Hyperbole on Ahmadinejad

In a recent piece on Foreign Policy’s website entitled Ahmadinejad’s Impotence, Genieve Abdo, director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation, dismissed Iran’s controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as being finished politically. Yet for analytical and factual reasons, her interpretation of events in Iran fails to grasp the dynamics of what’s currently taking place there.

The crux of her argument presents the Iranian Judiciary’s statement that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal’s dossier was still “under review” as a humiliating blow to the president in a string of events in the last eight months which signal his downfall.

Yet this is not what has actually happened. In an interview with NBC on 13 September 2011, Ahmadinejad declared that Mr. Bauer and Fattal would be released “in the next couple of days”, setting an intentionally vague deadline for when a release would in fact occur.  Now sources reveal that one of the two judges on the young Americans’ case has already signed their bail documents, while the second may soon follow, indicating that there’s a possibility the hikers’ release could still fall within the time frame of Ahmadinejad’s UN General Assembly trip.

Regardless, it is hyperbole to take this single event as confirmation that Ahmadinejad is a “broken man”, as Miss Abdo so dramatically states, and there’s little evidence that it’s been portrayed as such in the Iranian media. She provides little in the way of sources to substantiate her argument, and fails to grasp that, generally speaking, comments made by the president in interviews to the Western media are official positions, and represent decisions made at the highest levels of the regime. When disagreements over foreign policy do exist, they are not commonly made into public spectacles – but quietly hashed out behind the scenes. Far from symbolizing Ahmadinejad’s fading fortunes, episodes since 2005 reveal the increasing strength of his faction. Yet Miss Abdo argues that:

“The institutions and political elites which once formed the bedrock of his power have all left him, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence minister, and important conservative clerics.”

Such notions can be dismissed by a careful and nuanced analysis of Iranian sources and official government statements. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) continue to support Ahmadinejad, but have criticized the deviant current (code for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his circle) surrounding him. Critically, the deviant current cannot be equated to Ahmadinejad and the faction that he represents in its entirety, but merely one of the two groups which have emerged from his administration since 2005. This important distinction bears some explanation, including a broad overview of the history of Iran’s factional politics.

After the initial massive electoral victory of Mohammad Khatami and the newly formed Reformist faction in 1997, the right-wing of the Islamic Republic found itself in crisis and unable to cope. In response, the right-wing rallied under the banner of Principalism, a factional name that called for a return to the founding principles of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. While the Principalist faction largely carried over the old right-wing, they also allowed a new generation of younger leaders, many with IRGC backgrounds, to enter politics. Ahmadinejad and his group entered elected politics in the City and Village Council elections of 2003 under the banner of Principalism, yet before long it became clear this group represented a new discourse which has been labelled Neo-Principalism here.

Allegations of massive fraud in the 2009 presidential election brought into question the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and confronted the regime with a serious crisis. The emergence of the 2009-2010 Green Movement caused Principalists to close ranks and paper over the vast differences between them. With the Reformist faction which created and led the Green Movement effectively eliminated from the inner-sanctum of the regime, fundamental disagreements within the Principalist faction have now re-emerged, dividing it between Traditional Principalists (such as Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and Mohamma-Reza Bahonar) and Neo-Principalists, centered on the Ahmadinejad administration.

Yet even the Neo-Principalists are composed of two groups, namely the Iranian School of Islam (aka the “deviant current”) and the  3rd of Tir Current, named after the date of Ahmadinejad’s first presidential election victory in 2005. The former, led by Mashaei, advocates a form of Iranian nationalism, anti-clericalism, and engagement with the West and potentially even Israel. The latter, led by figures such as ex-Minister of the Interior Sadegh Mahsouli, emphasizes Ahmadinejad’s first term as president and calls for a return to that platform. While both Neo-Principalist groups are united on eliminating the Traditional Principalists, Pragmatists (supporters of ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani) and remnants of the Reformists from Iran’s political system, the 3rd of Tir Current views the Iranian School of Islam as a threat and calls for his removal as well.

And that is the point. The supreme leader, IRGC, important senior clergymen, and others have repeatedly emphasized that the Ahmadinejad administration itself is still legitimate, but that it has been penetrated by a deviant current (i.e. Mashaei and his circle) which must be cut out. This is supported by recent statements from important voices representing senior regime leadership, including the IRGC. One of the best examples of this is a front page editorial in Sobh-e Sadegh, the IRGC’s main mouthpiece, on 08 August 2011. In it Brigadier-General Yadollah Javani, head of the IRGC’s Political Bureau and editor-in-chief of Sobh-e Sadeq, stated:

“[We] must separate the deviant current from Ahmadinejad and the government and while defending the government as a whole, confront the deviant current and its elements under the framework of the law.”

