“The country is heading for crisis.”
This is how Mohammad Khatami, a former president of the Islamic Republic, recently assessed the situation in Iran. A mid-ranking mullah, Mr. Khatami met some former regime dignitaries in Tehran to express concern about the future of the 32-year old theocracy.
Mr. Khatami is not alone in his concern. Another mullah and former president, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has also offered a similar analysis.
The crisis that both foresee is linked to the 2012 elections for the next Islamic Majlis or parliament.
Iran has a history of parliamentary elections, under two monarchies and the Khomeinist regime, going back to 1906. However, none of the 24 elections held over the past 100 years could be described as free and fair. The reason is that, despite elections, Iran never became a democracy.
The point of elections was arranging the balance of power within the ruling establishment.
To that extent, elections served a useful purpose. They offered an alternative to fratricide within the elite and, at least on occasions, an opportunity to air some issues of concern to society at large.
What is new is that the faction of the elite that is most powerful at this time is trying to eliminate all other factions. “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, who has had to share power with different presidents and parliaments since 1989, now believes that he is in a position to seize exclusive control.
The split caused within the ruling establishment by the disputed presidential election of 2009 has served Ayatollah Khamenei’s ambitions. By decreeing that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election, even before the official publication of the results, Ayatollah Khamenei made it clear that it was he, not the voting public, who chose the president.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s move gave Mr. Ahmadinejad the presidency but deprived it of much of its legitimacy and authority. In his second term, Mr. Ahmadinejad has been a politically wounded and vulnerable president, a far cry from his first term when he pretended to be the darling of the “poor masses” who had supposedly brought him to power.
Since 2009, Ayatollah Khamenei has used his office to put the focus on “Walayat al-Faqih” or rule by the theologian, a pseudo-religious concoction designed in 1979 to concentrate power in the hands of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini.
However, Ayatollah Khamenei has not been satisfied even with that. He has encouraged his cronies to launch the idea of “Walayat al-Faqih al-mutlaqah” or “Absolute rule by the theologian.”
This is how Kayhan, a daily newspaper that reflects Ayatollah Khamenei’s views, put it in an editorial last month: “Without absolute rule by the theologian, talking of Islam and Islamic government is meaningless. It was with that principle that the late Imam (i.e. Khomeini) breathed new life into Islam.”
The cult of personality built around Ayatollah Khamenei would have made even Saddam Hussein blush.
Government newspapers tell us that flowers in Shiraz are blooming because of his impending visit and that Egyptians at Tahrir Square were “energized” by their love for Ayatollah Khamenei. Every word uttered by Ayatollah Khamenei makes the United States tremble while all of mankind looks to him for “guidance toward a bright future.”
And that makes the next Majlis election more interesting.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s aim is to produce a Majlis controlled exclusively by his own faction. This means depriving factions linked to Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami of the 100 or so seats they hold in the 290-seat Majlis.
Attempts by Khatami and Rafsanjani to prevent a total purge of their factions by seeking a deal with Ayatollah Khamenei appear to have failed.
Needless to say the factions associated with the imprisoned former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi and former Majlis Speaker Mehdi Karroubi would not be allowed to present candidates, let alone win seats.
Having robbed Mr. Ahmadinejad of legitimacy, Ayatollah Khamenei then moved to deprive the president of constitutional power. The “Supreme Guide” vetoed the president’s choices of ministers and publicly ordered him to drop some of his key policies.
Worse still, a number of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s close associates, friends and family members have been sent to prison on dubious charges of “spreading wrong beliefs” and “corrupt practices.”
Years ago, Mr. Khatami had complained that, in the Khomeinist system, the president was no more than an “operative.” Now, Ayatollah Khamenei is trying to reduce the president to a mere puppet.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, however, is no Mr. Khatami and might not agree to go down without a fight.
Ayatollah Khamenei controls the so-called Council of the Custodians of the Constitution, a 12-man mullah-dominated body that must pre-select candidates for elections. Thus, the “Supreme Guide” could veto the candidacy of anyone suspected of being loyal to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
The “Supreme Guide” also controls most of the security services while also enjoying strong support within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s parallel army.
However, elections in the Islamic Republic are “arranged” by the Ministry of Interior at national level and provincial governors at local level. Those mechanisms are still controlled by Mr. Ahmadinejad and his associates.
At the same time, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s chief strategist, Esfandiar Masha’i, has spent the last five years setting up a network of support throughout the country. Using a mixture of state power, business incentives, and local alliances, with a pseudo-nationalistic sauce added, Mr. Masha’i controls a network that could impact the elections.
Producing a Majlis that is 100 percent controlled by Ayatollah Khamenehi might not be that easy.
By seeking absolute power, Mr. Khamenei may well encourage configurations that would have appeared surrealistic even a year ago.
What about an undeclared alliance linking Mr. Ahmadinejad’s faction with factions led by Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Khatami and, more daring still, the Mousavi-Karroubi tandem?
The short history of the Khomeinist republic is not without such strange stories in which bosom friends become bitter enemies and deadly foes are transformed into loving brothers.
More importantly, it would be unwise to ignore the elephant in the room, that is to say the Iranian people who might not welcome the imposition of absolutism at a time that the rest of the Middle East is moving toward pluralism.
By feeding Ayatollah Khamenei’s hubris, his acolytes do him no service. The crisis that Mr. Khatami and Mr. Rafsanjani talk about could be that of a regime unable to forge a working relationship with Iranian society at large.
Published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on July 9, 2011