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Opinion | Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The Reformer


11 Apr 2011 23:00Comments


Iranian government structure, international political rhetoric occlude reform's most viable prospect.

[ comment ] From the perspective of a casual observer or even the most seasoned political journalist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no reformist politician. His international reputation is forged through bombastic claims and nationalistic paranoia that terrify Israeli leaders and alarm the domestic political opposition. During speeches at the United Nations he criticizes Western powers and foreign cultural values. Religion is no small force in his personal and political life, which makes secular opponents uneasy and stokes the fires of confrontation. Skepticism about the Holocaust and contentious international alliances create the image of a fiercely proud national leader, willing to pursue any means necessary to forcibly return Iran to an era of dominance reminiscent of Cyrus the Great.

Many of these observations are grounded in truth, yet Ahmadinejad remains misunderstood by Western observers. Reciprocal alarmism is natural given his powerful rhetoric, but does this truly illuminate the president of Iran? Or are we presented with a caricature of our deepest fears? Examining Ahmadinejad within the context of the Iranian political system, his more recent actions call into question the conventional assumption that he is a "hardliner." This is not to suggest that he is not a political conservative, nor that he is a liberal reformist, but Ahmadinejad and his supporters may actually represent the strongest possibility for reform of the Iranian political system.

A break from the past

Political dynamics are changing in the Iranian state. With a looming break from the revolutionary leadership and insatiate yearning for the expansion of social and political freedoms, the clerical establishment is beset from the left and the right of the ideological spectrum. Political infighting between the republican and religious wings of governance are not a new phenomenon. There has always been opposition to authority from the Islamic left in Iran. Yet a challenge from the right, which appropriates the populist message of reform in the name of development, creates insurmountable problems for Qom, the holy city that is the seat of the ayatollahs' political power.

Since the cataclysmic events of June 2009, we have witnessed a series of confrontations between Ahmadinejad's next generation of conservatives and a clerical establishment that controls the ultimate seat of power in the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his allies in the parliament, judiciary, and security apparatus have clashed with the Ahmadinejad administration over social, economic, and security issues. There is a tangible break with the past that was made manifest with the 2009 presidential election. Who acclimates to this emerging generational shift will define future power in the Iranian state.

June 2009

Ahmadinejad's declared victory over Mir Hossein Mousavi resulted in an unprecedented display of international protest. It was Khamenei who certified his victory and authorized the violent force with which opposition protests were met in the election's aftermath. The system's enforcement mechanisms operate under the auspices of the Supreme Leader. The Basij militia, intelligence apparatus, and elements of the Revolutionary Guard's internal security force brutally repressed a blossoming Green Movement in the name of the Islamic Republic's order and stability.

Reportedly, Ahmadinejad did not take these actions in stride. According to a WikiLeaks report, he argued with the political establishment over the repressive methods used to quell the protestors. The president was reportedly confronted and physically struck by Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammed Ali Jafari after he suggested it would be necessary to expand social and political freedoms in response to the protesters' demands. Ahmadinejad was subsequently blamed by many traditionalist hardliners for emboldening the reformist opposition and exacerbating the crisis.

Jafari is known as a staunch conservative, and it is widely believed that he was appointed head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2007 to counterbalance Ahmadinejad's growing influence and popularity. Khamenei and his closest advisers had the foresight to see this coming confrontation and sought to stem ideological fractioning in hopes of mitigating potential damage within the unpredictable nature of any crisis scenario. A large movement possessing the political and social legitimacy of the people, backed by the state's dominant security force, can lead to the downfall of an autocratic regime if economic conditions are right. As we have seen in Egypt and the protest movements of the Arab Spring, this is a credible fear for dictators of any stripe.

June 2009 provided a crisis of the highest order, but the alliance between the Supreme Leader and the president overwhelmed any dissension. Khamenei wanted to prevent the rise of a credible opposition and Ahmadinejad endeavored to keep his influential office. In the short term, Khamenei needed Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad needed Khamenei. Together, with their joint control and popularity among the Revolutionary Guards, this alliance maintained the status quo. Secured with the continuation of their positions, and no prospect for reelection in the next presidential cycle, ideological differences came to the fore and Ahmadinejad began to make his move.

Heir apparent

Ahmadinejad appointed Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei to first vice president in opposition to Khamenei's wishes. Mashaei has a divisive reputation and has publicly stated Iran is a friend to all peoples of the world, including Israel and the United States. This rhetoric directly undermines the view of the clerical establishment, which demonizes the West and its long history of foreign intervention -- yet another anachronistic remnant of the Khomeini era. Mashaei has championed an Iranian school of Islam and emphasized the importance of modernity in redressing social and economic stagnation. He has called for a secular-nationalist government and the lifting of cultural restrictions on women and minorities.

Even former President Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist chief executive from 1997 to 2005, never so brazenly defied the Supreme Leader and his power base. Only when Khamenei appeared on national television to denounce the move did Ahmadinejad rescind Mashaei's vice-presidential appointment, as he is constitutionally required to obey the Supreme Leader in this regard. Undeterred, Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei as presidential chief of staff in direct rebuke of Khamenei's authority. During Mashaei's transitional ceremony from his previous position as vice president of tourism, Ahmadinejad commented on their close relationship: "One of the reasons to like him is that when you sit with him and talk, there is no distance with him. He is like a transparent mirror. Unfortunately not many people know him."