Senior figures consistently attack “the sedition” (a reference to the Green Movement) and the deviant current, but have generally left the integrity of the Ahmadinejad administration intact. Miss Abdo’s claims that the president may not be allowed to travel to the UN GA this year, or even finish his second term in office, simply have no basis in credible reports (particularly Farsi sources), but seem to be a meme that’s gained currency in the English-speaking media over the last few months. In fact, it is the Traditional Principalists who may be facing elimination from the regime, particularly in the Majlis. In characterizing the Traditional Principalist v Neo-Principalist rivalry, Miss Abdo reports that:

“According to Ali Falahian, Iran’s former intelligence minister, the traditional conservatives [Traditional Principalists] are now drafting a list of potential candidates for the parliamentary elections, but it will not include representatives from Ahmadinejad’s faction [Neo-Principalists].”

Here the reality has been reversed: It is the Neo-Principalists who have broken with Traditional Principalists over the upcoming 2012 Majlis (legislative) elections and numerous other issues. As mentioned here, the 3rd of Tir Current forces within the Neo-Principalists have created the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (Jebhe-ye Paydari Enghelab-e Eslami) election committee as a means of removing the Traditional Principalists and suspected supporters of Rafsanjani from the Majlis. Prior to this, the Seven Plus Eight Committee/Principalist Unity Committee had been created so that the Principalist faction could contest the 2012 election on a common platform and maximize its gains in the Majlis. But this body now appears to be dead on arrival. The Enduring Front of the Islamic Revolution for its part appears to be harnessing considerable resources in order to make a strong showing in the 2012 election and push out Traditional Principalists. It has also repeatedly threatened to break with the Principalist Unity Committee if its demands are not met, and seems to have the upper hand.

Even if by some twist of fate the recent financial fraud scandal or other intrigues manage to weaken or completely remove Mashaei and the Iranian School of Islam, the Neo-Principalists can still stand on the support of the 3rd of Tir Current. In fact, there are a number of reliable indicators that show Ahmadinejad and his faction still enjoy strong backing of what is increasingly Iran’s most important player, the IRGC. In July Ahmadinejad nominated Brigadier-General Rostam Ghasemi as the new oil minister, who was subsequently confirmed by the Majlis with a substantial majority (along with Ahmadinejad’s other nominations). The appointment of the ex-commander of the Khatam-al Anbia Headquarters, the IRGC’s main economic arm, as oil minister marks a whole new level of IRGC penetration of Iran’s politics and economy. Ghasemi has publically declared that his “entire existence is in the Guards”, and from his vantage point in the oil ministry is in a position to use the country’s vast natural resources to consolidate the Guard’s pre-eminent economic position in Iran. This is but one sign of the strong relationship between Ahmadinejad and the IRGC .

As the very fabric of regime politics in Iran is rewoven, Miss Abdo and others continue to hold a view of the Islamic Republic which is outdated. Just as the Islamic Left v Islamic Right rivalry which characterized regime politics in 1979-1997 became the Reformist v Principalist rivalry of 1997-2010, it appears today we are on the praecipes of another such change. What the new factional lines of the Islamic Republic will look like remains to be seen. But the growing shadow of the IRGC, the conflict between the Iranian School of Islam and 3rd of Tir Current, and the results of the upcoming 2012 Majlis election will likely give us some good indications. While Ahmadinejad as a political figure may become irrelevant after his term expires in 2013, the Neo-Principalists are likely here to stay.

What we can say for certain is that the Reformist faction is no longer relevant to regime politics in Iran, at least for the foreseeable future. Having gambled on the Green Movement, the Reformists and their supporters were brutally supressed on Tehran’s streets, arrested en masse, imprisoned, tortured and many forced into exile. It is unlikely that they will be allowed to seriously contest future elections. Rafsanjani and the Pragmatists, once key players in the regime, have been increasingly sidelined and targeted for termination by the Neo-Principalists.The Traditional Principalists will likely make one of their last stands in the 2012 election, and it would not be surprising if this was the beginning of the end for them as well.

Iran-watchers writing in the English-language media have been very slow in presenting the evolving nature of Iran’s domestic politics to English-speaking audiences. Miss Abdo, who has had a distinguished journalistic career and firsthand experience in Iran, must unfortunately be counted among this group. But with the Middle East in turmoil and Iran’s influence there growing, it is more important than ever to present a clear, concise and accurate picture of what is happening in this strategic country.