Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad Battle for Power

Posted in Iran by Dan on July 25, 2009

Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quietly orchestrating Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's demise?

As if the domestic turmoil within Iran’s clerical regime could not get any worse, a political rift between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been created.  According to Iran’s state-run news agency, Khamenei has ordered Mr. Ahmadinejad to remove his preference for first vice-president…a position that would effectively take over presidential duties in case the incumbent dies, resigns, is killed, or gets tossed from his post.  Hard-line clerics in the Islamic Republic are collectively infuriated over Ahmadinejad’s selection: a man named Esfandiar Rahim Mashai who was once in charge of Iran’s tourism and culture department.  More noteworthy to Mashai’s appointment is the candidate’s relationship to the current Iranian president.  Mr. Mashai’s daughter is married to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s son, an extremely close tie that demonstrates the extent of cronyism within Tehran’s leadership hierarchy.  Such a controversial decision by the Iranian president could have the effect of further inflaming the reformist movement within the Islamic Republic…a camp that has routinely exposed their distrust and hostility to the often unqualified members of the executive.

Although Mr. Mashai is technically a member of Ahmadinejad’s conservative camp, his public statements and foreign-policy outlooks have gotten him into trouble in the past with Khamenei’s clerical establishment.  In 2008, when Mashai was speaking to the news media, he declared in a solemn fashion that Iranians “were friends of all people in the world- even Israelis.”  Such a comment certainly did not sit well with the Supreme Leader, someone who is known to engage in belligerent anti-Israeli rhetoric on a daily basis.  This does not even mention the Ayatollah’s policies, all of which directly threaten the very existence of the Jewish state at large.  With Mr. Mashai’s qualifications somewhat contradictory to Khamenei’s vision for the Islamic Republic and the Middle East, it is not surprising that he refused to accept his protégées selection for vice-president.  After all, with the Ayatollah being credited for President Ahmadinejad re-election victory, the conservative president would be crazy to publicly ignore the demands of Iran’s most powerful public official.

To great astonishment, this is precisely what Mr. Ahmadinejad is doing.  Despite calls by Khamenei for Mr. Mashai’s complete removal from the vice presidential cabinet, Ahmadinejad is refusing to appease the Supreme Leader’s desires: a bold decision that many certainly would not have predicted.  In a response to Ayatollah Khamenei’s disapproval, the president stated that “there is a need for time and another opportunity to fully explain my real feelings and assessment about Mr. Mashai.”  Translated into a language that we all understand, the president is not only casting away Khamenei’s orders: he is doing so in the most politically-motivated way at a time when the Islamic Republic is fighting a large-scale moderate movement inside the country.

There can be several motivations behind the decision-making of both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  First of foremost, it is clear that the Ayatollah is attempting to rebound from the turbulent election period that casted doubt on his ability to control Iranian affairs.  The fraudulent counting of the ballots that propelled the conservatives to victory has apparently had more adverse consequences than the Supreme Leader would have envisioned.  Not only have moderates assembled and voiced their frustrations over the election results on the streets…millions of young Iranians are beginning to question the very legitimacy of Ayatollah Khamenei’s rule.  By taking a harsh stance against the hard-line president, Khamenei is deliberately showing dissidents and supporters alike who the real boss is in the Iranian political process.  At a time when the Islamic Republic is encountering challenges that were previously unforeseen in the last thirty years, it is important more than ever for Khamenei’s camp to exercise the power that the constitution grants them.

Ironically, his decision to oust a potential candidate may actually show how desperate the Supreme Leader is in his current state.  After all, Ayatollah Khamenei has a history of hiding above the political fray.  The eight-year pro-reformist government under Mohammad Khatami did not even prompt the immediate response the Supreme Leader is now undertaking.

Secondly, in may be safe to conclude that Mr. Khamenei did not expect a rebuttal from his protégée president…considering the similar conservative and religious perspective that both men often surround themselves in.  It is hard to believe that Ahmadinejad would even consider selecting Rahim Mashai as his first vice-president, given the populists’ tirades against Israel and his public statements about western imperialism.  Even so, the reality that Ahmadinejad is gearing up for a potential showdown against the Supreme Leader is a testament to how insecure Khamenei’s leadership has become.  Twenty years into his stint as the top man in Iranian political and religious life, it appears that the June 12 presidential election has even frightened away his closest ally: both in personal and ideological terms.

It is much more difficult to uncover the motives behind Ahmadinejad’s defiance.  Certainly, the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan would like to continue the “he is crazy and suicidal” argument.  It is been all too easy in the past for these countries to publicly slam the president’s irrational remarks and provocative judgments.  However, bolstering this claim does not have a remote chance of discovering the strategic objectives that Ahmadinejad wishes to achieve.  With international opposition against the principles and tenants of the Islamic Regime (a government headed by Khamenei himself), Ahmadinejad may believe that the time is ripe for him to exploit Iran’s structural weaknesses.  By first appointing a preferred candidate, and then disagreeing with his “boss’s” demands, the president may simply be testing the waters…trying to determine how much political room he has to maneuver without being squashed by a higher power.

While a risky play, it is also a rational one, given Mahmoud’s personal liking for presidential authority and his keen interest in dictating policies to his subordinates.  Given the president’s “power-hungry” nature, it is more than natural for him to expand his duties in the hopes that the Supreme Leader will eventually lose control over essential matters of national security.  Let’s remember that Ahmadinejad was once a prominent soldier in the Revolutionary Guard Corps: Iran’s elite military unit that is expanding in both numbers and power by the day.

Could this be the start of a discrete, bottom-up Revolutionary Guard coup against Khamenei, orchestrated by Ahmadinejad in the hopes that such an action would permanently relieve his addiction to entitlement?  Probably not.  But if such is the case, we must ask whether a nuclear-armed Iran is better off being governed by an autocratic cleric or a revolutionary military figure.  I hope both options are off the table come five years down the line.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Ali Akbar Dareini and Lee Keath of the Associated Press contributed to this blog.


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