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    Middle East
     Jun 17, 2009
A very Iranian coup
By Chris Cook

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

If you look at recent events in Iran through the lens of oil, money and power, you won't go too far wrong.

I've been working with Iran for over five years in respect of developing its oil market and financial system, and in the last year - post the credit crunch, which I predicted - I have had the chance to talk to key ministers, heads of state corporations, the chair of the Majlis (parliament) energy commission, even clerics and merchants - bazaaris.

The power base of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and


President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's faction is the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the volunteer militia, the Basiji, and their economic base consists of the religious foundations known as Bonyads.

Unlike in the West, where governments are owned and run by the banking and financial system, in Iran it's the Oil Ministry that controls the purse strings and calls the shots. The Khamenei faction has gradually been taking over key positions in the ministry and its myriad state corporations.

It should be remembered that when Ahmadinejad gained power he was able to put in his own appointees as ministers, except for the key Oil Ministry, where the Majlis, or parliament, twice rejected his appointments and appointed someone acceptable to the "Oil Mafia" more or less identified with former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In the past couple of years, we have finally seen a new oil minister appointed by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In August 2007, National Iranian Oil Company boss Gholamhossein Nozari took over from Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh. Most of the old guard - people like Kazempour Ardebili, who was for 20 years Iran's representative at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and several others of long standing in key positions - have "retired" or become "advisers".

Having finally wrested control after years of struggle of the oil revenues from the Rafsanjani faction, the Khamenei'ites are in no mood to give it up.

Ahmadinejad is, as far as I know, not one of the beneficiaries (being a genuinely honest and religious man), but is a useful appointee in the same way that George W Bush was a useful cipher for Big Oil, before Big Money reasserted control in the US.

My take is that the result of this election has been a very Iranian coup, and that the people in control are very much analogous to a less technocratic and unsophisticated type of siloviki - or security service types found in the corridors of power in Russia and elsewhere.

Personally, I doubt whether this faction will be able to maintain and consolidate control because its members do not have the expertise to manage an unwilling bureaucracy. They also seem to have alienated the powerful bazaaris, whose support was instrumental both for the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, and for Ahmadinejad more recently.

I don't see any chance of a violent revolutionary struggle, since the Iranian military is keeping out of it. This is an economic, not an ideological struggle.

The next phase in Iran will be fought on the economic battleground provided President Barack Obama is shrewd enough to stay out of it, and not to allow the nuke-nationalist card to be played. Indeed, the friendlier and more helpful the US is, the more difficult will be the new government's position.

In respect of the economy, it was quite evident in January when I was last in Teheran, as the only non-Iranian speaker at a high-level conference, that the "reformist" Western financial approach to privatize everything and fuel the economy with debt, has taken a big hit. Here, the reformists are in exactly the same position as Obama: they don't have a Plan B.

Chris Cook is a former director of the International Petroleum Exchange, he is now a strategic market consultant, entrepreneur and commentator.

(Copyright 2009 Chris Cook.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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