Iranian politics is never easy to decode. The maelstrom around Friday's
presidential election intrigued most avid cryptographers scanning Iranian
codes. So many false trails appeared that it became difficult to decipher who
the real contenders were and what the political stakes were.
In the event, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei won a resounding victory.
The grey cardinal of Iranian politics Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been dealt a
crushing defeat. Is the curtain finally ringing down on the tumultuous career
of the "Shark", a nickname Rafsanjani acquired in the vicious well of the
Iranian Majlis (parliament) where he used to swim dangerously as a political
predator in the early years of the Iranian Revolution as the speaker?
By the huge margin (64%) with which President Mahmud Ahmedinejad won, it is
tempting to say that like the great white
sperm whale of immense, premeditated ferocity and stamina in Herman Melville's
epic novel Moby Dick, Rafsanjani is going down, deeply wounded by the
harpoon, into the cold oblivion of the sea of Iranian politics. But you can
never quite tell.
The administration of President Barack Obama in the United States could see
through the allegorical mode of the Iranian election and probably anticipate
the flood of destruction that would follow once vengeance is unleashed. It did
just the right thing by staying aloof, studiously detached. Now comes the
difficult part - engaging the house that Khamenei presides over as the monarch
of all he surveys.
First, the ABC of the election. Who is Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmedinejad's main
opponent in the election? He is an enigma wrapped in mystery. He impressed the
Iranian youth and the urban middle class as a reformer and a modernist. Yet, as
Iran's prime minister during 1981-89, Mousavi was an unvarnished hardliner.
Evidently, what we have seen during his high-tech campaign is a vastly
different Mousavi, as if he meticulously deconstructed and then reassembled
This was what Mousavi had to say in a 1981 interview about the 444-day hostage
crisis when young Iranian revolutionaries kept American diplomats in custody:
"It was the beginning of the second stage of our revolution. It was after this
that we discovered our true Islamic identity. After this we felt the sense that
we could look Western policy in the eye and analyze it the way they had been
evaluating us for many years."
Most likely, he had a hand in the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Ali Akbar
Mohtashami, Hezbollah's patron saint, served as his interior minister. He was
involved in the Iran-Contra deal in 1985, which was a trade-off with the Ronald
Reagan administration whereby the US would supply arms to Iran and as quid pro
quo Tehran would facilitate the release of the Hezbollah-held American hostages
in Beirut. The irony is, Mousavi was the very anti-thesis of Rafsanjani and one
of the first things the latter did in 1989 after taking over as president was
to show Mousavi the door. Rafsanjani had no time for Mousavi's
anti-"Westernism" or his visceral dislike of the market.
Mousavi's electoral platform has been a curious mix of contradictory political
lines and vested interests but united in one maniacal mission, namely, to seize
the presidential levers of power in Iran. It brought together so-called
reformists who support former president Mohammad Khatami and
ultra-conservatives of the regime. Rafsanjani is the only politician in Iran
who could have brought together such dissimilar factions. He assiduously worked
hand-in-glove with Khatami towards this end.
If we are to leave out the largely inconsequential "Gucci crowd" of north
Tehran, who no doubt imparted a lot of color, verve and mirth to Mousavi's
campaign, the hardcore of his political platform comprised powerful vested
interests who were making a last-ditch attempt to grab power from the
Khamenei-led regime. On the one hand, these interest groups were severely
opposed to the economic policies under Ahmadinejad, which threatened their
control of key sectors such as foreign trade, private education and
For those who do not know Iran better, suffice to say that the Rafsanjani
family clan owns vast financial empires in Iran, including foreign trade, vast
landholdings and the largest network of private universities in Iran. Known as
Azad there are 300 branches spread over the country, they are not only
money-spinners but could also press into Mousavi's election campaign an active
cadre of student activists numbering some 3 million.
The Azad campuses and auditoria provided the rallying point for Mousavi's
campaign in the provinces. The attempt was to see that the campaign reached the
rural poor in their multitudes who formed the bulk of voters and constituted
Ahmadinejad's political base. Rafsanjani's political style is to build up
extensive networking in virtually all the top echelons of the power structure,
especially bodies such as the Guardian Council, Expediency Council, the Qom
clergy, Majlis, judiciary, bureaucracy, Tehran bazaar and even elements within
the circles close to Khamenei. He called into play these pockets of influence.
Rafsanjani's axis with Khatami was the basis of Mousavi's political platform of
reformists and conservatives. The four-cornered contest was expected to give a
split verdict that would force the election into a run-off on June 19. The
candidature of the former Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander
Mohsen Rezai (who served under Rafsanjani when he was president) was expected
to slice off a chunk of IRGC cadres and prominent conservatives.
Again, the fourth candidate, Mehdi Karrubi's "reformist" program was expected
to siphon off support from Ahmedinejad, by virtue of his offer of economic
policies based on social justice such as the immensely popular idea of
distributing income from oil among the people rather than it accruing to the
Rafsanjani's plot was to somehow extend the election to the run-off stage,
where Mousavi was expected to garner the "anti-Ahmedinejad" votes. The
estimation was that at the most Ahmedinejad would poll in the first round 10 to
12 million votes out of the 28 to 30 million who might actually vote (out of a
total electorate of 46.2 million) and, therefore, if only the election extended
to the run-off, Mousavi would be the net beneficiary as the votes polled by
Rezai and Karrubi were essentially "anti-Ahmadinejad" votes.