Mashaei is but a single indication of Ahmadinejad's willingness to liberalize elements of Iranian society in the name of development, a critical foundation for expanding regional and international power. There is speculation Mashaei is Ahmadinejad's favored successor in the 2013 election, and considering their close relationship and family ties (Mashaei's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son), it stands to reason Mashaei will be a primary contender for the next generation of conservatives -- barring intervention by the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for many elective offices.

Nuclear compromise, economic circumvention

Concerning Iran's nuclear program, Ahmadinejad was reportedly prepared to compromise with the Western powers in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and increased access to global markets. Iran has proven resilient despite the restrictions imposed on it, but in the interest of development and jumpstarting a lethargic economy, this would presumably be highly effective. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told U.S. Assistant Security of State Phillip Gordon that Ahmadinejad was amicable to the idea, but faced intense pressure from hardliners that he characterized as based on "psychological factors" instead of "substance," which nonetheless resulted in him abandoning the compromise offer.

Ahmadinejad has taken audacious steps in reducing government subsidies, undermining what many regard as inherent rights within the Islamic Republic. Those measures have been accompanied by others including banking reform, tax restructuring, and continued rationing in various sectors. The transitional economy has gone through a significant transformation after decades of corruption, inefficiency, and patronage that many have accused Ahmadinejad of exacerbating. While this may have been true, it would be impossible to identify Ahmadinejad as lackadaisical. Macroeconomic reform requires a significant amount of time to take effect. For better or for worse, the economic landscape is now changing more dramatically than under any attempt by the so-called reformists.

These economic reforms, agreed to by much of the traditionalist camp in the Iranian parliament, are seen as a necessity for development and sustainability. The long-term impact of removing state subsidies has yet to be seen. If Ahmadinejad is successful in his efforts to circumvent the short-term ramifications by injecting citizen's bank accounts with cash, he may skirt negative political fallout while simultaneously distancing himself from the clerical regime.

Religious undercurrents

This widening separation is compounded by hardline attacks on Ahmadinejad. The clergy view him as a radical threat to their basis of legitimacy, especially in light of his avowed belief that he and his followers have a direct connection to God and do not require religious guidance in their conduct of governance. These views directly contradict the religious basis for political legitimacy in the Constitution. Whether political machination, or true religious faith, the effect is the same. A modern government does not need the ayatollahs to run the state, as they are ill equipped for such a task and have not met the needs of the people. Mashaei put it best: "An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran," he said. "Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clergy] are not horse racers."

Thus the clerical establishment's theocratic authority has been challenged. Ahmadinejad and his faction are drawing lines of greater distinction between themselves and the revolutionary leadership, indicative of the conservative schism and generational break, but also a politically necessary estrangement for Ahmadinejad. If he and his allies hope to challenge the legitimacy of the clerical establishment, they must separate themselves from the regime and move toward a more palatable nationalist view. In the process, they may find alliances in the most unlikely place imaginable.

A vision of the future

The government is stacked with the next generation of Iranian bureaucrats, a generation hardened during the Iran-Iraq War and now in contention with the traditional political hierarchy of clergy and elites that seized power in the 1979 Revolution and cemented a theocratic order with the 1989 referendum. Many are Western educated, and all have an interest in expediting Iranian development in the modern world. With his second term under way and a constitutionally limited political future, we are witnessing an emboldened Iranian president determined to chart a course for Iran away from economic stagnation and lethargic internationalism. How Ahmadinejad pursues this action in consultation with competing factions may prove to be either his greatest achievement to date, or the self-destructive pursuit of unbridled power.

Perhaps unnecessary tragedy may be averted if Ahmadinejad and his supporters can put aside their differences and overlook their bitter past with the reformist political factions. The reformists must similarly look to points of consensus in the interest of development through the expansion of social and political freedoms. This would be a massive undertaking and potentially the most difficult step in reform. Ahmadinejad is a polarizing figure whom many could never support or forgive, as he represents a regime that has carried out unspeakable atrocities over the last 30 years. The conservative heirs to this ideological view may not face so grand a hurdle, but there must be amends between these competing factions if legitimate and stable reform is to occur. Only a unified alliance of citizens, spanning demographics and political persuasions, can realize the vision of an equitable and just civil society in 21st-century Iran.

Whither Ataturk?

Political conservatives and liberals are constrained by systematic governance in an antiquated theocratic model. Expanding social and political freedoms in the name of development should be reformist values for both sides of the spectrum. Would such an alliance run the risk of a new brand of dictatorship? Potentially, but so do all revolutionary movements seeking to throw off tyrannical chains. A stronger civil society is possible for the Iranian people -- there is already a strong basis for it in the the republican doctrine articulated in the Constitution. If, however improbably, Ahmadinejad and the competing political factions can bridge their differences for the purpose of removing those constitutional mechanisms that legitimate the clerical establishment, a return to greatness for Iran is possible.

Michael Miner is a graduate student at Dartmouth College.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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