Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Political System Approaching Impasse
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.
The last debate in Iran's first-ever televised series of presidential candidate debates will take place on Monday. The debates among candidates seeking election on June 12 have been marked by vicious attacks from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — not only against his main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, but also against several other key figures within the Iranian political establishment. They include Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the regime's second most influential leader (after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). The president has made several serious charges against his opponents, laying bare the extent of the rifts within the state. Ahmadinejad claimed to have evidence that Rafsanjani (a former two-term president who currently heads Iran's two most powerful institutions) and his family accumulated their wealth illegally, and that Rafsanjani had conspired with an Arab state to undermine Ahmadinejad's government. He went so far as to accuse Mousavi's wife (an intellectual and dean of a university), who has been at the forefront of her husband's campaign, of securing her academic credentials through inappropriate or illegal means. The situation is serious enough that Khamenei, who had supported Ahmadinejad in his bid for a second term, criticized the president, saying, "One doesn't like to see a nominee, for the sake of proving himself, seeking to negate somebody else. I have no problem with debate, dialogue and criticism, but these debates must take place within a religious framework." From Khamenei's point of view, the polarization of state and society in the run-up to the election makes it all the more difficult to manage the rival factions, as he has done for the past two decades. Undoubtedly, this is shaping up to be the most important presidential election in Iran's history, especially because it is a bellwether of what is happening at a higher level: a potential unraveling of the political system that has been in place since Iran’s 1979 revolution. As we have noted previously, the cohesiveness of the Iranian state has been deteriorating, with a rift between the president's ultra-conservative camp and the pragmatic conservative camp led by Rafsanjani. The United States' offer of rapprochement has made the situation even more urgent, as Tehran needs to arrive at an internal consensus on the direction of foreign policy and seek economic rehabilitation. Ahmadinejad's policies have been exacerbated divisions that have long existed, especially since the 1989 death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Until fairly recently, his successor, Khamenei, kept this internal dissent contained by balancing between different factions that have controlled various state institutions. During Ahmadinejad's presidency, the internal struggle has shifted: Where it once was a matter of the policy preferences of rival camps within a conservative-dominated political establishment, it has become a situation in which the nature of the Islamic republic's political system is in question. Because he is the first Iranian president who is not also a cleric, Ahmadinejad sought to strengthen his position by claiming that his policies were guided by the highly revered and hidden 12th imam of the Shia, the Mahdi. This claim has unnerved the clerics: It undermines their privileged position, not only in the Iranian political system but also in religious terms. The implication of this is that if laypeople have access to the messiah, there is no need for them to rely on clerics — who historically have had tremendous influence among the masses. Meanwhile, the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is emerging as a powerful player in Iran, currently second only to the clerics. But as the clerical community becomes marred by internal disagreements and the aging ayatollahs who founded the republic anticipate the day when they will be succeeded by a second generation, the IRGC is very likely to emerge as the most powerful force within the state. The ayatollahs have used their religious position to control the ideological force; if they should become weaker, the non-clerical politicians and technocrats will have a tough time dealing with the IRGC. The first step in the trajectory of Iran will become evident with the outcome of the June 12 election. But regardless of who wins, the Islamic republic is reaching a point where the political system, facing a great deal of stress and strain, is likely to evolve into something else. It is too early to predict the exact outcome of this struggle, but what is clear is that the clerics are under pressure from many sides.