By Sanam Vakil
These are tense times in
Even in the short period of mid-June to mid-July 2008,
* intimated that it might be willing to negotiate over its nuclear programme in response to the "freeze-for-freeze" offer extended by the "group of six" (
* been subjected to more sanctions imposed by the European Union that limit the international access of
* responded to Israeli war-games and American covert moves by test-firing medium-range and long-range missiles; threatening to launch thousands more in the event of an attack; and announced large-scale air-force military exercises
* seen the French company Total withdraw from a natural-gas development project over fears of increased business and political vulnerability.
What is unusual is that this whirlwind of activity has occurred with little accompanying commentary from
It is no wonder, then, that the criticism of the president escalated in the first half of 2008. Ahmadinejad is the main target of public jokes circulated through text-messages and email, and he has earned the ire of the clerical and factional elite; he has also gained a worldwide reputation for his confrontational politics and flamboyant statements. His many detractors are enjoying the widespread public disapproval of the regime's most prominent face in the hope that he could be discredited and discarded - perhaps even in advance of the presidential elections scheduled for mid- 2009.
There is a danger, however, of reading too much into the political moment; of overplaying the contrast between
A president under fire
Thus, analysts of
It is striking that the chorus of voices raised against Ahmadinejad does sound louder at present than that directed at his predecessors, and his own public utterances (such as a live TV address on 14 July 2008) somewhat quieter. In a sign of internal tensions, the foreign-policy adviser to
The most consistent of the attacks Ahmadinejad has been experiencing - and not entirely without retaliating - have focused not on the nuclear issue but on the country's growing economic pressures. These criticisms target his alleged mismanagement of the economy, where the income boost from high oil prices is counterbalanced by inflationary trends so serious that the central-bank governor said in May 2008 that the president's decision to set bank interest-rates well below the inflation-rate would prove unworkable. More recently, the president's bitter foe Hashemi Rafsanjani admonished Ahmadinejad for appointing inexperienced cabinet ministers in place of tested incumbents. It's true that since his election in June 2005, the president has replaced scores of officials with appointees from among his former colleagues in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the
A routine disdain
The internal fire on the president over the economy and the nuclear issue has been severe enough. But even more damning has been his run-in with the clerical establishment over doctrinal issues.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed in a speech in June 2008 - the latest variant of a familiar theme - that his government's policies have been directed by the "twelfth imam" (or the Mahdi - the key "hidden" figure in a certain interpretation of Shi'a Islam, who has been in "occultation" for overa millennium). Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, among others, criticised Ahmadinejad for invoking the Mahdi's name in vain. Three clerics - Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, and (again) Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani - also resoundingly called on Ahmadinejad to take responsibility rather than blame his opponents for the economic troubles
Several former presidents, among them Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, were routinely the target of similar criticisms during their term in office. Rafsanjani's tenure came in the aftermath of the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution of 1979, and the humiliating conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Rafsanjani tried to accelerate economic reconstruction via a pragmatic liberalising policy, and sought to reinforce this by moderating
Mohammad Khatami succeeded Hashemi Rafsnajani in 1997. He rode to power on a wave of reformist sentiment, but his progressive ambitions - including encouragement of civil society - provoked a backlash. The new freedoms he promoted were embraced by the general population (especially the young) but were viewed with suspicion in conservative circles and those who held the levers of power.
The first of many newspapers to be targeted was Salam, whose closure in July 1999 provoked a large-scale student protest which ended in violence, death and many casualties. These indeed were
A system of factions
The nature and history of the Iranian political system stimulates factional competition, and as such further perpetuates the cycles of criticism and rivalry within the political establishment. The tripartite ruling system of president, parliament and judiciary is modelled on France's contemporary governing structure - though, befitting the contrast between a theocratic and a secular state, the Tehran regime includes a number of clerical "oversight" bodies (such as the Guardian Council) whose members are appointed by the supreme leader. These operate a special system of checks and balances that both monitors and constrains the reach of the other state institutions; the combination highlights the way that in
The unifying presence and aura of the charismatic leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, meant that during his tenure the tendency towards factionalism was contained. To a great degree this remained true throughout the period of post-1979 revolutionary consolidation and of the Iran-Iraq war and its national mobilisations. But after Khomeini's death, the ascent of Ayatollah Khamenei to the position of supreme leader and velayat-e-faqih (or guardianship of the Islamic jurist) fuelled antagonism within the political system (and in particular the clerical establishment). Khomeini himself had handpicked his successor, yet Khamenei lacked great public or clerical support. Many religious figures regarded Khamenei with disdain on the grounds of his limited clerical education; he had, for example, never obtained the theological credentials that the position of the velayat-e-faqih required. These circumstances guaranteed that factional rivalries, even around the supreme leader himself, would persist.
A fury for fissure
Thus, although Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have sought to portray himself as a steady beacon of calm and unquestioned guidance, he too has been an integral part of
In the event, the constituency in which he sought to foment a new base of support for his political power was among the ideological underclass of the revolution. There, in the IRGC and other militant supporters of the revolution, Khamenei surrounded himself with a cadre of loyal adherents of the revolutionary creed that would protect and preserve the hard core of the Islamic Republic - and in the process, enable the supreme leader to consolidate his own power.
Ayatollah Khamenei has used to his advantage both the institutional control the Iranian system affords him and its potential for factional advantage. This has included, for example, exerting influence on unelected institutions such as the Guardian Council to vet candidates prior to elections and to negate legislation passed by the majlis. Such moves have enabled Khamenei to consolidate the power of conservatives within the Islamic Republic - as reflected in the local elections of March 2008, where only clerically approved candidates were permitted to run for political office.
The web of
The character of the problems, pressures and criticisms surrounding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - economic, nuclear, political, ideological - may alter in the period ahead. An armed attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, or the election of a new United States president committed to dialogue with Tehran could, for example, have unexpected effects on Iran's political outlook. But the underlying and longer-term institutional realities of this (now) almost thirty-year old regime endure: and factional politics is one of the most rooted.
This makes the dissection of the shifting cycles of power and influence inside the system both difficult and necessary; but it also means that the significance of the mutual attacks and open or coded denunciations that often dominate
Sanam Vakil is an adjunct professor and visiting scholar at the