Magazine | May 25, 2009, Issue

Ahmadinejad’s Last Stand?

(Atta Kenare/AFP)
The meaning of Iran's upcoming presidential election

At first glance, a presidential election in the Islamic Republic of Iran might not arouse much interest. With all candidates pre-approved by the authorities, and the entire electoral process controlled by the government rather than an independent body, the exercise is a far cry from elections in a democracy. Moreover, the Council of Guardians — a twelve-member “star chamber” (six mullahs, six legal experts) answerable only to the Supreme Guide (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini) — could cancel the results of the poll. Even if that does not happen, the man elected president cannot assume his function unless he secures an “appointment decree” signed by the Supreme Guide — who can also order the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament, to dismiss him.

Not surprisingly, many analysts in the West minimize the importance of the president in the Khomeinist regime. They argue that since the Supreme Guide makes all the major decisions, the presidency hardly matters. The Obama administration seems to have accepted that analysis and to be basing its Iran policy on a quest for direct contact with Ali Khamenei.

Nevertheless, Iran’s presidential election, scheduled for June 12, looks different if one considers it a primary within the ruling Khomeinist establishment. Although all candidates in effect belong to the same “party,” it matters who will be in charge of the executive branch in Tehran for the next four years. The winner will have considerable influence on Iran’s domestic policy, its regional ambitions, and its relations with the U.S.

The upcoming election — in which the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is running for a second four-year term — is also important because it enables rival factions within the ruling elite to fight out their differences without recourse to violence and bloodshed. The Khomeinists have no qualms about killing real or imagined dissenters from outside the establishment, but critics inside the regime often get a chance to air their views at election time without fearing for their lives. Within the constraints noted above, Iranian elections are genuinely competitive, and the vote counting is fairly honest. Therefore, the election provides a snapshot of the state of opinion among both the ruling elite and Iranian society at large.

That the president makes a difference can be seen by comparing Ahmadinejad’s performance with that of his immediate predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005. Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, did not abandon any of the regime’s strategic goals, nor did he introduce any reforms in domestic or foreign policy. He did, however, tone down the regime’s incendiary rhetoric; he kept its terrorist clients, notably the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, on a tight leash; and, as part of a policy of dialogue with the European Union, he agreed to suspend (temporarily) Iran’s controversial uranium-enrichment program.

In contrast, Ahmadinejad has sharpened the regime’s rhetoric; intensified the policy of attacking American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; urged Hezbollah into a military clash with Israel, and Hamas into staging a coup against its Fatah rivals in Gaza; and ordered an acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program. Where Khatami spoke of a “dialogue of civilizations,” perhaps without meaning it, Ahmadinejad talks of a “clash of civilizations,” and appears to mean it. (He has hosted international seminars under the titles “A World without America!” and “A World without Israel!”)

Khatami engaged in back-channel negotiations with the Clinton administration and offered concessions to the United States in the context of a “grand bargain.” In contrast, Ahmadinejad has aimed at “total victory” over the American “Great Satan,” and he claimed to have won when, in March, Barack Obama sent a message with a tone of supplication to the Khomeinist rulers on the occasion of Iran’s New Year.

Rhetoric aside, the Supreme Guide still has the final say on all major policy decisions. But by controlling the resources of the state, including the all-important oil revenues, and appointing thousands of high-ranking functionaries in a highly centralized system of government, the president enjoys far more power than it might appear at first glance. Using this power, for the past four years Ahmadinejad has set Iran’s agenda in accordance with his own radical reading of the Khomeinist message. And the Supreme Guide has considered it prudent to endorse the president’s radicalism.

#page#Within the current hybrid system, a mixture of the French Fifth Republic and imaginary Islamic principles of government, the Iranian presidency can function in a number of ways. Ahmadinejad’s predecessors have followed many different paths. The first president of the Islamic Republic, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr (1980–81), saw himself as the symbol of Iranian statehood. He tried to use his powers as a counterbalance to those of the Supreme Guide, who was the symbol of the Islamic revolution. Bani-Sadr’s argument was that, with the fall of the shah, the era of revolution had to be brought to a close so that Iran could reemerge as a stable nation-state. Bani-Sadr lost, not only because he was no match for the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Guide of the time, but also because Iran had not yet overcome its revolutionary fever.

