Political Power Struggle in Iran

Fighting a Losing Battle

According to the Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi, the great hope of the Iranian reform movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has manoeuvred himself right off the playing field in the aftermath of the elections. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is emerging from the political crisis as the winner

Mir Hossein Mousavi (photo: dpa)
Torn: If Mousavi intends to continue his campaign for a re-run of the election, he will have to pass over the country's laws and ignore Khamenei's commands  the system he openly supports

​​On 29 June, Iran's Guardian Council confirmed the validity of the controversial outcome of the presidential election, effectively slamming the door on any further appeals.

The two defeated candidates who called the election result into question, Mehdi Karroubi and most particularly Mir Hossein Mousavi, now have only one option left open to them, namely to try to mobilise millions of people through demonstrations, gatherings or strikes. The likelihood that they will actually succeed in doing so is virtually zero.

The Iranian regime can still mobilise millions of loyal supporters and is also in a position to set the wheels of its machinery of oppression in motion. It is using both – albeit reluctantly – to suppress smaller demonstrations and campaign activities by force.

In order to continue his campaign and rally the population behind him for further protests, Mousavi would need a demonstration permit from the Ministry of the Interior, or at least a sign from the security forces that they would act with restraint.

Until a few days ago, Mousavi pinned his hopes in this regard on his ally Rafsanjani's relationship with the country's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and his influence within key government bodies (such as the Guardian Council, the Expediency Discernment Council, sections of parliament etc.) and with the aged yet influential ayatollahs.

However, a brief examination of Rafsanjani's past shows that in no power struggle over the past 30 years has he remained loyal to any alliance or ally. While Mousavi once again accused the Guardian Council of bias on 27 June, Rafsanjani called on the very same Guardian Council to review the election result in "a manner pleasing to God and in consultation with experts".

Six key areas of conflict

The recent unrest in Iran is shaped by six key conflicts; Rafsanjani plays a decisive role in two of them.

1. The conflict between the section of the population that demands social and political freedom and the government that refuses to grant them this freedom.

Ahmadinejad supporters in Tehran (photo: AP)
Underestimated electoral potential: Ahmadinejad supporters celebrate the president following his election victory on Vali Asr Square in Tehran

​​2. The conflict between the poorer classes of society in the cities and villages on the one hand and the urban middle class on the other. In the last elections, it was above all the impoverished that voted for Ahmadinejad. In his nationalist and populist rhetoric, he promised to redistribute the income from oil and gas sales more justly, to fight corruption in power and to use military and nuclear programmes to make Iran a dominant force in the region.

Most of Mousavi's support came from the urban middle class, who, for lack of an alternative, projected all their hopes and dreams onto him as a symbolic figure. He also enjoys the support of part of the country's super-rich, its intellectuals and other sections of society.

3. The contradiction between the despotic government and the achievements of the information revolution, in particular the Internet.

4. The dispute between the four blocs in government: the traditionalist conservatives, the fundamentalists, the religious reformers and the Islamic pragmatists.

5. The dispute between the first-generation leaders of the revolution (the old guard), which is primarily made up of conservative and traditionalist clerics, and the second generation (the new guard), which has emerged from the military apparatus and secret service circles and is most closely allied to the fundamentalists.

6. The dispute between two corrupt economic elites, both of which enjoy extensive economic privileges as a result of their influence with state organs. The older of the two elites is represented by the Rafsanjani family; the younger elite has emerged from the military apparatus and secret service circles.

Rafsanjani plays a key role in both the conflict between the old and the new guard and the two corrupt economic elites.

Ahmadinejad: a thorn in the flesh of the West

Add to this the fact that Ahmadinejad raises hackles throughout the western world. Iran's foreign, military and nuclear policies are not determined by the president alone, but also by the country's religious leader, National Security Council, parliament, influential associations and complicated alliances within the government.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo: AP)
Not the man the West wants to talk to: Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking in Tehran on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution

​​Moreover, all the presidential candidates approved by the Guardian Council hold the same views on Iran's nuclear programme and the issue of support for radical Palestinian organizations. Nevertheless, it is not this entire bloc, but Ahmadinejad that has become a problem for the current US administration and the countries of Europe.

