Part II: The Roots of Dissent

(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).

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2 Responses to “Part II: The Roots of Dissent”

  1. Part III: The Future of Factionalism « HGU's Blog Says:

    […] HGU's Blog Thoughts on Iran « Part II: The Roots of Dissent […]

  2. Part III: The Future of Factionalism « ryangwhite Says:

    […] (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. […]

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