A bitter struggle for power in Iran
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Much is being written in the international media about the twin
elections in Iran, which take place on Friday. Some, like veteran Iranian
journalist Amir Taheri, are expecting the "first major political defeat" for
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
One election will be for municipalities, the other for the Council of Experts
(COE). This congressional body of 86 ayatollahs selects the supreme leader of
Iran and supervises his activities. Members have to be experts in Islamic
jurisprudence so they can debate
Islamic law, and see that the grand ayatollah does not violate the Holy Koran.
The COE can hire and fire the supreme leader, a post held since 1989 by the
strong and all-powerful Ayatollah Ali al-Khamenei. It is currently headed by
the old and ailing Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, who has re-nominated himself for
office but stands a very slim chance of succeeding since he is supported
neither by Ahmadinejad nor by Khamenei.
For this reason, Ahmadinejad has his eyes set on winning elections for the COE,
which are by direct votes for an eight-year term. Khamenei, who is 66 and also
in frail health, is likely to be ousted - if Ahmadinejad gets his way - before
the new council's term expires in 2014.
By all accounts, the president does not like the overpowering influence that
Khamenei has on Iranian politics. Some expect that if the president's list wins
the elections, they would ask Khamenei to step down on the grounds of ill
The man earmarked to replace Khamenei by the president is Ahmadinejad's
ideological mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghli Misbah Yazdi. Born in 1934, the
radical cleric studied in Qom and was educated in Islam by none other than
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979. He
graduated with honors from the religious seminary in 1960 and worked as
editor-in-chief of a anti-Shah journal called "Revenge".
He was also a member of the board of directors at an influential religious
school in Iran. In recent years, he has headed the Imam Khomeini Education and
Research Institute and is a current member of the outgoing COE. During the
1990s he rose to fame for seriously challenging the reformist president
Mohammad Khatami, arguing that contact with the West is un-Islamic and claiming
that the reformists were straying from the pure revolutionary ideals of
He encouraged disobedience to Khatami through his writings and sermons on
Fridays, prompting the former president to describe him as a "theotrician of
violence". Yazdi's day in the sun came when his student Ahmadinejad was voted
to power in August 2005. To him, Western culture means "misleading ideas" and
it resembles injecting Iran "with the AIDS virus".
If this man becomes the new leader of Iran, all talk about curbing
Ahmadinejad's powers and re-engaging Iran in dialogue with the West will come
to an abrupt end. But luckily for opponents of the Iranian president, his
ambitions face strong obstacles from within Iranian politics. These have been
created by the Khamenei-backed Guardian Council.
This body is made up of 12 officials (six being clerics appointed directly by
the supreme leader) and has ultimate executive, judiciary and electoral
authority. The remaining six members are lawyers appointed by a judicial
authority, which in turn is approved or vetoed by Khamenei.
Although Khamenei originally supported Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005, the
two men have parted on a variety of issues and the president sees Khamenei as
an obstacle to his powers at the presidency. He wants - but cannot so long as
Khamenei is in power - to clip the wings of the supreme leader. Khamenei, a
smart man by all accounts who also served as president in the 1980s, realizes
the threat coming from Ahmadinejad. That is why he ordered his supporters - all
12 members of the Guardian Council - to veto most of the 493 candidates running
for elections on Friday who are declared supporters of the president.
Among those vetoed are Yazdi's son. They also banned any woman from standing
for office at the CEO. All reformists running for office were also rejected
because they are trying to pass an amendment in the Iranian constitution
allowing non-clerics into the CEO - something that Khamenei curtly refuses as
Other candidates turned down include pro-business and modernizing clerics
supportive of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, who challenged Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2005. The very
fact that Khamenei and the Guardian Council allowed Rafsanjani to run for the
CEO, given his animosity toward the wild policies of Ahmadinejad, is also an
indicator that they want to make life more difficult for the president.
