In recent months, the tenuous partnership between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been steadily deteriorating. But while the high-profile confrontation between the two men dominates the headlines, a more significant and wide-reaching battle is being waged across the Iranian political landscape. Far from being confined to a personal power struggle, the rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a manifestation of widening fractures and intensifying rivalries within the conservative establishment.
Although factional rivalries have long plagued Iranian politics, the current conflict is threatening the stability of the Islamic Republic at a critical juncture. With mounting challenges both at home and abroad, the government can ill afford to let political infighting spiral further out of control. However, insofar as the conflict represents a clash between two fundamentally conflicting outlooks on Iran’s future, it is unlikely that the crisis will be resolved any time soon.
Beginning with Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election to his first presidential term, two conservative factions have dominated Iran’s political establishment: the pragmatic conservatives and the ultranationalists.
The pragmatists, representing the Islamic Republic’s traditional “Old Guard,” generally support the continuation of clerical rule and the expansion of Iran’s influence abroad, though they also recognize the need to reform and modernize Iran’s economic and political systems. Members of this faction often have ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and to elite clerical and bazaari families. Many are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who served in the early days of the IRGC when it was primaeily a force for trumping internal factionalism rather than the massive military-economic conglomerate it is today. By virtue of their military service in a long and brutal war, most pragmatists view themselves as the “Greatest Generation” of modern Iranian society and the rightful heirs of political power.1 Members of this group include the Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and the powerful Larijani brothers, Ali Larijani, Speaker of Parliament, Sadegh Larijani, Head of the Judiciary; and Mohammad-Javad Larijani, Iran’s top human rights official.
Fiercely contesting the Old Guard’s traditional grip on power, the ultranationalists espouse an aggressive agenda informed by a radically different worldview. The ultranationalists, too, favor a more assertive foreign policy, but they are keen to curb the influence of Iran’s clerics in favor of a newfound technocratic-military class comprised of their own ranks. Unlike the pragmatists, many of whom are descended from relatively wealthy merchant or clerical families, the ultranationalists represent a younger generation of conservatives hailing from lower socio-economic classes. Their connections to the IRGC are not as deep as those of the pragmatists, because they either did not serve, or served in lower capacities, during the Iran-Iraq War. Instead, many ultranationalits have served in the Basij militias and other paramilitary outfits. Furthermore, they have benefitted more than any other segment of Iranian society from the Islamic Republic’s emphasis, following the war, on helping the poor and disenfranchised.
As most members of this faction have gained access to power by virtue of military and bureaucratic careers, their ties to and support for the clerical class are limited. Significantly, they tend to come from ultra-religious families and adhere to the messianic Shi’ite belief in the imminent return of the Mahdi (according to Shi’ism, the 12th and final rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad). Iran’s most notable ultranationalists include Ahmadinejad, his Chief of Staff and close friend, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, and the influential cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi.
Roots of Conflict
Although many pragmatists did not support Ahmadinejad, and would have been more comfortable with a political veteran like Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Khamenei backed the newly elected president for reasons of political expediency.
After eight years of tumultuous coexistence with the liberal, reformist administration of President Mohammad Khatami, Khamenei wanted a robustly conservative president who could help shift the political landscape back to the right. Of particular concern was the direction of Iran’s foreign policy, which had become more moderate and conciliatory under the presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. Yet, because Khamenei consistently tried to portray himself as an impartial arbiter, he could not directly affect such changes.
In Ahmadinejad, Khamanei saw a pliable hardliner who would support an aggressive foreign policy while moving domestic political debate in a more conservative direction. What Khamanei did not foresee was that the energized supporters of Ahmadinejad would demand a reconfiguration of Iran’s power structures, a demand that would be met by stout resistance from the Old Guard.
Possessing what he considered to be a strong mandate, Ahmadinejad began his first term by rewarding his ultranationalist devotees with political and military positions, many of which came at the expense of the incumbent clerical elites. Ahmadinejad’s administration also realized it could not solely rely on a small, if fervent, support base to push through its ambitious political agenda. Thus, having alienated the clerical class, and without sufficient religious credentials, Ahmadinejad’s administration was forced to build broader public support by alternative means.
One such campaign was based on the appeal to pre-Islamic Iranian nationalism, which implicitly gave primacy to Iranian identity over Islamic heritage. Most recently, this campaign was epitomized by Rahim-Mashaie’s advocacy of an “Iranian school” of Islam — a concept that has stirred much controversy amongst conservative traditionalists who adhere to strict interpretations of Shi’ite doctrine. While the main aim of propagating this concept was to attract middle-class Iranians, many of whom identify with ancient Iranian religion and history, the primary outcome was a ferocious backlash from the clerics.