The second president, Mohammad Ali Rajai, saw the presidency as an instrument of continuing revolution — spreading Islamic rule throughout the Middle East and the world — alongside the Supreme Guide. Unfortunately for Rajai, his presidency lasted just 16 days in August 1981 before he was assassinated. But a quarter of a century later, it was his model that Ahmadinejad claimed to have adopted. The third president was Ali Khamenei (1981–89), then a junior cleric. In contrast with Rajai, he regarded the presidency as a largely ceremonial function, leaving executive power to be exercised by the prime minister. (In 1989, the post of prime minister was abolished in a constitutional amendment; that same year, Ayatollah Khomeini died and Khamenei succeeded him as Supreme Guide, which he remains today.)

The fourth president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–97), also a junior cleric, brought the executive branch under presidential control and at first decreased the role of the Supreme Guide. From a political standpoint, however, Rafsanjani’s mistake was to use his position to amass a fortune for himself and his entourage (he is now reputed to be the richest man in Iran). While Rafsanjani went for money, Khamenei went for power, so by the mid-1990s the balance within the Khomeinist establishment had began to tilt back in favor of the Supreme Guide.

The fifth president, Khatami, tried to restore some of the office’s influence and exercise his function alongside that of Khamenei. But since he was not one of the historic figures of the revolution, he lacked the stature to rival the Supreme Guide as Bani-Sadr and Rafsanjani had done. The sixth and current president, Ahmadinejad, has his own understanding of his office’s function. He sees the presidency as the vanguard of the Islamic revolution, especially in promoting its global ambitions (in part by backing militias and terrorists in other countries). In his schema, the office of the Supreme Guide represents the headquarters of the revolution, while the president acts as its field commander.

Ahmadinejad is the first president to be elected against the implicit wishes of the Supreme Guide. In the 2005 election, Khamenei’s favored candidate was Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who ended up fourth in the polls. (Khamenei’s son served as Qalibaf’s chief campaign manager.) Over the past four years, however, Ahmadinejad appears to have charmed the Supreme Guide with a mixture of studied deference and shameless flattery. This is why many observers believe that, despite efforts by some to promote a second Qalibaf candidacy, Khamenei may be more than happy to help Ahmadinejad stay in power for four more years.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s victory is far from certain. Some even suggest that he might be persuaded by “friends” to withdraw from the race, perhaps citing health reasons. The Obama administration, although prepared to bend over backward to please Tehran, would certainly love to see the back of Ahmadinejad, whose rabid anti-Americanism and denial of the Holocaust make him a problematic interlocutor.

Paradoxically, however, Obama’s election has improved Ahmadinejad’s chances of reelection. Reports that Washington is preparing public opinion to swallow Iran’s nuclear program as a fait accompli have also helped boost Ahmadinejad’s prospects. One common view is that voters in the Islamic Republic will see no reason to jettison a president who managed to outlive “Bully Bush” without conceding an inch and is now about to rub Obama’s nose in the dust.

#page#Still, Ahmadinejad may be vulnerable, on three grounds. To start with, his presidency has been the most divisive since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1980. He is popular with the radical Khomeinist base and enjoys strong support from the IRGC, the regime’s Praetorian Guard. Yet middle-class Iranians, who see him as a “peasant come to town” character exaggerating his revolutionary zeal to please his clerical masters, despise him. One reason for the quick and easy victory of the Khomeinist revolution was the late ayatollah’s success in reassuring the middle classes that it would not threaten their traditions and privileges. The populist and fanatical Ahmadinejad, however, frightens the middle classes, who remain powerful even in a system that claims legitimacy as “the revolution of the dispossessed.”

A massive mobilization of middle-class voters could make it hard for the government to arrange the results to ensure Ahmadinejad’s victory. There is a precedent for this. In 1997, a record number of middle-class voters went to the polls to prevent Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the regime’s favored candidate, from winning the presidency. Instead, they helped elect Khatami, who had entered the race only weeks before and had only a small machine behind him.

The second reason Ahmadinejad is vulnerable is Iran’s deepening economic crisis, brought on by a combination of falling oil revenues and a series of expensive populist measures. In March 2009, inflation was running at around 30 percent a year, an all-time high, while an average of 3,000 people were losing their jobs each day. To save his government from bankruptcy, Ahmadinejad has had to severely cut subsidies designed to help the very poor, who provide his strongest support base. If these masses stay away from the polls or vote for another candidate in protest, Ahmadinejad will be in trouble.

