Winston Churchill once said that watching the Kremlin was like watching two bulldogs fight beneath a carpet — outsiders have little idea what is going on until the bones of the loser fly out from beneath. These days much of the same could be said of politics in Tehran.
Although his bones are still intact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken a severe beating recently as a result of his ongoing, byzantine dispute with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While rifts between political factions in Iran are well documented, this particular conflict illustrates the reality that the supreme leader and those around him are resorting to increasingly drastic measures to snuff out political pluralism in the Islamic Republic, and that the fallout with their erstwhile neoconservative allies will have far reaching repercussions for Iranian politics in the future.
The split between the conservatives and neoconservatives occurred after the latter emerged as a political force in the 2005 presidential election. Behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, their message of economic populism, revolutionary zeal, and puritanical moralism struck a chord with the traditional conservatives looking for an ally against the reformist movement. Ahmadinejad found popular support by promising to root out corruption and redirect Iran’s oil revenue to the country’s poor.
But now the neoconservatives are in serious decline.
Three events illustrate this trend. The first is the trouncing they suffered in the recent parliamentary elections. Conservative members of Parliament now dominate the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) and are incensed at what they perceive as the president’s lack of respect for parliament, exemplified recently when Ahmadinejad came before the Majlis to answer questions and instead mocked the MPs and cracked jokes. The Majlis is so hostile to the president that some conservative MPs have called for his impeachment.
Secondly, Ali Larijani was re-elected as Speaker of the Majlis. Larijani is an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad from the conservative camp and is seen as close to Khamenei. He is well placed to frustrate Ahmadinejad’s last year, and is also well placed for the presidential elections in 2013.
Thirdly, Khamenei re-appointed former president Rafsanjani as head of the Expediency Council, a religious supervisory body. Rafsanjani is also a rival of the president, and was not expected to retain his post because of his soured relationship with Khamenei. Even if he is at odds with the supreme leader, Rafsanjani’s presence in the government will keep pressure on Ahmadinejad’s administration and strengthen Khamenei’s network of supporters, even if he doesn’t like him very much.
These events, in addition to Khamenei’s surprise statement last year in support of the idea of abolishing the presidency altogether, will weaken Ahmadinejad at the end of his term. Yet he remains defiant, and will likely continue to press his policies, try to limit Khamenei’s influence and try to position his allies to propagate neoconservative influence. Regardless, he will find this difficult in the face of the setbacks he has suffered.
That Khamenei mooted the possibility of eliminating the position of the presidency is significant. It says that essentially the conservatives are willing to bring back the position of prime minister, elected by the Majlis, as a replacement for the president, who is directly elected. Khamenei and his camp see the presidency — a position the previous supreme leader sought to empower in the late 1980s — as a liability. The last three administrations have not been sufficiently amenable, and it is not clear if the conservatives have a candidate able to win by direct vote from the people. Therefore, since they have been able to exert more influence over the Majlis through their members on the Guardian Council — which interprets the constitution and approves MPs — having a prime minister instead of a president would mean more conservative control.
With the decline of the neocons, the conservatives now are moving to maintain their control over the republican institutions of the government. They do not want a repeat of Ahmadinejad. Eliminating the presidency would aid them in this, but it remains to be seen if they will pursue it before the next presidential election in one year’s time. Either way, they will likely try to limit political pluralism and increase the checks and balances on the electorate. Their experience with the neoconservatives has taught them they can’t even trust their friends, and so now they are loath to leave anything to chance in the future.