reflections

Jun 18, 2009 | 01:52 GMT

7 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Ahmadinejad's Rivals Still On The Move

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Demonstrations from both sides of the political spectrum continued in Iran late Wednesday, though — despite the revolutionary fervor pervading Western media reports — the chances of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi overturning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election remained extremely slim. As protesters continue to wave banners and victory signs on the streets of Tehran, however, a much more critical conflict among Iran’s ruling elite is flaring up behind the scenes. Former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander and defeated candidate Mohsen Rezaie on Wednesday posted a letter on his official Web site, demanding that Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli release detailed and accurate data on the election results. Iranian election laws stipulate that any complaints over election results must be filed within three days of the vote, and Rezaie claimed that the five-day delay in releasing data concerning the tallies raises suspicion that the vote was manipulated. He threatened to make "a request other than just a vote count" if the results had not been released by the end of the day on Wednesday. Though he did not specify what that request might be, Rezaie could be preparing to call for results of the June 12 vote to be annulled and a new election organized. Rezaie is one of several key figures in the political saga that has been unfolding since the election, which appeared to give Ahmadinejad a landslide victory over reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. Rezaie was one of the first candidates to back Mousavi’s appeal to the Interior Ministry, claiming voting irregularities and calling for a recount. Earlier, state-run Press TV cited a report from Iran's Tabnak news site in which an "informed source" claimed that Rezaie had evidence — based on national ID cards — that he had won more than 900,000 votes, much more than the 681,851 reported by the Interior Ministry. Rezaie is now stepping up his appeal. Rezaie likely knew from the beginning that he had no chance of winning the presidency. Even the 900,000 votes he is claiming would have given him only a little more than 2 percent of the total vote. Rezaie is a military man whose intimidating demeanor doesn’t appeal to most of the Iranian electorate, who blame him for dragging out a long and arduous war with Iraq in the 1980s. Rezaie is not a reformist like Mousavi, but he is a staunch opponent of Ahmadinejad. His presidential candidacy (and now his fuss over the election results) suggests that Rezaie’s agenda centered on diluting a crucial portion of Ahmadinejad’s support base. In addition to being favored by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in this election, Ahmadinejad draws support from much of the rural population, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Ministry of the Interior, the IRGC and the IRGC’s paramilitary arm — the Basij volunteer militias, which have been tasked with intimidating Mousavi supporters. But because he commands significant support among current IRGC members, Rezaie is now exposing a significant fault line in Ahmadinejad’s coalition. The IRGC — an institution with immense political and economic heft — was created to safeguard the Islamic Revolution. As supreme leader, Khamenei has placed a number of former IRGC senior officers strategically in senior political positions. For example, Rezaie — who served 16 years as commander of the IRGC — is now also the secretary of the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the president and the Majlis, has oversight over all three branches of government and drives strategic policy planning for the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani had much briefer stints in the IRGC and were in more junior positions, but they join Rezaie on the list of veteran IRGC commanders who have risen to political prominence. So, while Ahmadinejad has relied heavily on IRGC media and Basij forces to mobilize voters, he still has cause to worry about Rezaie, Larijani and other powerful figures (such as former IRGC chief Yahya Rahim Safavi, now a military adviser to Khamenei) who have pull in Iran’s state security apparatus and view Ahmadinejad as a threat to the clerical establishment. Rezaie is putting his political future on the line by taking a bold stance against Ahmadinejad, but he is by no means alone in this campaign. Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been mobilizing more conservatives against the president, and was instrumental in pressuring the supreme leader to order at least a partial recount of the vote. Larijani and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf are in the same camp, but are treading more carefully. Ghalibaf has kept mum on the issue (even though it is his city being overrun by violent protests), while Larijani used his leverage in the Majlis — as well as in the judiciary and the Guardians Council, through his family links — to order the Interior Ministry to probe suspected Basij attacks at a Tehran University dormitory. Larijani comes from a prominent clerical family, and many Iranian observers consider his views on the election to be representative of Qom, a bastion of Islamic learning and Shiite orthodoxy. In order to safeguard his close relationship with the supreme leader, Larijani has refrained from rejecting the results outright, but he is using the Basij violence to quietly air his protest against Ahmadinejad. Larijani, Rafsanjani, Rezaie and other traditional conservatives in the power elite are all quite aware that the results are unlikely to be annulled, now that Khamenei has made his support for Ahmadinejad clear. Even Mousavi, a member of the Expediency Council, is a product of the Islamic Revolution and, unlike many of his reformist supporters, has no interest in breaking with the state and disrupting the foundation of the Islamic Republic. These figures share a common goal of containing Ahmadinejad, who likely will waste little time before purging his rivals from positions of power. This will be easier said than done, however, judging by the growing strength of the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition that is working behind the scenes to keep the firebrand president in check. The United States is watching the situation closely but likely is not pinning its hopes on an annulment of the election results. U.S. President Barack Obama told CNBC on Tuesday that the policy differences between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad "may not be as great as has been advertised," and that Washington would be dealing with the same hostile regime either way. Though the U.S. administration thus far has avoided rejecting the election results outright, it has been careful to keep mostly to the sidelines while terming post-election instability as Iran’s problem to sort out. Any direct meddling in the election (such as the U.S. State Department’s reported request for message-distribution system Twitter to reschedule a period of maintenance, allowing the flow of information from Iranian tweeters to continue) would fuel the Ahmadinejad camp’s allegations of a "color revolution" and paint Mousavi as a puppet of the "Great Satan." Obama can try to keep up this balancing act, but once the Guardian Council gives its final verdict on the election results — a move expected in the next four to seven days — he will have to make a strategic decision. Obama has made it clear that he wants talks with Iran, regardless of who wins this election and despite past hostilities and hang-ups. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has already summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to protest "malicious" and "interventionist" statements by American officials concerning the Iranian election. Ahmadinejad is playing the anti-U.S. card not only to sling mud on Mousavi, but also to signal to Washington that any hope of negotiations will be lost if the United States does not respect the election results. This may be a tough pill to swallow, but Obama sooner or later may have to come to terms publicly with four more years of Ahmadinejad.

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