Victory for Rafsanjani, however, is doubtful, since both Ahmadinejad and
Khamenei are opposed to him, and it is rumored that he is in favor of reaching
a deal with the United States on Iran's nuclear program. In short, Khamenei has
engineered elections that guarantee continuity of his post as the grand master
of Iranian elections. Iranian observers are saying that out of the 86 seats
contested at the CEO, only 17 new members will be voted into office. The
remaining 69 clerics will all be pro-Khamenei.
For the above reasons, along with a recent Iranian poll affiliated with the
Rafsanjani-led Expediency Council, show that the future is not promising for
Ahmadinejad. Khamenei, however, has not come out to challenge Ahmadinejad - at
least not yet - and insists on being a godfather to all Iranians. He has even
called on all able citizens to vote, saying that it is a national and religious
Despite that, Iranian observers claim that voter turnout will be no more than
49%. The poll showed that out of the Iranians surveyed, 90% said that their
support for the president had diminished over the past 16 months. This was made
clear by student demonstrators on December 11 at the Amir Kabir University of
Iran, when young men burned pictures of Ahmadinejad and raised slogans that
read "death to the dictator".
Unable to crack down on the rioters, for fear of losing support in the upcoming
elections, Ahmadinejad did not arrest or harass them. On the contrary, he
released a statement saying that he was pleased by the demonstrations. They
reminded him of his student days under the Shah in the 1970s when students were
prohibited from expressing their views.
If he fails to control the COE, however, Ahmadinejad plans to take the
municipality elections through a list of candidates headed by his sister,
Parvan Ahmadinejad. Her list is called "The Enchanting Scent for Services", and
it is campaigning on the same youth-related issues that Ahmadinejad touted when
he was voted in in 2005. The ambitious president, however, will not be
satisfied unless he wins the COE.
One might ask, how is it that this president, who surprised the world with his
victory in 2005, finds himself in a difficult position today, unable to impose
his will on Iranian society? Is the Ahmadinejad myth a fabrication created by
the US? Is the superman president really human - and weak - after all? Perhaps
the Americans concentrated on Ahmadinejad more than they should have, because
the real powerbroker in Iran is Khamenei - not Ahmadinejad.
It is Khamenei who supports Hezbollah and Khamenei, rather than the president,
who is stubborn when it comes to Iran's nuclear issue. Ahmadinejad is simply a
figure of state who has limited domestic authority and by no means is a
dictator like Saddam Hussein. He achieved victory not because of his
revolutionary views, nor for his support and conviction in the Islamic
Revolution, but rather because of his promises to grassroots Iranians. By
rhetoric, action, dress and origin, he mirrored their plight and realities.
But Ahmadinejad promised more than he could deliver, forgetting during election
time that he was not the ultimate ruler and would have to share power with the
Majlis (parliament), the Guardian Council, the COE - and Khamenei.
Young Iranians, born after the revolution of 1979, had not experienced the
autocracy of the Shah and were (and still are) unimpressed by the revolutionary
rhetoric of the 1980s. They wanted a president who could provide jobs for the
university-educated Iranians who were unemployed. They wanted a leader who
could combat the 16% unemployment rate (21.2% among women and 34% in the 15-19
Currently, 800,000 Iranian youth enter the job market every year and
Ahmadinejad would have to double job creation efforts to meet this staggering
number. This would require huge investment and an economic growth rate of more
than 6% per year. Iran's economy is now down to 1.9%, after growth of 4.8% for
One slogan devised under Ahmadinejad read: "$550 for every Iranian citizen",
Ahmadinejad also won because he was Khamenei's man since the supreme leader did
not want to deal with a political strongman like Rafsanjani. It was believed
that Ahmadinejad would follow Khamenei's orders and not defy him.
Rafsanjani, however, would have worked with Khamenei as an equal. The supreme
leader wanted someone he could manipulate. For the exact same reasons, he is
now working against Ahmadinejad, who apparently no longer wants to be
manipulated or overpowered.
Rather than criticize Ahmadinejad, the US could bide its time and see how
Friday's polls play out. Change can be achieved - through evolution of the
Iranian regime and its own system of checks-and-balances - rather than
revolution, or war.