Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad

(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.

Parliament
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.

Clergy
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)

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2 Responses to “Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad”

  1. Part II: The Roots of Dissent « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « Part I: The Establishment Takes Aim at Ahmadinejad […]

  2. Part II: The Roots of Dissent « ryangwhite Says:

    […] (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. […]

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