Foreign Policy Blogs

The Iranian Wildcard

While my (and much of the world’s) attention focused on the Middle East in recent weeks, the rest of the world has not stood around idly. In Pakistan, as everyone knows of course, Osama bin Laden was killed sixty kilometers north of Islamabad, where he lived in a fairly luxurious mansion, protected by thirteen-foot-high concrete walls and – probably – Pakistani military leaders. The fallout for the Pakistan-U.S. relationship is still rumbling along, with Congressional leaders rethinking the billions of dollars in financial aid that we send to Pakistan every year and President Obama himself saying on Sixty Minutes that OBL had a “support network” in Pakistan’s government and military. In China, artist and activist Ai Weiwei was arrested on April 3 and is currently still in jail, his whereabouts and condition – and charges against him – still unknown to the outside world.

The Iranian WildcardIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in Tehran on April 4 (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Today I want to think about Iran. There has been a struggle for power going on at the highest levels of Iranian government over the past month or so. It all started when President Ahmadinejad fired the minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei then reinstated Moslehi, and Ahmadinejad protested by refusing to show up for work for ten days. This was a mistake, said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii in a story on NPR yesterday. “He was told to come back to work in no uncertain terms. Many supporters of Mr. Khamenei went in public and essentially said over and over again that the president of Iran has no legitimacy or support or public standing unless the leader gives him so,” Farhi says.

At PBS’ Tehran Bureau, analyst Muhammad Sahimi did background research on the origins of the Ahmadinejad-Khameni power struggle:

…the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei goes back to at least 2007. That October, Ahmadinejad forced out Ali Larijani, the current Majles speaker, who was then secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. The significance of the move was not that Ahmadinejad had forced out someone who had run against him in the 2005 presidential election, but rather that Larijani has always been very close to Khamenei and has carried water for him for decades. More importantly, this was apparently done without prior consultation with Khamenei. In his place, the president appointed Saeed Jalili, a hardline ideologue and a close friend at the time. Ahmadinejad also fired Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, all of whom had been imposed on him. Thus, Ahmadinejad’s practice of forcing out officials in charge of those organs of the government informally under Khamanei’s control, namely, the Foreign, Intelligence, Defense, and Interior Ministries of — and, more generally, those in decision-making positions in the areas of security and foreign policy — is hardly new.

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei appeared to patch things up after the disputed 2009 elections. Khamenei stood by his president when the international media and Iran’s Green Movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, condemned the presidential election as fraudulent. Ahmadinejad tried to make the reconciliation official by kissing Khamenei’s hands during the inauguration ceremony – the first Iranian president to do so.

Ahmadinejad and his controversial but very loyal chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (who may have pushed the president to stop showing up for work after Moslehi was reinstated by Khamenei) have been involved in a campaign the past few years to draw power away from the clerical establishment. Their main ideological tool in this process is Iranian nationalism. As Sahimi writes:

Ahmadinejad, Mashaei, and their inner circle began invoking symbols of Iranian culture’s glorious history, in an effort to appeal to Iranians’ fierce nationalism. The government made arrangements to bring to Tehran in September 2010, for the first time since the 1979 Revolution, the Cyrus Cylinder, which is held by the British Museum. The Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus the Great (circa 600-529 BCE), is considered by some to be the world’s first human rights charter. That angered the ultra-conservatives and reactionaries, because for the first time since the 1979 Revolution a senior official was paying tribute to the history of pre-Islamic Iran. Moslehi publicly labeled Ahmadinejad’s appeal to nationalism a policy perpetrated by Iran’s enemies. Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi said, “Just because there have been kings in our history does not mean that we should be proud of them.” He also rebuked the president’s chief of staff: “Mashaei pays more attention to the Cyrus Cylinder than to the pious people.”

This is a stressful issue for the clerical establishment because it threatens the nature of the Islamic Republic as a nation based on the principles of Shia Islam rather than the Persian heroes and history of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei. In an article for Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel yesterday, Geneive Abdo discusses this struggle:

Ahmadinejad and Mashaie, whom the president hopes will succeed him when his term expires in 2013, envision a future Iran devoid of Islamic orthodoxy. This attempt to take Iran in a new direction has prompted accusations from high-ranking clerics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaie are influenced by religious “deviants” who believe in supernatural powers and djinns, or spirits. In fact, in the past Mashaie has said he can interpret for himself the Islamic texts, such as the Koran, and does not need the clergy — an enormous threat to the clerical establishment’s claim to religious sanction for their hold on power. In response, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told a group of IRGC officers and staff that, “In order to learn the religion, one must go to scholars of the religion and not to exorcists and monks. Which wise person would accept learning the faith from exorcists and monks instead of scholars of the faith?”

Abdo concludes that Khamenei’s Iran is preferable to Ahmadinejad’s – “It might seem counter-intuitive, but Khamenei’s survival and that of the clerical system is in the West’s interest. The alternative — a highly militarized state run by the Revolutionary Guards — would be much worse.”

But, she notes, “Not only would Ahmadinejad and Mashaie’s vision lead to the marginalization of Iran’s clerics, but it would also make it far less likely that Iran could exert influence in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine and continue to call the shots in Iraq. Without the clerical establishment, Iran would have no religious or moral authority to interfere in these countries, where Iran seeks to extend its political influence in the name of Islam.”

Ahmadinejad’s brand of foreign policy is based on a pragmatic view of how to expand Iran’s power in the Middle East and to strengthen anti-Israel and anti-Western groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Domestically, he enjoys the loyalty of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose leadership is well-connected with military and political groups throughout the Middle East. But his pragmatic, hard-headed, and militant foreign policy is creating friction with Iran’s identity as an Islamic Republic and its clerical leadership. Ahmadinejad, aided by Mashaei, wants to consolidate political power for himself and his allies by providing a competing ideology and character for Iran. But to go up against the Supreme Leader is a dangerous game. Khamenei in recent weeks has made it clear who is in charge. Several of Mashaei’s associates have been arrested on charges of sorcery, corruption, and demon worship. Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver puts these arrests in perspective: “There’s no sort of deep principles involved here…really it’s a battle between different Mafia-style political camps, each combating against the other camp in order to obtain political power as way of advancing their own group’s political clout.”

Ahmadinejad is now back at work, as is the intelligence minister. Better be more careful next time you antagonize the allies of the Supreme Leader, Mr. President.