Meanwhile, to offset the loss of clerical support, Ahmadinejad’s administration worked to consolidate the support of its fervently religious base. To this end, it consistently appealed to the messianic belief in the imminent arrival of the Mahdi, and with it the Shi’ite version of Armageddon. While it is unclear whether the ultranationalist elite actually believe in this messianic trope, it is easy to understand the political opportunities that this narrative creates. Ahmadinejad and his cohort emphasized the notion that Shi’ite Muslims have a personal connection to the Mahdi that implicitly makes clerical interlocutors such as the Grand Ayatollahs unnecessary. The subtext of this position is clear – Iranians do not need the clerical class to govern in the Mahdi’s absence. By advancing this position, Ahmadinejad and his allies have been able to decrease the influence of the clerical class without alienating their religious base.
Gambling on Ahmadinejad
By the end of Ahmadinejad’s first term, these polarizing initiatives and divisive policies had started to take their toll on his relationship with Khamenei. On several occasions the Supreme Leader was forced to subtly rebuke Ahmadinejad and his associates, though he avoided any direct confrontations. Khamenei also avoided involvement in the run up to the 2009 election, when conservative candidates strongly criticized Ahmadinejad and went so far as to directly attack him during the electrifying television debates. But if Khamenei’s main concern was the stability of the regime and the preservation of the status quo, the election and its violent aftermath could not have been more damaging.
Undoubtedly, the Supreme Leader did not predict the massive unrest that followed the controversial re-election of Ahmadinejad. Nonetheless, as events quickly played out, Khamanei suddenly found himself in a precarious position. Having fully supported the incumbent during his first term, Khamenei had little choice but to endorse Ahmadinejad’s victory. In doing so, he expressed his belief that the Islamic Republic could forge ahead with Ahmadinejad at the helm, even if he was proving to be a divisive figure. This calculated gamble may have worked in the short term to quell the protests, but its long-term costs would soon begin to surface.
The first indications of serious discord came in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 elections. Towards the end of July, Khamenei issued an order overruling Ahmadinejad’s appointment of Rahim-Mashaei as First Vice President. Not only did Ahmadinejad flout this order for over a week, he also fired the Minister of Intelligence, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejehi, for allegedly reporting to Khamenei without his knowledge. Khamenei responded by nominating one of his allies, Heydar Moslehi, as Ejehi’s replacement in the Ministry of Intelligence. Khamenei then appointed Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, an IRGC brigadier general with whom he has a close relationship, as the Minister of Interior, while also blocking Ahmadinejad’s move to fire the Foreign Minister at the time, Manouchehr Mottaki.
These political skirmishes continued to occur over the next year and half, culminating in Ahmadinejad’s attempt to remove Moslehi in April 2011. Some analysts speculated that this move was aimed at tilting the upcoming 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections in favor of Ahmadinejad’s hardline base.2 Since his appointment in 2009, Moslehi had replaced many of the lower-level Basiji and IRGC commanders who constituted the core of Ahmadinejad’s base, perhaps reflecting the preference of IRGC higher ups for pragmatic conservative candidates.
Whatever the case may be, the more significant development was Khamenei’s swift intervention to reinstate Moslehi. Khamenei’s handling of the situation is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. While politicians have grown accustomed to Khamenei’s mediating role in resolving disputes – for example, when he told Parliament to back down from its opposition to Ahmadinejad’s cabinet picks in August 2009 – the Supreme Leader had never violated the boundaries of Iran’s constitutionally assigned authorities. In the case of cabinet picks, the president is constitutionally guaranteed authority over all his appointments and removals, pending approval of the Parliament. Khamenei justified his intervention by invoking the concept of “maslahat,” which refers to his responsibility to act in the nation’s best interests. The decisiveness of this move sent a particular message: Khamenei has control and power over Iran’s political situation and he commands the loyalty of Iran’s conservative establishment.
A Losing Battle
Ahmadinejad not only appears to be losing this battle, but he is also faced with declining support among the conservative elite. The hardline conservatives who contributed to his electoral success, gave him spiritual advice and advanced his political agenda from 2005-2009, have all begun to abandon him en masse.
A number of ultraconservative clerics who had previously backed Ahmadinejad – from Ayatollah Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, to Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi – have also withdrawn their support in light of the president’s recent confrontations with the Supreme Leader. As their support for Ahmadinejad has always been conditional on Khamenei’s backing, their departures may not, in actuality, come as much of a surprise.3
Nonetheless, the reversal of such a high-profile figure as Mesbah-Yazdi, a formerly vociferous supporter of Ahmadinejad, should not be taken lightly. In 2005, Mesbah-Yazdi issued a fatwa urging Basijis to vote for Ahmadinejad; the president returned the favor by declaring that Mesbah-Yazdi, and not Khamenei, was his spiritual guide. Furthermore, Mesbah-Yazdi was reportedly behind another fatwa in 2009, which appeared to urge the Interior Ministry to manipulate the election results in Ahmadinejad’s favor. In spite of all this, Mesbah-Yazdi recently characterized the “deviant current” as “a great threat to Islam,” and claimed that Ahmadinejad has been “possessed.”
