Embattled Ahmadinejad stands his corner
By Mahan Abedin
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered his most fiery and stinging
speech at the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday. His purpose was
partly to secure his legacy on the world stage (he is due to step down in 2013)
and partly to brandish his hardline reputation at a time of increasing pressure
on the domestic front.
Largely owing to his divisive and controversial persona, there is a dearth of
balanced appraisal of Ahmadinejad's views and positions. A balanced appraisal
of the Iranian president's positions, especially on foreign policy, requires a
clear understanding of the conceptual framework guiding the same.
On the domestic front Ahmadinejad has been accused of accommodating a "deviant
current" within his government and
generally violating the ideological boundaries of the Islamic Revolution. There
have even been murmurings that the president may be impeached before his second
term expires in June 2013.
A review of Ahmadinejad's views and positions on three core issues, namely
nationalism, relations with the United States and Velayat-e-Faqih (Rule of the
Jurisconsult), establish to what extent (if any) the president has strayed from
the cardinal principles of the Islamic Republic.
But regardless of his fall from grace, the formal impeachment of Ahmadinejad is
unlikely, owing to his significant popularity and the fact that the president
can legitimately claim to represent an authentic ideological strand in the
A demagogue on the world stage
In what has become an annual routine, Ahmadinejad's latest speech at the UN
General Assembly was a mix of condemnatory diatribe against Western foreign
policy, as well as the Western powers' historical record; a grievance-laden
critique of current global "management"; a revisionist attitude toward the
Holocaust; laced with a strong dose of conspiracy theory pertaining to the
terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
Before rushing to judgement about the ostensible radicalism and/or
irrationality of Ahmadinejad, it is worthwhile analyzing the conceptual and
contextual framework which informs the blistering speeches that the Iranian
president has delivered at the UN General Assembly since September 2005.
The political forces which engineered Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005
mounted their political and ideological campaign upon a profound critique of
the formerly ruling reformists' domestic and foreign policies. In the foreign
policy sphere they strongly objected to former president Mohammad Khatami's
"dialogue of civilizations" discourse which they correctly viewed as masking a
conciliatory approach toward the Western powers.
The conceptual framework behind the "dialogue of civilizations" narrative -
which formed the essential flank of the reformists' foreign policy - was the
tacit acceptance that features of Iranian foreign policy in the 1980s, and to a
much lesser extent the 1990s, had veered toward radicalism and unnecessarily
alienated key regional and global powers.
The reformists sought to undo the damage, as they saw it, by offering what
amounted to a strategic ideological retreat by way of an overly-conciliatory
The so-called "principalist" (Osoolgara) factions who came to power
following the June 2005 presidential elections view the world in very different
terms to the reformists. According to the principalist worldview, it is not
Iran which should be offering a strategic ideological retreat, but the Western
powers, whose conquest and exploitation of other countries through centuries,
in addition to their contemporaneous expansionist and arrogant policies on the
world stage (as the principalists see it) has provoked a strong reaction in the
developing world, the most important example of which (from their point of
view) was Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Thus, from the principalists' point of view, undoing the ideological and
conceptual damage inflicted by the reformists on foreign policy formulation and
implementation, requires an enthusiastic, and at times blistering, rhetorical
assault on the foundations of Western power. It is the job of Ahmadinejad, as
the effective spokesman of these factions, to carry the message to the highest
platform of the world stage, namely the UN General Assembly, and to mount the
Islamic Republic's defense of its views and principles in an offensive manner.
To that end, Ahmadinejad's pugilistic style of politics and his polished
demagoguery, help to deliver the message in either the most inspirational or
alienating form, depending on the perspective of the audience.
Furthermore, far from representing his personal views per se (that is not to
say Ahmadinejad doesn't believe in his own rhetoric), his blistering and
self-righteous speeches are part of a carefully thought-out foreign policy by
some of the more unorthodox factions in the Islamic Republic. It is those very
same factions that have come under unprecedented attack from the conservative
establishment in recent months and weeks.
Radical or deviant?
Since April the conservative establishment has launched a full-scale assault on
Ahmadinejad's government, particularly a narrow circle of the president's
closest advisers, by mobilizing all of the media and political resources at its
While the origin of the row is several years old, and rests on Ahmadinejad's
refusal to distance himself from his chief aide and right-hand man Esfandyar
Rahim Mashaei, it suddenly escalated to a stratospheric level in early April
when Ahmadinejad appeared to ignore supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's
order that he re-instate intelligence chief Heydar Moslehi, whom Ahmadinejad
had dismissed a few days earlier. The president was only forced to back down
after Khamenei went to the extraordinary step of submitting his wishes in
While the reasons behind Ahmadinejad's sacking of Moslehi are not altogether
clear, it likely relates to suspicions in the presidential camp that Moslehi
had been ordered by the conservative establishment to spy on some of the people
closest to the president, specifically high-powered individuals who the
establishment believes form a "deviant current" (Jareeyan-e-Enherafi) at the
commanding heights of government.
These individuals include Mashaei, former vice-president Hamid Baghayee (who in
May was suspended from public service for four years for alleged violations
committed while he headed the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization) and
first vice-president Mohammad Rahimi (who has been repeatedly accused of
involvement in an insurance-related fraud by conservative-run media).
Ahmadinejad's public spat with the supreme leader led to the president
boycotting cabinet meetings and official visits for 10 days, an extraordinary
move that was met with derision and ridicule by the conservative establishment
who berated the president for his apparently puerile style.
