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The Political Craft of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad | Part 2: The Great Balancing Act


29 Nov 2010 22:40Comments


Part 1: Too Busy for Birthdays

More than a year into his second term as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, fundamental questions remain about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is he a true believer? Is he a religious fanatic hell-bent on pushing the world towards Armageddon to precipitate the coming of the Mahdi, the Shia messiah figure? Or is he a populist using religion for political gain? The answer is significant not only for understanding the complex power structure of the regime and the fault lines between the various factions, it also bears on the future of the Iranian democracy movement, foreign policy, and the nuclear issue.

On the offensive

07+-+Seyed+Morteza+Nabavi.jpgThis past July 10, Panjereh magazine published an interview with Seyed Morteza Nabavi (pictured), which was picked up in full the next day by Jahan News, considered close to the intelligence unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The title of the piece was "A Deviant Faction is Being Formed Within the Principlist Camp."

Nabavi is considered a theoretician of the regime whose influence surpasses his official functions within the political organization he helped found, the Islamic Society of Engineers. Though Ahmadinejad is also a member of the ISE, the group supported one of his rivals, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, in the 2005 presidential race. Nabavi is also close to the Islamic Coalition (Mowtalefeh) Party and the conservative Combatant Clergy Association (not be confused with the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics of which ex-President Mohammad Khatami is a leading voice). He runs the Resalat newspaper and has stated, "The main concern of Resalat is the ruling ideology."

Nabavi had this to say about the "deviant faction" mentioned in the interview's title: "Young Principlists must be very careful not to fall into this trap.... This is a faction whose deviance is plain to see. They say that they have a direct link to the Imam Zaman. They want to put aside the clergy in all matters of religion, law, and politics," Nabavi added, in warning, "This faction of Principlists seeks Principlism minus the clergy."

It was unlikely that Nabavi had chosen this last phrase by accident. "Principlism minus the clergy" (osoulgarayi menhayeh rohaniyat) is clearly reminiscent of "Islam minus the clergy," a concept made famous by the prominent Islamic thinker Ali Shariati, considered an ideologue of the 1979 Revolution, even though he was at odds with the mullarchy and passed away in 1977 in Southampton, England, before the fall of the Shah.

"Theocracy is a system in which clerics, instead of politicians, assume political and governmental positions. In other words, theocracy is the rule of clerics over the nation. The natural outcome of such a [system] is despotism because the cleric considers himself the surrogate of God and the executor of His affairs on Earth," Shariati wrote. Elsewhere, he argued that in Islam, "an organization known as the 'clergy' does not exist and no one becomes a professional cleric. In Islam, there is no middleman between the people and God. Everyone is in direct contact with Him." Supporters of the regime will of course argue that Iran is an Islamic republic and not a theocracy.


Photo: Khomeini and Shariati posters side by side during the 1978-9 Revolution.

Without getting into the details or merits of Shariati's philosophy -- which can hardly even be summarized here -- it should be noted that his blend of Marxism/Socialism and Islamic reformation was extremely popular among the idealistic youth of the period. So much so that in the years leading up to the revolution, and despite numerous fatwas against him, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not take an official stand against Shariati. Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a confidant of Khomeini's, wrote the founder of the Islamic Republic a letter in which his frustration with Shariati is palpable: "The least of his sins is that he has given a bad name to the clergy. He described cooperation between the clergy and unjust governments against the masses as a general social principle. [In other words, he claimed] that the blade, gold, and prayer beads lie alongside one another and share the same goal."

In his interview with Panjereh, Nabavi was issuing a warning against an idea -- "Principlism minus the clergy" -- that, while not as extreme as "Islam minus the clergy," still had the potential to be immensely popular. So who are the "deviants" who would exploit this popular idea?

One indication comes from an interview given by Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance Mohammad Ali Ramin in September. "Instead of being active behind the closed doors of political parties, NGOs, or other Western-style institutions, our clergy should return to their mosques," said Ramin. He tempered his words by adding that he meant that the clergy could restore the central position of mosques in Iranian society and remobilize the devout population that had stopped attending them regularly.

The clerics, however, took a very dim view of Ramin's comments. "Nobody pays attention to what the deputy minister says," contended Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, head of the clerical faction in the Majles. "The main goal of individuals making such remarks is to remove the clergy from the [national scene] and take religion out of the government and politics." When radio host Ahmad Tavakoli (no relation to the Majles deputy of the same name) questioned Ramin about his remarks on a live show, the deputy minister lost his cool and insulted Tavakoli (listen to audio excerpt below): "Shoma ghalat kardid" -- "You had no damn right and there will be hell to pay."