Infighting and Intervention
The infighting reached its apex when conservatives accused Ahmadinejad of rigging the 2009 elections. On May 25, 2011, Parliament voted to investigate allegations of vote-buying – reportedly $80 each for 9 million people – leveled against Ahmadinejad’s administration. This was an extraordinary development, given that conservatives had consistently ignored repeated appeals from Green Movement leaders to investigate the vote count. Even if the investigation fails to yield conclusive results, it is clear that the pragmatists smell blood and are aiming to take down Ahmadinejad once and for all.
Towards the end of May, the Supreme Leader urged both sides to reconcile. In Khamenei’s speech to Parliament on May 29, he emphasized that the “enemy” (a codename for Westerners and their internal sympathizers) focuses on weakening Iran by creating divisions between Iran’s ruling elites. He called on both Parliament and Ahmadinejad to reconcile their differences, but this did not end the struggle.
Since Khamenei’s intervention, Ahmadinejad has made some conciliatory gestures, but most of these have turned out to be strategic. One example was his resignation as temporary caretaker of the Oil Ministry on June 2, which was followed by the appointment of an inexperienced ally, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, to the position. While on the face of it, Ahmadinejad appeared to be relenting under pressure, he was, in fact, maneuvering to sustain his sway over the Oil Ministry. Unfortunately for Ahmadinejad, Parliament reacted strongly and forced Malekzadeh to resign three days after taking up the post. The Judiciary then proceeded to have Malekzadeh arrested on charges of financial misdeeds. On the same day, Parliament voted down Ahmadinejad’s candidate for Sports Minister and later began impeachment charges against his Interior Minister.
Within the context of the Islamic Republic’s history, the current struggle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad cannot simply be dismissed as yet another instance of discord between the Supreme Leader and the President. Whereas Khamenei had an inherently adversarial relationship with the last two presidents (distrustful of their relatively liberal ideologies and wary of their ability to usurp his power), he had fully allied himself with Ahmadinejad. Accordingly, the growing conflict between the two men is better characterized as an alliance gone wrong as opposed to an inevitable clash of ideologies.
Khamenei now finds himself in a no-win situation. If Ahmadinejad is allowed to continue as a lame duck president, he will most likely continue to grab power for his faction. If Ahmadinejad is removed from power, it will reflect very badly on Khamenei’s judgment as Supreme Leader.
Ahmadinejad also finds himself in a very precarious position, but unlike Khamenei, he has little to lose. All organized conservative factions have abandoned him, as have conservative media outlets such as Fars News, Raja News, and others. Some analysts speculate that he may not finish his term, as MPs have openly threatened his impeachment. His only supporters seem to be the very people currently under attack, aides like Mashaie, Malekzadeh, and others. Regardless, the supremely stubborn Ahmadinejad is unlikely to curb his power-grabbing initiatives. His supporters believe they can enlarge his base by reaching out to secular moderates and shoring up support amongst the poor, something his aide Mashaie has been faithfully attempting to do. According to one analyst, Ahmadinejad’s goal is to continue the back-and-forth with Khamenei until at least the 2012 Parliamentary elections. It is also rumored that Ahmadinejad may resort either to leaking incriminating evidence of financial corruption against his attackers, or fabricating a new nuclear crisis to unite the conservative movement.4
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad appear intent on continuing the current confrontation, the outcome to which will depend on whether Khamenei can force Ahmadinejad to accept lame duck status. Isolating Ahmadinejad by bringing in allies outside the system may accomplish this goal. Recent rumors that Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani is secretly connecting with Reformists for the 2012 elections may be laden with strategic intent. Whatever strategic moves are undertaken, it is clear that the two men are tethered to each other for the foreseeable future.
1. Telephone interview with Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Washington, D.C., June 12, 2010.
2. Telephone interview with Ali Afshari, Washington, D.C., May 6, 2011. Green Movement leaders charge that Intelligence Ministry officials played a vital role in blocking their attempts to monitor the 2009 elections results. This allowed the government to manipulate votes without any credible counter.
3. Telephone interview with Ali Afshari, Washington, D.C., June 22, 2011.
4. Telephone interview with Ali Afshari, Washington, D.C., June 22, 2011.