Like all systems caught in ideological tangles, the Khomeinist regime is, once again, facing one of its fundamental contradictions: Whether it is a republic, that is to say a political order based on the will of the people as expressed in elections, or an “Imamate” in which the “Supreme Guide” claims a divine mandate.
That contradiction was highlighted in an epistolary duel last month between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the two Larijani brothers, respectively heading the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament, and the judiciary. Clearly, the brothers are angling for the presidency with Ali-Ardeshir, the man in the Majlis, as candidate. But they know that, unless they keep credible candidates out, they would have little chance of winning.
Last time Ali-Ardeshir stood for the presidency he collected around four percent of the votes.
It is clear that the brothers have embarked on their shenanigans with more than a wink and a nod from “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. On their own, they would have not had the support base to make so brazen a bid for the nation’s highest elected office.
The two brothers are attacking across two fronts.
On one front they are trying to humiliate Ahmadinejad as he prepares to leave office in six months. Ali-Ardeshir has mobilised his friends in the Majlis to pass laws bypassing the government, annexing part of the duties of the executive branch. The other brother, Sadeq, a mullah, has rejected the president’s oversight of the judiciary. If established as systemic practice, these moves could drastically reduce the powers of the presidency.
On a second front, the brothers are trying to make it impossible for many potentially credible candidates from standing in next June’s presidential election.
A proposed amendment of the law regulating presidential elections requirements fixes new conditions designed to bar specific rivals.
For example, the stipulation that candidates should be no older than 75 years of age would exclude former President Hashemi Rafsanjani who is tempted to stand.
Another condition is that the would-be candidate must have a master’s degree from a university. That would exclude another potential candidate, former President Muhammad Khatami who has a B.A in chemistry, and former Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri who trained as a junior cleric.
The proposed amendments would also end the government’s control of the elections through the Interior Ministry.
That control could enable the Ahmadinejad faction to “arrange” a victory for its own candidate, assuming it manages to get him past the hurdles set up by the Larijanis. With elections conducted by a committee composed of men appointed by the Larijanis and Khamenei, the trio would be able to push their candidate across the finishing line.
The most significant new condition is that candidates should secure approval from at least 100 “senior political and religious leaders” before their application is submitted to the 12-man Council of Guardians for final consideration.
It is not clear how the supposedly “senior political and religious leaders” would be chosen. But the Larijanis have hinted that the decision would rest with the Majlis and the judiciary; organs they control. That means that the two brothers could veto candidates fielded by the Ahmadinejad faction.
Khamenei has made little secret of his desire to reduce the president to little more than an advisor to the “Supreme Guide”. To him Iran is an “Imamate” not a republic, a system invented by Western “Infidels” in the 18th century. Khamenei has hinted that the presidency might be abolished in favour of a system in which a prime minister appointed by the “Supreme Guide” handles executive affairs.
With less than six months left of his mandate, Ahmadinejad appears to have decided to fight for the preservation of whatever is left of the presidency’s status. He has published texts of letters he has written to the two Larijanis as well as Khamenei, reminding the trio that the president, elected by the people, enjoys a legitimacy that no other official, including the un-elected “Supreme Guide”, could claim. Ahmadinejad has cast himself as the custodian of the constitution and, believe it or not, the democratic voice of the people.
The tone of Ahmadinejad’s letters leaves little doubt about his determination not to be pushed into the oblivion without a fight. It is also clear that he wants his faction to be present in the next election with a credible candidate even if that means challenging the “Supreme Guide”.
Beyond personal rivalries, inherent to most political systems, the Khomeinist regime suffers from a deep crisis of identity. It is a profoundly despotic system with clear totalitarian ambitions. At the same time, however, it has democratic pretensions.
The result is a double-headed eagle that is unable to fly very far in any direction.
If the system increases its despotic dose by depriving the presidency of whatever little power it has left, the result could be a greater loss of support among the narrow but determined elite of bureaucrats, technocrats and the military-security organs that keep the system afloat. If, on the other hand, the system gives more leeway to its democratic pretensions it could encourage the silent majority that was never won over by Khomeinism to challenge the very existence of the regime.
The latest round in the power struggle for shaping the future course of Iran comes at a time of deepening economic crisis and the continued threat of military conflict with the United States and/or Israel. At the same time the Middle East’s political landscape is changing in ways that could only increase the Islamic Republic’s isolation. Change in Syria could also mean an end to the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and Iran’s domination in Lebanon. At the same time, despite efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, relations with Iraq are also on a sliding slope.
Not surprisingly, the mood in Iran these days is very grim.
First Published in Asharq Alawsat