The Obama administration would like to engage in direct negotiations with Iran. For his part, Ahmadinejad has said and done more than any of his predecessors to make it clear that he is willing to enter into such talks. But it would be very difficult to justify to the American public the establishment of direct diplomatic ties to a president who denies the Holocaust and openly calls for Israel to be removed from the map of the world.

Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli statements are grist to the mill of those who are opposed to entering into direct negotiations with Iran. Europe and the USA would prefer any of the other presidential candidates as a counterpart. If, however, everything ultimately points to Ahmadinejad, they will have no choice but to accept this fact.

The Iranian economy is based on the distribution of income from oil and gas; the government is responsible for organising this distribution. The contradiction between the social classes that use their political sway to pocket immense wealth from oil and gas agreements, import trade and huge economic projects on the one hand, and the poor, who benefit from none of all that, on the other is grotesque.

The middle class benefits from the petrodollars, but is dissatisfied with the fact that the regime meddles in citizens' private lives. For lack of an alternative, they support the religious reformers, who stand for a more liberal interpretation of Islam.

Political power play

The outcome of the election is decisive for the outcome of the power struggle between the various blocs within the Iranian government. Here too, accusations of corruption play a major role.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (photo: AP)
Strengthened by the crisis: the words of Khamenei reinforce the impression that Rafsanjani will keep his current privileges and his position of influence

​​In the Iranian presidential elections of 2005, which were organised by Khatami's government, Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani without any need for rigging because he spoke up for the poor and the disenfranchised.

One of his objectives was to break the monopoly-like dominance of Rafsanjani's family and clique in the Ministry for Oil, in the central Ministry for Economics and the economically influential religious foundations to the benefit of the new guard, which has emerged from the military apparatus and the secret service.

Rafsanjani tried to control Ahmadinejad by openly criticising his policies, inciting influential old ayatollahs against him and using his influence in bodies such as the Expediency Discernment Council, which can monitor the cabinet, and the Assembly of Experts, which has the formal right to monitor the religious leader and to nominate and dismiss him. Ahmadinejad reacted by arresting some of Rafsanjani's close allies and uncovering cases of corruption in his clique.

Rafsanjani, who aspires to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei in the event of his death, is fighting on a number of fronts to ensure that this opportunity does not slip from his grasp and to safeguard both the privileged position of his bloc and clique and the position of influence of the old guard.

It was he who encouraged the Executives of Construction Party (hezb-e kargozaran-e sazandegi), a party of wealthy religious pragmatists, to support Mousavi. This party  like Rafsanjani himself  holds no sway in the population and does not even enjoy the support of the middle class. It does, however, have massive financial means at its disposal and employs modern methods of agitation.

Rafsanjani made use of both his vast wealth and the connections he has forged throughout his life to extend his network of supporters among the clergy that belong to the first generation of the revolution and other influential ayatollahs and to move closer to the religious reformers.

In his efforts to do so, Ahmadinejad's political errors played into his hands. Ahmadinejad's Achilles' heel is the failure of his economic programme. He was not able to make good his promises of a more just distribution of oil wealth and a victory over corrupt leaders  a fact that lost him some of his supporters.

The religious reformers initially pinned their electoral hopes on Mohammad Khatami. While his candidacy proved popular in Tehran, travels throughout other provinces made it patently obvious that his star was in decline.

Bolstered by the five million votes he received in the last presidential election, Mehdi Karroubi declared his willingness to run against Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani and the moderate religious reformers, however, rejected Karroubi's populist economic programme and his slogans about fighting corruption.

Beneath the green banner

During his time as prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi enjoyed the support of both Khomeini and Rafsanjani, who was, at the time, Khomeini's most senior advisor and speaker of the house.

The electorate considered him incorruptible. During his time in office, he mercilessly and determinedly pushed through the execution of opposition activists and enjoyed the trust of the traditionalist conservative clergy.

Mousavi supporters demonstrating in Tehran (photo: AP)
Political reform and colourful revolution: Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters generally hail from the educated middle and upper classes of Iranian society

​​Rafsanjani and his entourage provided the lion's share of the funds for Mousavi's election campaign. Rafsanjani was certain that if Mousavi won the election, he would control the key economic ministries and associations and that Mousavi would implement his policy of privatisation, albeit not without criticism.

With astonishing aptitude, Mousavi's election campaign team – a mixture of his confidantes, members of Rafsanjani's clique and leaders of the religious reform movement – shrouded Mousavi's personality, biography and convictions in a green banner. For Mousavi, green was a reference to religious symbolism; for the middle class, it became the symbol of a colourful revolution.