At the other end of Iranian society, the nation’s business leaders may put forward a candidate who would scrap Ahmadinejad’s populist policies, work to ease tensions with the outside world, and secure access to the financial and capital resources that are needed to weather the current storm. For example, the Islamic Republic may have to seek emergency loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in 2010 and 2011. The risk of facing a Western veto within the two institutions will be considerably lower if someone other than Ahmadinejad is in charge.

There is a third reason, perhaps the most important, that Ahmadinejad cannot be certain of victory. Some powerful figures within the religious establishment suspect Ahmadinejad and his IRGC supporters of trying to reduce the role of clerics in politics by claiming a direct link with the “Hidden Imam,” the last of the Twelve Imams of medieval days who are revered by “duodecimal” Shiites. According to prophecy, the Twelfth Imam will someday return to earth and, after an apocalyptic battle, usher in a reign of peace and spirituality. Since becoming president, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly hinted that he considers himself the Twelfth Imam’s deputy on earth, or else that his role is to prepare the world for the Imam’s return. Iran’s religious establishment sees this as a heretical challenge to their authority.

While Ahmadinejad has tried to charm Khamenei with obsequiousness and flattery, in practice he has indeed lowered the profile of the mullahs in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad is the first non-mullah since Rajai to serve as president. Under him, the number of mullahs in the Islamic Majlis has fallen from 94 to 27 (out of a total of 290 members). Ahmadinejad has also flushed hundreds of mullahs out of lucrative public offices. Singling out fat-cat mullahs for attacks is a constant theme of his populist discourse. Does it require much imagination to guess that Ahmadinejad, underneath all his Twelfth Imam talk, might have a secret agenda aimed at marginalizing the Supreme Guide and reorganizing the Islamic Republic as something closer to a secular revolutionary state?

One sign that Ahmadinejad may have a rough fight ahead is the decision by a rival faction within the establishment to field its strongest available candidate against him. For the last 20 years, Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenei has been mentioned as a possible candidate in successive presidential elections. In 1989 he was expected to enter the race to prevent Rafsanjani from becoming president. He did not. Eight years later, there was much buzz about his possible candidacy among those who expected him to represent the radical (i.e., religious) faction. Again, he decided to remain on the sidelines, giving tacit support to Khatami.

#page#This winter, when Mussavi’s name began circulating as a possible challenger to Ahmadinejad, few believed he would actually throw his hat into the ring. But in March, he did just that. This time he is being presented as the standard-bearer of the “reformist” faction. Khatami, who had announced his own candidacy, promptly stepped aside in favor of Mussavi. (Iranian presidents may succeed themselves only once, but there is no bar to leaving office and then returning to succeed a different president.) One reason for Khatami’s withdrawal was the campaign of vilification launched against him by the official media, which are controlled by Ahmadinejad. Khatami was accused of participating in a “global plot,” allegedly hatched by Freemasons and the Bilderberg Group (an organization of Western political and business leaders who meet annually and are the subject of many conspiracy theories), to “secularize the Islamic Republic.” The official media also questioned the sources of funding for the Baran Foundation, a think tank created by Khatami.

With Khatami out of the race, there is talk that the mullah Mehdi Karrubi, another declared candidate, may also withdraw in favor of Mussavi. Thus, the stage seems set for Ahmadinejad’s main opponents in the “moderate” wing of the regime to unite behind a single candidate.

Who is Mussavi, or Mir-Hussein, as his friends prefer to call him?


Born into a family of Azerbaijani origin 67 years ago, Mir-Hussein grew up in Tehran, where he obtained a master’s degree in interior decorating, hence his title of “muhhandess” (“engineer”). (Khomeinists attach great importance to titles. Ahmadinejad seldom forgets to mention that he has a Ph.D. in engineering.)

Mussavi’s family hails from Khameneh, the same village that produced the family of Ali Khamenei. The family claims descent from Moussa ibn Jaafar, the Seventh Imam of duodecimal Shiism. Based on that claim, Mussavi at times uses the title of “sayyed” (“sir”) to underline his noble Arab ancestry.

