less than stellar economic track record. Yet in recent weeks the criticism directed at the Ahmadinejad administration–most notably pointed criticism of his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei–has reached a fevered pitch. What’s notable about this is where and who it’s coming from: the political establishment itself.

I’m going to do this in two three parts, since the background section came out to be much longer than I’d originally thought and I don’t want to have a 5,000 word blog post, and also because I’m dying to post something. So for Part I let me first outline the two major sources of this new round of criticism.

In Iran political parties don’t function like they do in the West, so it’s difficult to give an exact percentage breakdown of party or factional affiliation in the current parliament. Overall, though, the balance of power in parliament favors the group some might call the pragmatic conservatives. Although they support Ahmadinejad on matters of foreign policy, when it comes to matters of domestic politics, particularly the economy, they differ and often times clash outright with the president.

One of the major figures within this faction, and its chief leader within parliament, is Ali Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and failed presidential candidate (2005) who is now speaker of parliament. Larijani and Ahmadinejad have been rivals for years now, dating back prior to Larijani becoming speaker after the parliamentary elections of 2008, and have had increasingly public disagreements over policy. Previously Larijani, and other supporters in parliament, got into a huge row with Ahmadinejad over his plan to eliminate around $40 billion in subsidies. Ahmadinejad wanted a larger share eliminated and more control over this money, while parliament dug its heels in and refused, eventually settling on a compromise–with the intervention of the Supreme Leader–that favored the parliament.

The most recent installment of the Ahmadinejad vs. Parliament saga has to do with a $2 billion allocation from the oil reserve fund to expand the Tehran metro. Parliament has agreed to this  budget, but Ahmadinejad is simply refusing to implementing this. Part of the dispute–and the previous one with the elimination of subsidies–does concern differences in ideology and economic policy. But just as importantly, Larijani and his faction are incensed over the president’s refusal to implement legislation he does not want to. Very direct, and very public criticism has been aired at the president for his ‘dictatorial tendencies’ and outright disregard of legislative branch. While Ahmadinejad has indeed had a testy relationship with the parliament since his first term, relations between the executive and legislative have been virtually paralyzed, and important members of the dominant faction in parliament are firmly planting themselves in the anti-Ahmadinejad camp moreso than ever before.

It’s no secret Ahmadinejad has his detractors amongst the clergy. Previously these have come from two camps: reformists and traditionalists. Reformists have long been opposed to Ahmadinejad in particular and hardline political elements in general. The traditionalist or ‘quietest’ faction has been more restrained and cautious, but since last years election has in several instances spoken out against certain excesses or transgressions by the government, such as–and keep in mind this is not the faction as a whole, but isolated members coming from their ranks–prison abuses at Kahrizak prison, the post-election crackdown, and most importantly, attempts to undercut the influence of clerical bodies like the Expediency Council or twhat they perceive to be the administration not strictly abiding by the wishes of the Supreme Leader.

What is new, however, is the heat Ahmadinejad is getting from hardline clerics that previously made up his religious supporters. Clerics such as the uber-hardline Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president) have criticized Ahmadinejad and his administration for not enforcing the annual summer crackdown on ‘immodest clothing.’ More recently, the president has come under fire for his choice of words during a speech he gave during a government-sponsored conference of Iranian expats. I won’t even begin to try to explain and translate the one phrase he used that has attracted ridicule and scorn from amongst the clergy–and has served as an endless source of jokes in the Persian blogosphere–but the main point is that he is being dressed down for making inappropriate statements and acting embarrassingly unpresidential.

It could be argued that some of the people behind this criticism weren’t so much firmly in the Ahmadinejad camp as they were in the Khamenei camp. Mix in the most serious crisis the Islamic Republic has ever faced after the birth of the Green Movement, and clerics united behind the more pressing threat from the reformists. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Even in Qom.

But not all the criticism Ahmadinejad has garnered amongst the clergy can be explained by this. It has even come from Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s spiritual and religious mentor, a man many believed to be the sort of clerical Svengali behind Ahmadinejad and a potentially horrifying choice to succeed Khamenei. He’s been on record as saying there is no need for the ‘republic’ portion of the name ‘Islamic Republic of Iran,’ since a truly Islamic state gains its legitimacy solely from above. Conspiracy theories about him abound, but he is also believed to be behind the shadowy (and outlawed) hojattieh society that that preaches a radical, millenarian ideology of hastening the return of the hidden Imam, of which Ahmadinejad is a member.

Specifically, Mesbah-Yazdi–along with numerous other conservative and hardliner elements from the clergy and elsewhere–has strongly condemned recent comments made by Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief-of-staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. Rahim-Mashaei was already a lightning rod of criticism for Ahmadinejad before this and a symbol of the administration’s cronyism and nepotism (Ahmadinejad’s son is married to Rahim-Mashaei’s daughter). He’s seen as insufficiently Islamic and not fully committed to the governing ideology of the Islamic Republic, and when Ahmadinejad tried to appoint him as first vice-president after the June 2009 election a huge firestorm erupted within the establishment. Rahim-Mashaei’s comment that Iran should be friends with all the world, “even Israelis”, was echoed over and over again by hardliner elements of the clergy as proof he was unfit for office. (As an important side note, while denunciations of Israel are part and parcel of Iranian hardline rhetotic, it was just as much Rahim-Mashaei’s stubborn refusal to apologize or modify his statements in the face of a massive backlash as much as it was the content of what he said). Eventually with the intervention of the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad conceded and withdrew his nomination. Though in what many saw as a rebuke to Khamenei, Ahmadinejad turned around and appointed him chief-of-staff.

The most current episode of Rahim-Mashaei drama comes from the same diaspora conference when he said that “without Iran, Islam would be lost” and, “If we want to present the truth of Islam to the world, we should raise the Iranian flag.” For the hardline clergy this was tantamount to blasphemy. The editor of the leading hardline newspaper, whose head is appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, called the movement behind the president the ‘third pillar of sedition’ (note: the word he used for sedition, fitna, is the same used when labelling the reformists). Mesbah-Yazdi cautioned that “We did not sign a brotherhood pact with just anyone. If somebody deviates from the right path, first we advise him and then we beat him with a stick.” These choice of words may seem tame by tabloid standards, but they’re uncharacteristically harsh ones from ayatollahs. More importantly, this is coming from the last cleric one would ever think would go after an associate of Ahmadinejad. The president may very well be faced with a choice of which advisor he wants to continue on with: the messianic religious mentor or the loyal, nationalist right-hand man.

(continued tomorrow)