Ramin lived in Germany from 1971 until 1994, when he was deported, allegedly for his links with neo-Nazi and far-right parties. He was unknown on the national stage until Ahmadinejad's first term, when he became a presidential adviser, most notably contributing to the president's negationist positions on the Holocaust. He was the organizer of the infamous Holocaust Conference in Tehran, to which he invited old friends from Germany, including Benedikt Frings of the National Democratic Party. It is doubtful that he would have made the comments about returning the clergy to the mosques without the consent of Ahmadinejad, who has yet to chastise him.

Ahmadinejad's aides presented other novel ideas about Islam and Iranian society over the summer. "There are many takes on the school of Islam, but our understanding of the reality of Iran and the reality of Islam is the school of Iran, and we must henceforth introduce the school of Iran to the world," said Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei at a conference for Iranian expatriates in August. The identity and mythology of the regime is Islamic, the basis for its power has been Islamic, and here was a very senior government official touting the school of Iran (maktabeh Irani), and not even the school of Iranian Islam.

The reactions from regime insiders were swift and unequivocal. General Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, Armed Forces joint chief of staff, said, "We consider such words to be a deviation and a crime against national security and an attack on the values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution." Regime officials almost always refer to the Islamic Republic and not the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As Habibollah Asgaroladi, secretary general of Supporters of the Line of the Imam and the Leader (a coalition of a dozen parties under the Principlist umbrella), said in response to Rahim Mashaei, "The basis for the Islamic movement and revolution was Islam, and the republic was based on the meaning of Islam. Imam Khomeini, at a time when there was mention of an Iranian Republic or a National Democratic Republic, declared an Islamic Republic, not one word less, not one word more." To stress the dangers of forsaking Islamic identity to patriotism or national identity, he added, again referring to Khomeini, "The Imam tried very hard to make the Arabs understand that as long as they called Palestine Arabic it would come to no good and that Palestine was Islamic."

"If Rahim Mashaei persists in his errors, we will not remain silent in the face of these perverted, nationalistic acts of conjuring schools [maktab-sazi enherafi nasionalisti]," said Ayatollah Abbas Kaabi of the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers and a member of the Assembly of Experts. "Mr. Mashaei's remarks about a school of Iran were all about conjuring up a nationalistic school [of thought] for Islam."

And there is the crux. Nationalism and patriotism are extremely popular in Iran, perhaps more so than religion. Two of the crucial slogans chanted in last year's opposition demonstrations were "Neither eastern, nor western, but an Iranian Republic" and "Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon. I give my life only for Iran." The patriotic song "Ey Iran," written in the aftermath of World War II and long a favorite of Iranians, has become something of an opposition anthem in the past years. Is it an accident that Ahmadinejad's chief of staff has brought up the idea of a "school of Iran" so soon after last year's unrest? Perhaps not.

Not only has the president not disavowed Rahim Mashaei's remarks, he has endorsed them despite the outcry by conservative clerics and regime insiders. "What we say is very clear. The government speaks with only one voice. [Rahim Mashaei] says the same thing, perhaps with a different vocabulary. Iran has had a singular role is developing a pure Islam. This is not nationalism," he insisted at a press conference shortly after the incident. He maintained his support in a speech at last month's conference on "Soft War" -- regime-speak for velvet or color revolutions -- held at Tehran University. "There are many takes on Islam...in the world. The understanding of Islam that is worthy of consideration for us has to be Iranian," he told the participants. "We believe Iran's culture and understanding of truth to be the closest to truth," he added.

Ahmadinejad's feigned crowd-pleasing statements, the Third Worldism he shares with the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, his attempts to assume a holy mantle while tapping into quasi-reformist and anti-clerical ideologies, and the appeals to the powerful social forces of nationalism and patriotism give the appearance of a cynical, populist streak in the president. Whatever his plans, not many observers believe that Ahmadinejad will simply disappear from the political stage after serving his second term.

The president is not the official head of any party, which would allow him to maintain a voice in the Islamic Republic's affairs. He seemed to be addressing this issue at the national gathering of representatives of the Supreme Leader in July when he stated, 'The velaayat and the Revolution have but one party and that is the velaayat party and God's party."

Velaayat can be a reference to the Supreme Leader or to the rule of the Shia messiah who is alternately called the 12th Imam, Imam Mahdi, Imam Zaman, or the Hidden Imam. He is said to have disappeared at the age of five in A.D. 874, initiating the ongoing epoch of occultation or absence. Shiites believe that Imam Zaman will return to this world to bring universal justice and brotherhood. The Iranian Constitution describes the principle of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) from which Khamenei derives his power as a kind of "surrogacy for the Imam Zaman," a notion expressed by the regime with increasing frequency.

Ahmadinejad may believe that he can occupy a central position within such a nebulous entity at the expense of the established groups. Certainly, the quick reactions of various political figures showed that this was their interpretation of the president's words. "The velaayat party has no basis in reality and the Imam [Khomeini] and the Supreme Leader have not referred to it even once.... Some people are creating disturbances among Principlists and we must be aware of this," Islamic Coalition Party Chairman Mohammad Nabi Habibi was quoted in Khabar Online, a news site close to Majles Speaker Larijani.

