Cracks in the Wall of Tehran’s Mullah Rule?


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begins his second term in high office, undermined by a deepening feud with his fellow hard-liners and under assault from a pro-reform opposition movement that has shown it can bring out again thousands of protesters despite a fierce crackdown.

With oppositionists still claiming the election marred by fraud, even some of his government members are unhappy. Culture Minister Mohamed-Hussein Saffar-Harandi has quit, citing “the recent events showing the government’s weakness”. On that very day, Ahmadinejad sacked Intelligence Minister Gholam Hussein Mohseni Ejeie. Furthermore, Ahmed Tavakkoli, a prominent conservative politician, criticized Ahmadinejad for the intelligence minister’s dismissal, saying that “there was no logical justification” for it. Although Ahmadinejad has frequently replaced his cabinet members over the past four years, then latest firings and resignations were significant, because the ministers were especially close to Iran’s Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, itself an ominent sign of what may be in store.

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran – if one can still call it a republic – is at a crossroads. What has been manifesting itself on Iran’s streets since the disputed presidential elections is not only the electorate’s collective feeling of injustice and rage, but also the religious-political elite’s underlying divide over the future of the velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) and its entire political system.

Ahmadinejad’s problems could indicate that some of his supporters are seeking greater control in the controversial president’s second term. He was frequently criticized during his first term for what was seen as his tendency to reserve power for a small clique of associates. But the continuing turmoil is making things much more complicated. Dozens of Iranians have been killed and hundreds arrested in clashes between protesters and security forces since the disputed elections.

In a sign of the growing challenge which Ahmadinejad also faces from some in the religious establishment, an influential clerical group at the seminary in the holy city of Qom called for the opposition to continue its campaign against the election results. While supreme leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hoseyni Khameni has stuck by his protégé Ahmadinejad – this seems not so much by sheer love for him, but because doing otherwise would be a blow to his own prestige after he declared the election clean. . But there may even be much more trouble ahead, for the newly re-elected president.

In a rare event, several grand ayatollahs like Ali Montazeri, Nasser Makaram Chirazi, Assadollah Zanjani, Moussavi Ardebili or grand ayatollah Sanaïe have expressed their concern as to the loss of legitimacy of the regime. Some, like grand ayatollah Ali Montaezeri, even openly supported the demonstrators. Indeed, those who know the Shiite world know that the religious and moral authority of these grand ayatollahs is by far superior to that of the “Guide” Khamenie. In the doctrinal system of Shiism, these are “marjaas”, poles of imitation for the faithful. This is not the case with Ali Khamenei who was raised politically, to the rank of Ayatollah, so as to accede to the post of “Guide”, by his then mentor Grand ayatollah Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini. Although the “Guide’ maintained his powerful position, with support of the Republican Guards and other security forces, for decades, the clerical establishment has silently, criticized Khomeini’s choice, but refrained intervening actively.

These positions taken by the higher clergy are currently witness to the importance of the present crisis, which broadly transcends the “simple” issue of electoral fraud. Iranian analysts warn that the current situation is only the culmination of a long and complex process which has taken place inside the clerical regime on the one hand, and in Iranian society on the other.

The public mass trial of Iran’s top reformist leaders during last July, on charges that include conspiring to overthrow the regime, signals that a process is under way to eventually outlaw the reformist party and ban its members and supporters from political activity. This unprecedented move could actually spell acute danger to the higher ranks of the clerical regime leadership. The dynamic of popular mobilizations deeply destabilizes the edifice of the Islamic Republic and for the first time the “Supreme Guide” has become the target of the demonstrators.

In his supporting Ahmadinejad well before the vote itself and characterizing his re-election as a “divine miracle”, Ali Khamenei had dealt a significant and highly dangerous blow to his own function. The Supreme Guide is the first personage of the state. He directs the key organs of the regime, the armed forces, notably the Guardians of the Revolution (Sepah-e Pasdaran) and the Islamist militias (Bassidjis), the state media, the legal apparatus, and he monitors the executive power.

The constitution of the Islamic Republic is based on the Velâyat-e faghih, the government of the legal experts, actually, the incarnation of divine power and the domination of the religious over the political. As a general rule, the “Guide”, who traces the guiding lines of the regime’s policies, has the mission of arbitrating between the different factions. But in taking part in the coup d’état against the “reformist” camp Khamenei has thrown all his weight into the balance and exposed himself to popular rejection. He thus strengthens the position of his long-time adversaries, who think that the regime is not reformable and might now challenge the leadership of the supreme leader.

The country and the regime stand more divided than ever in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic, Iranian analysts say. Criticism has spread from targeting the president to the powerful Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself, an unprecedented occurrence, in this Islamic clerical-ruled state. Earlier calls by demonstrators to respect their vote have morphed into angry demands for an overhaul of the entire system, preferably one that separates religion from state and curbs the powers of the so-far unchallenged supreme leader. Sofar, though the top leadership, assisted by the powerful military, has weathered the storm- but dangerous undercurrents and still in motion.

In fact, the more serious grounds for the regime’s present concern are the depths of the unrest and its future challenges to the powerful clerical rulership. The election results were only a catalyst for the sudden outburst, but the roots of crisis lie in the desire of a large part of the Iranian public, mainly young people and women, for drastic and fundamental changes in the regime. They demand less repression and intervention by the dominant religious leadership, in personal lives and more liberalization of the political system. The public pressure calls for greater freedom of expression, an improved economic situation, and eradication of government corruption. This demand has already grown under the Ahmadinejad presidency, when over the last four years the regime restricted individual freedoms further and intensified the repression – this with the backing of the religious leadership and mainly with support of the ever powerful and ruthless Revolutionary Guards, which in military, political, and economic terms have become the dominant force in Iran. The regime apparently did not correctly assess the depth of frustration and anger, and did not expect such a powerful outburst from a large section of the Iranian public.

It is too soon to determine if the demonstrations are actually subsiding, as it appears now, or whether they will gain new momentum. In the current circumstances, the more likely albeit not certain scenario is that the riots will continue to die down gradually in the coming days or weeks, even if there may be some further outbursts of protests. Yet even if the demonstrations diminish, the pressure for changing the regime will remain active under the surface and will likely erupt again, sooner or later. Moreover, the crisis has battered and scarred the regime; its standing has been damaged, both domestically and externally. The cameras have shown, to the regime as well as to the world at large, that millions of Iranians do not want the regime, its policy, or its present leadership.

But changes will not happen overnight in a powerful regime like the Iranian Islamic Republic, ruled with an iron grip by a highly complex multi-layer “overwatch -control” system, which the Islamic clerical rulership has established to maintain its firm hold on all domains of the regime. Here, changes will need time – much time. Only a drastic change of heart in theleadership of the sofar loyal Islamic Republican Guards, and their ruthlessBassidjis offshoots, could bring any change in this ever suspicious regimeleadership. Such drastic developments are not in sight, even if the earth in Tehran will tremble from time to time.