Greens for Ahmadinejad?
by SAM SEDAEI
14 May 2011 03:11
[ opinion ] The controversy over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's unsuccessful sacking of Heydar Moslehi from his post as Iran's minister of intelligence shows no signs of ending soon. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's reinstatement of Moslehi prompted Ahmadinejad to stage a remarkable boycott of his administration's own cabinet meetings for ten days. While he eventually returned to the helm of the executive branch, the struggle between the Khamenei and Ahmadinejad camps is far from over, as new outbreaks of antagonism evidence on a daily basis.
The outraged reaction to the president's resistance to the Supreme Leader's efforts to exert and expand his authority, of which the Moslehi affair is only the latest example, has been further fueled by the behavior of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, closest political confidant, and the father of his daughter-in-law. In particular, Mashaei's repeated pronouncements emphasizing Iran's national over its Islamic identity have enraged the clerical establishment.
The conflict between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad appears to be rooted in the latter's aim to establish a new ruling model for the Islamic Republic -- one in which oligarchs replace clerics as the dominant class -- without changing the fundamentally Islamic character of the regime. Ahmadinejad is not only the first nonclerical president of Iran, he is also the first prominent nonclerical political figure who claims that he too receives divine revelations, thus threatening the Supreme Leader and the Shia hierarchy with obsolescence.
What is the impact of these historic conflicts on the Green Movement? Neither side of this struggle seeks to bring the kind of secular democratic system to which many in the movement aspire. So does the current turmoil make any difference for those Iranians who dream of an Iran with both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad out of power?
The answer is that while the conflict does not automatically affect the Green Movement, the current climate presents activists with the sort of opportunity for which they have been waiting. The reality is that the regime is most successful in its repressive activities when it is united. The more it is distracted by infighting and wrangling over control, the more space activists have to organize and plan. Realistic observers understand that any opposition strategy that seeks to emulate the "Arab Spring" that has bloomed around North Africa and the Middle East, and establish a true representative democracy in Iran, must include a rigorous effort to deepen the fractures within the regime in order to succeed.
The ongoing struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei provides that opportunity. The president seems to have enough of a following to allow him to forestall interference from the Supreme Leader in the daily affairs of government. But it is not an equal fight, and Khamenei and his conservative allies are quickly isolating and overpowering Ahmadinejad. Enough signatures have already been collected in the Majles to question the president, several high-ranking clerics have openly criticized him, and members of his inner circle have been arrested and accused of absurd crimes such as engaging in sorcery.
While some Green Movement supporters may enjoy seeing Ahmadinejad cornered and ganged up on, the present moment has significance beyond voyeuristic pleasure. The longer this struggle goes on, the longer the regime is distracted, the more divided it becomes, and the easier it is for the movement to shave off support from those rank-and-file members of the Iranian bureaucracy, the police, and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who are disillusioned and confused by the conflict and uncertain about their own long-term welfare in such an unstable system.
One way to do that is to organize a demonstration in support of the presidential office and its current occupant, Ahmadinejad. The very idea at first seems outrageous. Green activists have been struggling and sacrificing for two years precisely to remove Ahmadinejad from power. But what do we see when we focus on the strategic impact of such a demonstration? The reality is that no matter what happens, Ahmadinejad's second and last term is almost half over: he is on his way out. However, if he were forced to leave now, it would only benefit the Supreme Leader, removing the primary challenge to his authority. But a few demonstrations -- perhaps coupled with an online campaign -- could well give Ahmadinejad momentum and prolong the struggle.
This is what experts in civil resistance training call a "dilemma action": a nonviolent maneuver that places the opponent in a lose-lose situation. Consider the lose-lose situation that would be created by an open demonstration in support of Ahmadinejad. While on the surface, the demonstrators would seem to pose no threat to the regime as they would be supporting a sitting president, their action would be an implicit condemnation of Khamenei. Such a demonstration would also confound the Revolutionary Guards and other elements responsible for state repression: The campaign against Ahmadinejad is persistent yet still relatively restrained. The regime has not entered a phase in which the president's supporters are met with overt violence, as that would undermine Khamenei's decision to support him in the contentious election less than two years ago. In addition, Ahmadinejad likely has enough backing within the Revolutionary Guards that any effort to quash a manifestation of support for him would likely further deepen the existing fractures within the institution.
The fact is, whatever one's opinion of Ahmadinejad's general character and competence, he is correct in this case from a constitutional standpoint. Simply put, the Iranian Constitution endows the president with the power to appoint and remove any member of his cabinet. Khamenei's interference demonstrates that he rejects even the minimal constraints on his authority enunciated in the Constitution, which already invests a vast amount of unconditional and perpetual -- which is to say, undemocratic -- power in the Supreme Leader. If he can unilaterally violate the most fundamental principles of republican government, many Iranians are surely asking why the nation bothers to have a constitution or call itself a republic in the first place.
Those Green Movement supporters who adamantly reject the idea of such a campaign fail to recognize two points. First, they would not in the end be supporting Ahmadinejad personally, but rather the office of the president and the notion that the Supreme Leader must not be allowed to overstep his authority without being challenged. Second, despite the fact that the Green Movement emerged around the premise of opposition to Ahmadinejad, activists in any dedicated opposition movement cannot afford to be emotional if they are serious about being effective -- the practical outcome of plausible actions at any given time must be judged with a clear eye. Sometimes, the most productive long-run outcomes from a given perspective require engaging in seemingly counterintuitive actions in the short run. In the case at hand, an action that succeeded in giving Ahmadinejad enough strength to continue his present challenge to Khamenei would further deepen the divide in the regime. The only winners would be the Green Movement.
Sam Sedaei is the senior director of Iran Programs at Nonviolence International, and the executive producer of the forthcoming documentary "Resistance: Legacy of Nonviolent Movements in Iran 1978-1979 | 2009-Present."
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