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The Future of Iran
No nation is more critical to the future of the Middle East than Iran and recently there is increasing talk that President Ahmadinejad’s days are numbered. So I thought the following from an essay by Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, in the July/August 2011 issue of The National Interest, was timely.
It has been a time of repeated open threats of the president’s impeachment, the same president who was not too long ago the darling of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, close as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to the supreme leader’s own ideas and ideals. It has been a time when more than a hundred members of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, have requested an investigation into the last presidential election and the allegation that 9 million votes were purchased through cash payments from government coffers. Amazing how the tables can turn. Indeed, just like the police chief in Casablanca, these conservative (ayatollah-backing) members of the Majlis are “shocked, shocked” that electoral cheating is going on in Iran. Lest we forget, Mir Hussein Moussavi (the “losing candidate” in that same presidential election), his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, Mehdi Karroubi (the other “losing” candidate) and his wife, Fatemeh, have been under house arrest for months – for making the same accusations of fraud. Thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned, and about a hundred of the regime’s past ministers, deputy ministers and directors were put on Stalinist-era-like show trials to confess to the crime of alleging a bought-and-paid-for vote. Hundreds of young women and men were tortured, dozens raped and thousands forced into exile for questioning the June 2009 presidential-election results. It was of course all, according to Khamenei, a sinister U.S. plot to create a “velvet revolution” using Gene Sharp’s model and George Soros’s money….
Since then, many in Ahmadinejad’s close circle of friends and allies have “been arrested and vigorously interrogated.”….
The only indication that some respite is coming to this stranger-than-fiction fight has been the declaration of a prominent member of parliament (generally considered to speak for Khamenei) that the supreme leader now seems inclined to allow Ahmadinejad to serve out the rest of his term – only, of course, if he mends his ways, rids himself of his unsavory aides and accepts his role as a mere foot soldier in the divine deliberations of the ayatollah. Ahmadinejad supposedly has two years left in office. As things stand today, it is unlikely that he will make it that long. And if, at the end, he is still somehow president, Ahmadinejad will surely be but a mere empty shell of the bombastic, combative, feverishly messianic persona he created for himself before the crisis began.
The perks and prerogatives of power are not only, in Henry Kissinger’s famous words, an aphrodisiac, they also tend to induce in those in authority delusions of grandeur. Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been no exceptions to this rule. The middle class is discontent, both a presidential vote and elections to a new Majlis await – the opportunity is ripe for a power play. Ahmadinejad, a true “little man,” ended up with a big office thanks to the Machiavellian guile of Khamenei and some in the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] who used government funds and the vast network of members of the Basij (a gang-cum-militia on the regime payroll that numbers in the hundreds of thousands) and families of martyrs who receive regular stipends from the government to solicit support for Ahmadinejad. But suddenly the president began to believe the myth of his popularity and power. His well-known messianic fervor (his oft-repeated faith in the imminent apocalyptic return of the Twelfth Imam) also guaranteed that equally dogmatic fatalists, or a strange amalgam of opportunists out to use the president’s zeal and piety to pillage the public coffers, would gather around him with glee. The fact that during Ahmadinejad’s six years in office, Iran has received almost $500 billion in oil and gas revenue – equal to about half of Tehran’s entire oil income from the time the resource was first discovered in the country – has made public funds an even more appealing and rewarding prey for financial predators.
But concurrent with Ahmadinejad’s growing delusions about his sway over his domain, Khamenei developed an increasing appetite to concentrate more and more absolute power in his own hands. For months, Khamenei supporters and websites close to the IRGC have been attacking Ahmadinejad for a long litany of alleged sins. He stands accused of advocating Iranian nationalism – something anathema to conservative clerics who promote ummat (spiritual community) over mellat (nation). He was criticized for lauding past kings, particularly Cyrus, praised in the Bible for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Cyrus may have been lambasted by the infamous “hanging judge,” a close ally of Khomeini, as a “Jew boy” and a “sodomite,” but the president went out of his way to praise him for his promulgation of human rights. Ahmadinejad was further criticized for celebrating the Persian new year, Nowruz, considered pagan by the pious and the subject of numerous attacks by Khamenei himself….
In spite of the propaganda blitzkrieg against him, Ahmadinejad has yet to submit to the most important demand of his opponents, namely dismissing his closest ally and confidant Esfandiar Mashaei. Accused of financial corruption, moral turpitude and unsavory conjurations, he is at the heart of the controversy. The two men are old friends and spiritual soul mates. Mashaei is now also the father-in-law of one of Ahmadinejad’s sons….