The Western media, which reported mainly from Tehran and above all from the viewpoint of the middle class, ignored the presence of millions of people at Ahmadinejad's election rallies in Greater Tehran and in the provinces and joyfully predicted that Mousavi would win.

The middle class was once again inspired; hope that the Islamic system could be reformed – a hope that had wilted after Khatami's failure – blossomed again.

However, the presence of Rafsanjani in the triple alliance with Khatami and Mousavi and the huge amounts that were spent on Mousavi's election campaign damaged his popularity among the poorer classes.

Ahmadinejad also succeeded in transforming the television duel with Mousavi into an attack on Rafsanjani; Mousavi walked straight into the trap. Ahmadinejad promised that if he won, he would uncover the cases of corruption relating to Rafsanjani and other influential politicians and bring them to justice.

A political earthquake

No-one foresaw the political earthquake that rocked the country after the results of the election were announced; no-one was prepared for it. Millions of people took to the streets in one of the largest protests of the past 30 years, and the police just stood by and watched.

Before the elections and again after the brutal crushing of his supporters' demonstrations, Mousavi declared his unashamed support for the "instruments of the law in the holy system", the Islamic constitution and Khomeini's interpretation of Islam.

Faraj Sarkohi (photo: DW)
As one of the spokespeople of the Iranian writers' initiative "Text of the 134", Faraj Sarkohi was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to death in a secret trial. The sentence was overturned as a result of international protests. He now lives in Frankfurt am Main

​​His criticism of Ahmadinejad's breach of the law and the emphasis of his own law-abidance were two of his most important slogans. Two of these "instruments of the law in the holy system", namely Iran's Supreme Leader and Guardian Council, have now confirmed the result of the election, which Mousavi himself declared to have been rigged.

Three more of these "legitimate instruments" and pillars of the system – the police, the Pasdaran and the Basij militia – brutally crushed demonstrations involving Mousavi's supporters. The Ministry of the Interior issued no permits for Mousavi's protests. History allowed Mousavi to walk into a trap.

If Mousavi intends to continue his campaign, he will have to pass over the "instruments of the law in the holy system". Given that Mousavi wants to save the system he so dearly loves through reform, accepting this role would be an incredibly difficult thing for him to do.

Before the police began to get heavy-handed with the demonstrators, the path to a compromise was open to Mousavi. This compromise would have given Rafsanjani the assurance that he, his family and the inner circle of his clique would not have been prosecuted and that accusations of corruption would not have been mentioned in the media.

He would have been able to keep his current position of power and would have been Khamenei's possible successor in the event of his death. Moreover, he would have held on to control of the Ministry for Oil and other key economic ministries and associations.

Mousavi would have been allowed to run again in the next presidential election. For its part, the regime would have been spared the dangerous consequences of the violent treatment of protestors.

Period of calm

In his widely covered address, Iran's religious leader, Khamenei, acquitted Rafsanjani of corruption. One of Khamenei's confidantes let it be known that Ahmadinejad would consult Rafsanjani about the selection of ministers.

The newspaper Jomhuriy-e Eslami, which is close to Rafsanjani and supported Mousavi, published an editorial in which it emphasised Rafsanjani's acquittal from corruption charges and Khamenei's position as supreme arbitrator and announced that a period of calm would ensue.

The words of the religious leader reinforce the impression that within the realm of what is possible, Rafsanjani has been given the privileges he sought and has abandoned Mousavi in the crisis.

In his very first speech after the election, Rafsanjani declared that he supported the position of the Supreme Leader and said that the Guardian Council had the right to check the election results.

If this assumption is correct and if Mousavi's campaign is rapidly losing momentum, Rafsanjani is - at least in the short term - the winner of recent events. Even if the election results weren't rigged, Ahmadinejad has been weakened, and Rafsanjani has once again asserted his power.

Faraj Sarkohi

© Qantara.de 2009

In 1985, Faraj Sarkohi founded the cultural magazine Adineh (Friday) and worked as its editor-in-chief for eleven years. He now works as a writer in Frankfurt on Main. Sarkohi was awarded the Kurt Tucholsky Award for politically persecuted writers in 1998 and is an honorary member of the PEN Centre in Germany.

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