The regime was already well into the election campaign when it realized that
behind the clamor for a change of leadership in the presidency, Rafsanjani's
challenge was in actuality aimed at Khamenei's leadership and that the election
was a proxy war. The roots of the Rafsanjani-Khamenei rift go back to the late
1980s when Khamenei assumed the leadership in 1989.
Rafsanjani was among Imam Khomeini's trusted appointees to the first
Revolutionary Council, whereas Khamenei joined only at a later stage when the
council expanded its membership. Thus, Rafsanjani always harbored a grouse that
Khamenei pipped him to the post of Supreme Leader. The clerical establishment
close to Rafsanjani spread the word that Khamenei lacked the requisite
religious credentials, that he was indecisive as the executive president, and
that the election process was questionable, which cast doubt on the legality of
Powerful clerics, egged on by Rafsanjani, argued that the Supreme Leader was
supposed to be not only a religious authority (mujtahid), but was also
expected to be a source of emulation (marja or a mujtahid with
religious followers) and that Khamenei didn't fulfill this requirement - unlike
Rafsanjani himself. The debunking of Khamenei rested on the specious argument
that his religious education was in question. The sniping by the clerics
associated with Rafsanjani continued into the early 1990s. Thus, Khamenei began
on a somewhat diffident note and during much of the period when Rafsanjani held
power as president (1989-1997), he acted low key, aware of his circumstances.
The result was that Rafsanjani exercised more power as president than anyone
holding that office anytime in Tehran. But Khamenei bided his time as he
incrementally began expanding his authority. If he lacked standing among Iran's
clerical establishment, he more than made up by attracting to his side the
security establishment, especially the Ministry of Intelligence, the IRGC and
the Basij militias.
While Rafsanjani hobnobbed with the clergy and the bazaar, Khamenei turned to a
group of bright young politicians with intelligence or security backgrounds who
were returning home from the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war - such as Ali
Larijani, the present speaker of the Majlis, Said Jalili, currently the
secretary of the National Security Council, Ezzatollah Zarghami, head of the
state radio and television and, indeed, Ahmadinejad himself.
Power inevitably accrued to Khamenei once he won over the loyalty of the IRGC
and the Basij. By the time Rafsanjani's presidency ended, Khamenei had already
become head of all three branches of the government and the state media,
commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and even lucrative institutions such as
Imam Reza Shrine or the Oppressed Foundation, which have almost unlimited
capacity for extending political patronage.
All in all, therefore, the power structure today takes the form of a vast
patriarchal apparatus of political leadership. Thus, perceptive analysts were
spot on while concluding that Ahmadinejad would never on his own volition have
gone public and directly taken on Rafsanjani during the controversial TV debate
on June 4 in Tehran with Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad said, "Today it is not Mr Mousavi alone who is confronting me,
since there are the three successive governments of Mr Mousavi, Mr Khatami and
Mr Hashemi [Rafsanjani] arrayed against me." He took a pointed swipe at
Rafsanjani for masterminding a plot to overthrow him. He said Rafsanjani
promised the fall of his government to Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani hit back within
days by addressing a communication to Khamenei demanding that Ahmadinejad
should retract "so that there would be no need of legal action".
"I am expecting you to resolve the situation in order to extinguish the fire,
whose smoke can be seen in the atmosphere, and to take action to foil dangerous
plots. Even if I were to tolerate this situation, there is no doubt that some
people, parties and factions will not tolerate this situation," Rafsanjani
angrily warned Khamenei.
Simultaneously, Rafsanjani also rallied his base in the clerical establishment.
A clique of 14 senior clerics in Qom joined issue on his side. It was all an
act of desperation by vested interests who have become desperate about the
awesome rise of the IRGC in recent years. But, if Rafsanjani's calculation was
that the "mutiny" within the clerical establishment would unnerve Khamenei, he
misread the calculus of power in Tehran. Khamenei did the worst thing possible
to Rafsanjani. He simply ignored the "Shark".
The IRGC and the Basij volunteers running into tens of millions swiftly
mobilized. They coalesced with the millions of rural poor who adore Ahmadinejad
as their leader. It has been a repeat of the 2005 election. The voter turnout
has been an unprecedented 85%. Within hours of the announcement of
Ahmadinejad's thumping victory, Khamenei gave the seal of approval by
applauding that the high voter turnout called for "real celebration".
He said, "I congratulate ... the people on this massive success and urge
everyone to be grateful for this divine blessing." He cautioned the youth and
the "supporters of the elected candidate and the supporters of other
candidates" to be "fully alert and avoid any provocative and suspicions actions
Khamenei's message to Rafsanjani is blunt: accept defeat gracefully and stay
away from further mischief. Friday's election ensures that the house of Supreme
Leader Khamenei will remain by far the focal point of power. It is the
headquarters of the country's presidency, Iran's armed forces, especially the
IRGC. It is the fountainhead of the three branches of government and the nodal
point of foreign, security and economic policies.
Obama may contemplate a way to directly engage Khamenei. It is a difficult
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.