Ahmadinejad has appointed Mashaei to a total of thirteen critical jobs, one of which was the position of cultural czar where he had hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal. He used these funds to create a vast network of personal patronage. Soon enough, rumors began to spread that Mashaei and Ahmadinejad were planning to do a Putin-Medvedev political tango in Iran (though it is unclear whether either man has any idea how tense the relationship is between their Russian counterparts).
While the world is rightly rejoicing a much-belated Arab Spring (a spring that saw its first blossoms in Tehran in June 2009), in Iran, Khamenei and his allies are methodically and ruthlessly establishing the planet’s most unabashed theocratic despotism. And as many thinkers and scholars have long pointed out, the spirit and rhetoric of republican democracy is inevitably founded on respect for reason, science and the rule of law. The recent assault on the faint hints of republicanism in the Iranian constitution has been, as expected, accompanied by a frightening attack on rationalism, the social sciences and democracy as tools of “Western arrogance” intended to undermine true Islam. Just as the rise of Khomeini in 1979 bred radical Islam, the success of Khamenei in his new antidemocratic project can only reinvigorate the now-declining forces of that radicalism. Without a democratic Iran, the Arab Spring is unlikely to change the face of the region.
Most dangerously, the more isolated the regime becomes, the more intensely it needs to attain the status of at least a virtual nuclear state – one that has demonstrated the technological capacity to build a bomb should it make the political decision to do so – and use this status as a deterrent against outside pressure and domestic challenges to its hold on power. The most recent statement by the IRGC cautioning the world about the nature of the Iranian regime’s military might, touting the country’s new domestically produced and reportedly nuclear-capable warheads, is perfect evidence of that. The IAEA’s recent statement indicating it is no longer able to guarantee the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is yet another sign of Tehran’s growing capabilities. It may be that only a democratic government can genuinely solve Iran’s nuclear issue, but the road to this transition is treacherous. For, though a war of attrition between the president and the supreme leader is sure to expedite the possibility of a more open political system, it is also highly likely to beget a kind of Bonapartist resolution in which an entrenched absolutist regime led by the IRGC is the result.
Indeed, the Iranian leadership has long followed the advice of one of Shakespeare’s characters who suggested that giddy minds must be kept busy with foreign wars. The regime’s true Achilles’ heel remains the economy, and so long as it faces these domestic pressures, there will be a distinct motivation to become increasingly belligerent with the outside world and more repressive at home. Almost a million young men and women are added to the labor force each year. The Islamic Republic faces an uphill battle in its attempt to end subsidies on most basic commodities without serious social dislocation. Up until now, leaders have navigated their way out of such disruption by ensuring cash payments to the poorest strata of society. Most economists predict that the current pattern is untenable, and the false quiet of today presages a storm tomorrow. [Former president Mohammad] Khatami, as a self-appointed peacemaker of conflicts of late, recently attempted to once again save the regime by finding a workable compromise between Khamenei and the opposition. In a speech, he claimed that both sides have been wronged and argued that they must forgive each other. His plea has been met with cold derision from all involved.
As the economic situation worsens, Khamenei and his allies in the IRGC have the perfect opportunity to confront Ahmadinejad and wrest him from power, whether figuratively or literally. The blame game has already begun. There has been a remarkable series of revelations and claims about Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement of the economy. Government sources have declared the real unemployment rate to be above 30 percent. And the inflation rate for basic foodstuffs is rumored to be about 25 percent. A couple of leading members of parliament have accused the government of publishing false statistics about the economy, including announced rates of inflation and economic growth. With hyperinflation on the horizon, Depression-era unemployment numbers already a reality (a high-ranking government official announced that one in three young men and women is unemployed in the country), and the democratic winds in the region continuing unabated – not to mention that Syria, the Islamic Republic’s sole regional ally, faces grave challenges – Khamenei might soon need a sacrificial lamb. And Ahmadinejad is the perfect candidate. The IRGC will no doubt be happy to oblige; the fight between a populist president and an increasingly isolated supreme leader makes the latter more and more dependent on the power and muscle of the IRGC and the gangs of street thugs and bullies it controls and uses to intimidate the disgruntled population. In the short run, then, the IRGC is in a win-win situation in this confrontation. It is only how their power will be shaped in the future that remains to be seen.
Unless Ahmadinejad has a few still-unused aces up his sleeve, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he and his allies clearly overestimated his power and popularity. Hitherto, no one has shown any desire to defend the president. More than once, his allies threatened to bring out millions in support of his cause, but so far it has been all empty bluff and bluster. The rancorous fight between the ambitious, weakened president and the embittered, isolated Khamenei is both a symptom of a structural crisis and an added ingredient for its continuation. One can be but strategically optimistic about Iran’s future and tactically benighted about its immediate fate.