Planning for 2013

The president may be taking concrete steps to place his ideological stamp on the regime. In August, Jahan News reported that a "Principlist manifesto" (Ahmadinejadism?) was being drafted and that it would soon be submitted to Ahmadinejad. "This manifesto, which will provide a clear description of Principlism, will restrict the scope of Principlism to such a degree that individuals such as [Tehran Mayor] Ghalibaf and [Majles Speaker] Larijani will no longer be considered Principlists," wrote the Guard-aligned news outlet. (Ghalibaf and Larijani both ran in the 2005 presidential election, but failed to make it to the second round.) Majles representative Ali Motahari reached the same conclusion in an interview with Aftab daily, in which he accused "Principlist extremists" of devising the manifesto in order to eliminate Ahmadinejad's rivals. Motahari surmised that certain Principlists were taking this step in order to prepare for the next elections.

"It is a pity that the presidency lasts only two terms, because Ahmadinejad's record in this term has been much better than the previous one," said Mohammad Javad Larijani in May. Whether Larijani, an adviser to Khamenei and head of the judiciary's human rights commission, was attempting to gain the support of the president's loyalists for his brother, Speaker Larijani, or whether he was putting on a show of impartiality, the statement prompted some discussion about a possible amendment to the constitution. If Khamenei were to consider such an amendment to be expedient, it is quite possible that it would be railroaded through the legislature and Guardian Council.

However, it must be noted that unlike the U.S. Constitution, whose 22d amendment clearly sets a limit of two elected presidential terms, the Islamic Republic's Constitution says the following:

Article 114

The President is elected for a four-year term by the direct vote of the people. His reelection for a successive term is permissible only once.

In other words, a former president who has served two terms can run again after a lapse of one term. That is why Mohammad Khatami was able to consider (and reject) becoming a candidate in 2009 and how Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was able to run in 2005 even though he had already served two terms in the 1990s.

Some analysts believe that Ahmadinejad may attempt a "Putin-Medvedev shuffle." Former Russian President Vladimir Putin handpicked his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008 when he faced the same type of constitutional restriction. He subsequently became the prime minister and is expected to run for president again in 2012. There have been persistent rumors that Rahim Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, would play the Medvedev role in the Iranian scenario.

As described above, Rahim Mashaei is not popular among many conservative clerics and portions of the Principlist camp, who managed to convince Khamanei to block his nomination to the post of first vice president last year. Ahmadinejad enraged his rivals by quickly naming him as his chief of staff, which could not have occurred without the acquiescence of the Supreme Leader. This suggests a certain symbiotic relationship between the president and Khamenei, each considering the other as necessary to advance his own goals.

It would not be outlandish for Khamenei to accept Rahim Mashaei in the highest elected office of the land. One of Ahmadinejad's closest aides, he has voiced many of the same populist positions as the president. He is considered more amenable to some reformist demands and maintains ties to the trendy artistic community. He could therefore bring some of the opponents of the regime back into the fold. If he were to become president, Khamenei would be able to maintain the delicate, yet tense, balance within the power structure and regain some luster as an arbiter.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to disdainfully dismiss the preferred candidate of the Ahmadinejad camp, given the official claims that he garnered 24 million votes. "Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Masheai have pushed the Principlists into a corner in the sense that they say, 'We have more votes than anyone else,'" Alireza Namvar Haghighi, a political analyst in Toronto, told Radio Farda. "This is the Principlists' paradox. Either they have to say that these are not your votes or that there was some fraud in the elections. Therefore, they must come to some skewed compromise..."

Ahmadinejad's supporters seem to be laying the groundwork for a Rahim Mashaei run for the presidency in 2013. In September, Principlist Majles representative Behrouz Jafari announced the formation of the Justice and Welfare Front (Jebheyeh Edalat va Refah), a coalition of a dozen pro-Ahmadinejad groups in the legislature. Anti-Ahmadinejad conservative news outlets including Tabnak, controlled by former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, and Alef, run by Majles research center head Ahmad Tavakoli, reported that the coalition's main function was to support Rahim Mashaei. Hojatoleslam Abbas Amirifar, the group's secretary general, denied the allegation and added, "Mr. Rahim Mashai has not even declared that he will be a candidate."

"Some people seem to have an abnormal sensitivity towards Mr. Mashaei," Ahmadinejad said in a recent interview on the 20:30 news show. "I have complete confidence in Mr. Mashaei. I know him as someone who believes in the principles of the Islamic Republic, the values of the revolution and the Iranian nation. He is a person who believes in the line of the velaayat. He is a pure individual."

