In recent months, Iranian politics has taken a back seat to developments in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Western media, with only the interminable discussions over Iran’s nuclear program eliciting much comment. But this does not mean that politics within the regime has stopped. The last three months have been dominated by a clash between President and Parliament, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bid to take over Iran’s largest private university has provoked a clash with the Principalists (the term the Fundamentalists use for themselves) majority in the Majlis , Iran’s Parliament. This clash in turn, may well foreshadow a major struggle over the succession to his office.
The battle over Azad University, a loosely affiliated system of campuses that educates more than a million students, is anything but an academic matter as its assets have a net worth of nearly 250 billion dollars. Because the university is closely linked with former President Rafsanjani, the dispute is partially an effort by Ahmadinejad to attack his powerful rival, and partially an attempt to crack down on student unrest by taking control of the largest University in the country – a university that until recently has acted as a safe haven for opposition. More importantly, however, the clash represents the changed political positions of the President and the Leader in the world created by the 2009 Presidential election
Central to the new order of things, is the independence of the President from the Leader. News reports at the time of the elections focused heavily on the person of Khamenei, something that was in many ways encouraged by the President himself, who seemed to go out of his way to separate himself from the events. Ahmadinejad left the country a day after the results were announced, and even criticized the crackdown which followed. Contrary to suggestions that the nature of his reelection would weaken him, Ahmadinejad has emerged stronger, not least because Khamenei, in the course of the elections, lost his power by becoming partisan. In reality, the Leader’s authority has always depended on mediating between factions, and while often aligned with Ahmadinejad, the very fact that he could intervene on behalf of the President’s opponents kept him vital to the President’s cause. With those opponents powerless, Khamenei influence has declined accordingly, and he has been forced to desperately move to set up new countervailing force which he can play off against the ambitions of the President.
This explains Khamenei’s increasingly desperate appeals to figures like Rafsanjani urging them to remain within the system, as well as his recent declaration that Iranians had a religious obligation to obey the Leader. While he may be many things, a fool is not one of them, and Ahmadinejad is clearly aware of where the remaining obstacles to his personal power are found. In fact, he began moving against them even before the elections last year when he sacked his Interior Minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, after the latter made a confidential report to the Leader involving irregularities in the 2008 Majlis elections. Traditionally Presidents defer to the Leader on appointments to the Interior Ministry, and Khamenei made his displeasure plain by making Pour-Mohammadi a personal adviser on security issues. The current clash has made the struggle explicit, as rather than being between a group of “dissident conservatives” and the President, is with Ali Larijiani, the Speaker of the Majlis, who is a former member of Khamenei’s staff, and represented him internationally. That Larijiani, a man previously close to Khamenei, is now heading a coalition stretching from the remaining Reformists in the Majlis to mainstream Principalists, is symptomatic of the degree to which Ahmadinejad is feared in powerful circles.
The question of succession looms large in these fears. With Khamenei already 75, maneuvering over the succession has been ongoing for some time. It is widely rumored that Mojtaba Khamenei, the son of the current Leader, is interested in the position, and that this interest has driven his efforts on behalf of Ahmadinejad in both 2005(when he urged the Revolutionary Guard to campaign in Ahmadinejad’s favor) and 2009(when it is argued he went much farther). Mojtaba however is not an Ayatollah, and has few clerical credentials, and while this may make him attractively weak to the President’s circle, any effort to elevate him would be fraught with difficulty for the same reasons. As a consequence he seems to be the only one to take his candidacy seriously. More plausible as a candidate is Ayatollah Taqi Misbah-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor. Seen as the religious ideologist of the hard right in Qom, Misbah-Yazdi has repeatedly advocated the use of violence as justifiable in political disputes, and it was rumored last year that he went so far as to issue a religious edict endorsing the killing of protestors. He has defended suicide bombing, stating that “when protecting Islam and the Muslim `Ummah depends on martyrdom operations, it not only is allowed, but even is an obligation.”
The prospect of Misbah-Yazdi as Leader is something that should not frighten only Iranians. An Iranian regime freed from even the fiction of a commitment to democracy would be a close ally of dictatorships throughout the third world, while the internationalist revolutionary zeal of Misbah-Yazdi and his circle, missing in the Iranian elite since the 1980s, would be given free reign. The consequences for the West in issues ranging from the Israel-Palestinian conflict to the struggle over nuclear proliferation would be enormous with a regime that not only does not care about the international isolation sanctions bring, but would welcome it. Misbah-Yazdi has indicated that he views foreign influences as the driving force behind the alienation of Iran’s youth from Islam, and the prospect of foreign investment as the driving force behind the “apostasy” of figures like Rafsanjani. It would seem doubtful that he find much to fear from President Obama’s threats of sanctions.
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Given the importance of the position to Iran’s future, it is unlikely that the remaining non-Ahmadinejad forces in Iran will roll over and play dead. The Assembly of Experts elections in 2006 were one of the few occasions when the normally compliant Council of Guardians roused itself against the President, disqualifying a host of pro-Ahmadinejad candidates including Misbah-Yazdi’s son. When the Assembly convened, Rafsanjani defeated Misbah-Yazdi by a vote of 41-31 for its chairmanship, with the hard-line head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Jannati taking 14 votes. Rafsanjani’s victory has proved limited however. His powerbase failed to hold together in the face of Basij intimidation last summer, and there is reason to doubt it would do much better when the stakes are potentially higher.
As a consequence, while Rafsanjani would prefer his own candidacy, and the Reformists would prefer any non-Principalist, the most likely alternative to Misbah-Yazi is likely be an anti-Ahmadinejad Principalist, with the name of Hashemi Shahroudi, the former Head of the Judiciary rising to prominence. One of the leaders of the judicial crackdown on Khatami’s Reformists,, Shahroudi hardly appears a moderate, but he has been a strong critic of Ahmadinejad, attacking the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and criticizing the state media for coverage of the previous election that he argued was biased in favor of the incumbent. It is a testament to the political weakness of the Reformists and even the moderate Principalists that they are likely to be in the position of supporting a man who jailed thousands of journalists and pro-democracy activists, but it is opposition to Ahmadinejad and not ideology that holds together the Iranian opposition, at least those parts of it that remain within the regime.
That is if they follow the rules. In the current dispute, Ahmadinejad showed few signs being willing to let the opposition of the Majlis stop him. Shortly after the vote, the Basij staged a major protest outside of the Majlis, castigating its members as thieves, and the following day they prevented enough deputies from entering to achieve a majority for reversing the earlier vote. Shortly thereafter, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani the head of the Judiciary, invalidated a court ruling which had struck down the new bill. While the Supreme Leader stepped in on July 25th to urge both sides to step back, an Iranian political analyst told the Turkish Weekly that “The Supreme Leader no longer wields the power to determine fate. Very soon, another round in the struggle for Azad University will begin.”