In keeping with a three-decades tradition, the establishment has launched a
merciless attack on the so-called "deviant current" without fully explaining
who precisely comprises this current and what are their precise beliefs and
Indeed, it is the ferocity of the attack - reminiscent of campaigns directed
against political figures just before they are formally removed from their
positions, the impeachment of first president Abol-Hassan Banisadr in June 1981
and the dismissal of Ayatollah Montazeri as Ayatollah Khomeini's designated
successor in March 1989 being the prime examples - that has led some analysts
to surmise that Ahmadinejad may about to be formally impeached.
But beyond Ahmadinejad's falling out with the establishment, there are three
key political and ideological issues on which Ahmadinejad's declared views and
positions conflict with Islamic Republican orthodoxy.
The first concerns the president's position on nationalism. In recent years
Ahmadinejad and his closest advisers have increasingly championed the cause of
Iranian nationalism, apparently at the expense of the Islamic Republic's
declared commitment to the politics of pan-Islam.
His chief aide, Mashaei, has gone as far as indulging in jingoistic nationalism
by declaring that the only legitimate form of Islam is the one practiced in
Iran. This drew a furious reaction from the establishment, with the chief of
staff of the armed forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi, accusing Mashaei of
crimes against national security.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in Western analytical circles, the Islamic
Republic does not reflexively reject nationalism; rather it mounts its critique
of the latter based on its Western intellectual origins and orientation. But if
nationalism is stripped of its chauvinistic elements, and subordinated to an
overall Islamic ethos and worldview, then it may be acceptable.
At a deeper level, the Islamic Revolution takes a dim view of popular
nationalism, in so far as that can be exploited by populist and demagogic
politicians, but adopts a more positive view on institutional nationalism,
inasmuch as the latter is at least in part conditioned by official institutions
and ultimately works to the advantage of the official worldview.
The second is Ahmadinejad's repeated attempts to renew Iranian-American
diplomatic ties. Despite his sometimes fiery rhetoric, the Iranian president
has repeatedly asked for a face to face meeting with the US president and has
even written several letters to former US president George W Bush and the
incumbent Barack Obama.
From an Islamic Republican point of view, there are essentially three flaws
with this approach. Foremost, while limited relations with the US are not ruled
out indefinitely, the majority view in the Islamic Republic is that the time is
not yet right to initiate a serious dialogue with America. Second, any such
dialogue can only come about after exhaustive national debate and once a
genuine consensus has been attained. Third, only the official institutions can
initiate and manage such an approach to the United States.
Hitherto, Ahmadinejad's style has ridden roughshod over these admittedly
unstated principles. Not only has the president reached out to an America that
doesn't want to listen to him (or any other Iranian leader for that matter) but
worse still he has done so outside the official channels. Indeed, if the rumors
are to be believed Mashaei is in charge of organizing back-channel talks with
Last but not least Ahmadinejad's views on Velayat-e-Faqih (Rule of the
Jurisconsult), the cornerstone of Iran's unique Islamic system, are a radical
departure from ideological orthodoxy. Not only is Ahmadinejad the first
president to directly challenge the authority of the current Valiyeh Faqih
(ruler-jurisconsult), ie Khamenei, but his supposedly conciliatory statements
subsequent to his act of defiance only made matters worse for him.
Following his bold defiance of Khamenei's order to reinstate intelligence chief
Moslehi, Ahmadinejad claimed that there were no tensions in his relations with
the leader, a relationship which he described as being possessed of a
father-son quality. This drew a sharp rebuke - bordering on ridicule - by the
grandees of the conservative establishment who called attention to
Ahmadinejad's confusion by reminding the president that from a strictly
ideological point of view the relationship between the Valiyeh Faqih and his
subjects is one of ruler and ruled, with no exceptions.
Beyond ideological orthodoxy, there appears to be a constitutional and
political dispute between some of the principalist factions backing Ahmadinejad
and the conservative establishment, the crux of which revolves around the
former's expansionist reading of the president's constitutional powers.
In combination, the three issues outlined here, namely nationalism, relations
with the US and a minimalist interpretation of the role of the
ruler-jurisconsult, are more than enough to alarm the conservative
establishment, which helps explain the latter's mobilization of formidable
resources to clip the wings of the president and his men.
But the establishment's assault on Ahmadinejad should be interpreted more as an
attempt to weaken the president as opposed to preparing the grounds for his
Beside the fact that Ahmadinejad's presidency is due to expire in less than two
years, impeachment is unlikely for two overriding reasons. First and foremost
Ahmadinejad enjoys a formidable social base across Iran, with most of his
supporters hailing from the lower socio-economic classes. Second, the president
has considerable support within the Islamic Republic and there is a real danger
than any serious move against him (for instance the arrest of Mashaei) could
force a strong response from the principalists and the right-wing factions more
The conservative establishment is still grappling with the repercussions of the
suppression of the country's reform movement and it can ill-afford to open a
second front against the principalists, who not only command roughly the same
level of public support as the reformists, but crucially owing to their deeper
networks and connectivity within the system, can mount a more formidable
Ironically, increasingly aggressive posturing by both sides has brought the
broad outlines of a truce in sight. Through its aggressive media and political
campaign the conservative establishment has sent an unmistakable message that
further ideological "deviation", in particular overt disobedience of the
leader, may trigger a drastic response, including that of impeachment.
The president has ratcheted up the rhetoric on the world stage, partly to
brandish his hardline reputation to the Islamic Republic and its supporters
across the region, but more importantly perhaps to mobilize principalist
opinion behind him with a view to deterring the establishment from undertaking
further measures against his inner circle.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
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