Beyond the official political organizations, Rahim Mashaei can also count on the support of the President's Young Advisers, a broad network of up-and-coming activists present in various ministries, presidential offices, and provincial governments. Rahim Mashaei happens to head this group, one of the dozen or so functions that he fills in the administration. Before the summer, he named Abbas Masjedi as his plenipotentiary representative within the group and instructed him to "expand the Young Advisers network throughout all ministries, independent organizations, vice-presidential offices, and provincial governorships by the end" of the Iranian year (next March 20), according to the Ahmadinejad administration's news outlet. The president and Rahim Mashai received a rousing welcome at the 4th Conference of Young Advisers on October 10.

A week later, Hamid Reza Afrashteh, Young Advisers deputy chief in charge of provincial affairs, spoke at a gathering organized by Islamic Iran's Group of 72 and compared Rahim Mashaei to some unlikely luminaries. "The Western world began a new life with thinkers such as Adam Smith in the field of economics, Russell in the social sphere, and Montesquieu in politics, and it began developing knowledge. Meanwhile, on this side of the world, we have continued our existence with passivity," said Afrashteh, according to Afkar News. Referring to Rahim Mashaei, he continued, "Now that one person has taken a leap and and has entered the difficult field of developing ideas and turning them into models, some people unfortunately do not tolerate him."

While Ahmadinejad and his supporters have advanced their agenda, they have continued to confront their rivals, not only among the Greens, but within the Principlist camp itself. Speaker Ali Larijani has been the main target of such attacks, which have splintered the Principlist faction in the legislature and managed to erode his support within the Majles.

On Sunday, November 7, Larijani barely squeaked by as the central committee of the Majles's Principlist faction elected its chairman. Larijani, the incumbent, garnered 25 of 47 votes, while his opponent, Shahabedddin Sadr received 20. Khabar Online, close to Larijani, falsely stated that he had received 44 votes, while IRNA, the government news agency run by former Ahmadinejad media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, correctly reported that the Speaker had won by 5 votes. (Clear election results apparently remain a rarity in the Islamic Republic.) Pro-Ahmadinejad Majles representative Hamid Rasaei wrote in his blog, "How will Ali Larijani's 'crisis of appeal' end?"

The G-72 website claimed in an article last month that Larijani supporters within the Assembly of Experts were seeking to modify the Constitution so that the president would be elected by the Majles because "they know for a fact that it is impossible for Larijani's name to come out of a ballot box, so their only recourse is to change the manner in which the president is elected." According to Raja News, Larijani had urged his brother-in-law, Majles representative Ali Motahari, to collect signatures from fellow legislators in order to force the president to come before the Majlis to answer questions about his policies, but that fewer than ten deputies had been willing to sign. Motahari had engaged in his nefarious campaign against the president "at the same time of the son of the nation's visit to Lebanon," Raja News reported in outrage, before turning to mockery: "Motahari obtained only two votes in the election for the central committee of the Principlists. Given that he cast one ballot for himself, only one other person voted for him."

The most noteworthy, and sinister, clash took place when pro-Ahmadinejad goons held a threatening rally in front of the Majles in June. The Ahmadinejad administration had been involved in a struggle to gain control of the assets of a vast network of universities run by Rafsanjani loyalists. Larijani managed to sway the Majles vote in favor of the Rafsanjani camp, thereby incurring the wrath of the demonstrators in Baharestan Square. One banner lofted by the protesters read, "A thief in the nation's house," while another insultingly asked, "Larijani, who the hell do you think you are to go against the Leader's opinion?"

Regardless of his apparently premeditated skirmishes with the conservative clergy and some Principlists, Ahmadinejad has been careful to radiate loyalty to Khamenei and the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih. His aides and supporters have followed suit. Mohammad Ali Ramin, deputy Islamic guidance minister in charge of the press, who last summer suggested that the clergy should return to their mosques, had an altogether obsequious attitude towards the Leader's recent "historic" visit to Qom (see video below). "One of the most beautiful headlines of recent years that I can remember was one that I saw in one of these newspapers a couple of weeks ago, on the occasion of Imam Khamenei's visit to Qom," he told a television interviewer. "It was 'Ghadireh Qom.' This was a very beautiful take on 'Ghadireh Khom,' meaning the people of Qom had risen up to welcome the surrogate of the Imam Zaman."

Not only did Ramin refer to Khamenei as Imam, rather than Ayatollah or Supreme Leader, but he compared him to one of the most inspirational figures of Shiism, Imam Ali. It was at Ghadireh Khom, or the pond of Khom, that the Prophet Muhammad appointed Ali, his son-in-law, as his successor in A.D. 632. Through his own surrogates, it seems, Ahmadinejad has figured out how to confer blessings even upon the Supreme Leader himself.

Homylafayette, a Tehran Bureau contributor, blogs here.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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