A painter and calligrapher, Mussavi has been president of the Iranian Academy of Art since 1990. After a brief flirtation with Marxism in the 1960s, he joined the thousands of educated middle-class Iranians who believed that only Islam could unite the people in a bid to destroy the country’s ancient monarchic system. The radical mullahs who pulled the strings in the late-1970s revolution used these middle-class allies to reassure urban Iran that regime change would not mean rule by the clergy.

Mussavi’s rise within the new regime was meteoric. In 1980 he became foreign minister, a position he used to accelerate the Islamic Republic’s move toward a militant anti-Western posture. In 1981 he became prime minister, a post he held for almost eight years. His premiership coincided with the Iran–Iraq war, during which he introduced rationing and austerity measures that hit the poor the hardest. His critics accused him of pursuing an economic policy modeled on North Korea’s “self-reliance” doctrine and blamed him for a dramatic fall in Iranian living standards.

In 1985, with the war still raging, Mussavi began secret negotiations with the U.S., hoping to get America’s help in the fight against Iraq. A few months later Rafsanjani, then speaker of the Majlis, opened a parallel secret channel to the Reagan administration, sabotaging Mussavi’s efforts to seek normalization with the Great Satan. This was the beginning of the Iran-Contra affair.

The two Iranian factions vied with each other for influence until, at some point in 1985, the Reagan administration decided that the Rafsanjani faction was potentially the more powerful and ended its contact with Mussavi. That prompted Mussavi to expose the Rafsanjani operation through a Lebanese magazine financed by his government. The ensuing scandal led to the shutting down of all channels between Tehran and Washington.

The episode enraged Rafsanjani. Once Khomeini was dead, in 1989, he engineered a constitutional amendment that abolished the post of prime minister, leaving Mussavi out in the cold, and got himself elected president. In one of those ironies of history, Rafsanjani now supports Mussavi as the lesser of two evils compared with Ahmadinejad.

After a silence of almost 20 years, no one knows what Mussavi’s politics are today. Is he the North Korean–style firebrand he was as a wartime prime minister? Or has he matured into an elder statesman with moderate views? The few statements he has made since announcing his candidacy have been marked by generalities, double talk, and slogans that could be interpreted any which way. He has said little on foreign policy. But the fact that he has not repeated the regime’s standard anti-American clichés may be a sign that he rejects Ahmadinejad’s policy of confrontation.

#page#He has distanced himself from Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, saying: “The crime has taken place, why deny it?” He has also said that although Iran’s nuclear program is “non-negotiable,” he would not rule out “adopting different ways of doing things” to defuse the diplomatic tension. Mussavi’s friends describe him as “reformist,” although he has given no hint of what he intends to reform.

Some Tehran analysts suggest that Khamenei may favor Mussavi, with whom he shares ethnic and family links (not to mention three decades of personal friendship), over Ahmadinejad, who has built his career with no help from the Supreme Guide. Mussavi has no significant constituency of his own and thus, unlike Ahmadinejad, is in no position to harbor dreams of reducing the role of the Supreme Guide. Finally, if and when Khamenei decides to welcome Obama’s outstretched hand, Mussavi, who has a history of negotiating with the Americans, might find it easier to enter the talks with an open mind. Ahmadinejad, carried away by his own rhetoric, might press for too many concessions from Obama, especially with regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, forcing the U.S. to withdraw its olive branch.

Since candidates have until early May to register formally, several other figures may yet enter the race. One possibility is Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis, who was the European Union’s favorite candidate in the 2005 presidential election. Qalibaf, too, is putting together a campaign organization, presumably while waiting for a signal from the Supreme Guide. One sign that it might not be all plain sailing for Ahmadinejad is the candidacy of Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the IRGC, who is certain to divide the radical Khomeinist vote. There is also a dark horse: Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, another former commander of the IRGC, who may attract a good part of Ahmadinejad’s constituency within the military and security services. There is even talk of Abdullah Nuri, a former interior minister often referred to as “Iran’s Yeltsin.” However, Nuri is the bête noire of the mullahs, including Khamenei, and his entry in the race would be seen as a direct attempt at regime change through elections.

The coming election has already presented a novel feature: It is the first in a quarter of a century in which none of the principal candidates is a mullah. The election may have other surprises in store that could affect Iran’s behavior in the next four years. For example, could it become the first presidential election in the Islamic Republic to be lost by an incumbent? For Iran, America, and the rest of the world, the answer holds much more than historical interest.

– Mr. Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist based in Europe. His latest book is The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.

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