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By Sharmine Narwani

A public spat between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the international headlines last week. Politics is rarely ever a harmonious business in any country, so why the brouhaha over this particular stand-off?

To be sure, the disagreement itself was an unusual occurrence. Khamenei’s very public reinstatement of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi – citing Maslehat or the “greater good of the nation,” no less – shortly after Ahmadinejad removed him could only be viewed as a tough dressing down. And then Ahmadinejad unexpectedly raised the stakes further by boycotting cabinet meetings for eleven days.

The whole point of a Supreme Leader – or Velayat-e-Faghih – as conceived by the Islamic Revolution’s founders, is that he is the ultimate arbiter over both state and religious affairs.

Ahmadinejad’s defiant snit was a direct challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader. It served to catapult this affair into the political stratosphere, and he was eventually forced to back down.

The Regional Dimension
But there’s more to this. Tehran sits at the epicenter of a geopolitical struggle between two battling regional worldviews. One ”bloc” is comfortable with existing American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East and consists of many of the autocratic leaders now being swept away in the Arab Awakening. The other is the Iran-led “Resistance Bloc” that seeks to end this foreign hegemony and embrace regional and national self-determination.

As such, every twitch out of Iran is being pounced on by the pro-US bloc, now openly gunning for the Islamic Republic to experience its own domestic revolt, and doing everything it can to facilitate this.

The anti-Iran brigade also extends its aversions to Tehran’s closest allies in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, while keeping a tight lid on other regional players prone to take independent stances like Iraq, Qatar, Oman and now even Egypt and Lebanon.

A key reason for the escalation of activities against the Islamic Republic is the emergence of the Arab Awakening in Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Yemen, where a wave of reform could 1) threaten the dominance of Iran’s biggest regional foe, and close US ally, Saudi Arabia, and 2) fundamentally shift the regional balance of power toward the resistance bloc.

The wholly domestic dispute between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad thus serves as an opportunity to highlight and exacerbate divisions within Iran’s body politic – hence the intense media scrutiny.

What these regional players fail to recognize is that over thirty-two years, Iran has demonstrated that national security interests trump domestic politics every single time.

Iran has endured four rounds of economic sanctions by the UN Security Council and continues to feel under siege by the West and Israel. Recent developments in the Persian Gulf where neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen have pulled out the “Iran Bogeyman” card to justify actions against their populations make Iran nervous and ultra-cautious. Any high profile is currently undesirable – and the Iranian government will do its utmost to close ranks, put rumors of strife to rest, and promote an image of domestic stability and unity. Anything else would be detrimental to the country’s national security imperatives – which rule the day AND are a unifying subject across both camps.

Domestic Repercussions Nonetheless
From a domestic political standpoint, the internal divisions remain firmer than ever. In the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian presidential election barely two years ago, Khamenei was viewed as a staunch Ahmadinejad ally.

But Iran’s first non-clerical president has ambitions that are perceived to threaten the rule of the clergy and elevate his allies to positions of power.

Conservative politicians faithful to the ideals of the Revolution have kept up a drumbeat of criticism that has served to keep the lid on Ahmadinejad’s machinations. The president has fired ministers outside his sphere of influence before – most recently Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki – but this recent dismissal was viewed as too politically motivated to escape notice.

Many believe Ahmadinejad miscalculated badly this time around – the net result being the domestic balance of power has now decidedly shifted to the Conservative camp. And the president is not out of the woods yet. His challenge to Khamenei’s authority is being exploited by foes to target Ahmadinejad’s controversial Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who is seen as promoting “Iranian” nationalism, undermining the clergy and actively promoting liberal ideas regarding the female hejab, music, satellite availability, youth, etc.

Mashai, who Ahmadinejad has defended vigorously in the past and is allegedly being groomed to succeed his boss, may have to be the sacrificial lamb if Ahmadinejad wants to regain some authority and not end his term as a lame-duck president. Something has to give, because conservatives are still beating those drums and several dozen people close to the president and his chief of staff have now been arrested. Though Ahmadinejad has clearly lost this round, his presidency could altogether still be at stake unless he makes further concessions.

On the other hand – calls for impeachment notwithstanding – it is unlikely that the conservative establishment or Khamenei would actively seek to remove the president from office because this could 1) suggest a serious lack of confidence at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic, and 2) resuscitate the international ruckus over his election two years ago.

This may be a defining moment in Iranian domestic politics, or just another political row, not unlike in other nations where political stakes are high. Keep in mind that Iran’s complex political system is as dynamic, diverse and decentralized as can be found in the Middle East, and rows – public and private – are par for the course.

In the final analysis, the Iranian establishment is unlikely to allow this brouhaha to spin out of control. They received more international attention than they can stand and they will close ranks and speak with one voice in the coming weeks and months. Certainly, national security priorities – where both camps share similar principles – can serve to dissipate even the most threatening divisions.

With external political pressures mounting against Iran – both regionally and beyond – we can expect the tensions between the camps to result in further crackdowns and political maneuvering. Just never so much as to allow external players to participate and exploit vulnerabilities.

So although the heated domestic debate continues, this “feud” is, from a geopolitical standpoint, much ado about nothing – at least until the regional landscape fundamentally shifts in favor of Iran’s worldview. Then all bets are off.

First published on Al Jazeera, May 14, 2011

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