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At a “historic turning point”, Iranian politics appears to be descending into turmoil

Relations between the three branches of the Iran’s government, the executive, legislature, and judiciary, appear to have further degenerated after a meeting between them this past Sunday revealed deep fissures and antagonisms.

The heads of the three branches of government, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, and Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, met for a joint session entitled the Fourth Meeting on Increasing the Health of the Administrative System which was intended to help them resolve corruption-related issues. Instead, the meeting devolved into a verbal brawl between the two Larijani brothers on one side and Ahmadinejad on the other, gaining significant press in the last few days.

Ahmadinejad, emphasizing his position as the second highest official in the regime after the supreme leader, first addressed Ali Larijani stating that while he could accept supervision by the Majlis, he would not stand for supervision that only favoured a specific political faction. He characterized Majlis intervention in the work of the executive as the creation of “corruption”, and made it clear that he believed the legislature was overstepping its boundaries, stressing that the “Majlis must not go beyond the law”.

He then turned his attention to the judiciary and Sadegh Larijani, which he criticized for the handling of the financial corruption scandal known as the Big Graft:

“Instead of confronting the crime that has been done, the main issue has been forgotten in the fighting and struggles and we see how this has played out [negatively] in public opinion”.

The Larijanis were equally ferocious in criticizing Ahmadinejad. Ali Larijani, among other things, asserted that the government had become accustomed to flouting the law when it should have made obedience to the law its central concern. He took this one step further by saying that the administration openly flaunted its disregard for the law by appointing a controversial figure to an important position who in the past had stated “what is the law worth?”

Sadegh Larijani for his part also did not hold back, specifically responding to Ahmadinejad’s criticism of the judiciary’s handling of the Big Graft financial corruption scandal:

“No one must doubt that this [case of] corruption was huge. Unfortunately sometimes there are words spoken which create the impression that the judiciary has dealt with the issue in a political manner. This is not at all correct.”

The elder Larijani also echoed his brother’s claim about the Ahmadinejad administration’s appointment of controversial figures, focusing on a specific individual who had come to the judiciary’s attention in the past but had been released:

“The accused, whose [alleged] crime was not small, has been acquitted, but should then not be appointed to key posts.”

The judiciary chief labelled such controversial political appointments as the “hidden octopus-like corruption” in the Ahmadinejad administration.

While this level of tension is not unprecedented in the Islamic Republic’s history, what is surprising is its duration and the degree to which it has come to the surface. What is more, it now appears that the regime’s most senior leadership has decided this level of public infighting is unacceptable and may begin to take steps to address it. Two key signals that this may happen came this week from  Hojjatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC, and Kayhan newspaper, considered to be a mouthpiece of Khamenei.

Today’s Kayhan headline loudly proclaimed: “Kayhan report on the neglect of the concerns of the people by officials: Feuds between the heads of the branches of government, infighting during a historic turning point”. The article made several main points in regard to the way in which the infighting irreversibly damaged the regime domestically and abroad.

First, Kayhan argued that open infighting between the three branches of government could make Iranians unhappy about the system and do permanent harm to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. Turning to the foreign policy implications, Kayhan also argued that, by not showing a united front before the Baghdad round of talks with the P5+1,  senior officials made Iran appear weak. Finally, referring to a speech last year by Khamenei in which he declared the death of Marxism, liberalism, and secular nationalism as a result of the “Islamic Awakening”, Kayhan said that the infighting weakened the Islamic Republic’s position as a potential role-model for the post-revolutionary Arab states.

Saeedi was equally harsh in his appraisal of the three branches of government, calling for greater understanding and reconciliation between them:

“The differences, if they lead to confrontation and antagonism, is against the interests of the regime and opinion of the supreme leader…differences result in [negative] consequences and harm and lead to the people’s disappointment [with the system]. We ask the president that in the last year that remains of the tenth administration, he somewhat respect the dignity of the Majlis, and for the Majlis to understand the conditions of policy implementation [the executive faces].

Reports of ongoing high levels of tension both between the three branches of government and the different factions in Iranian politics, if true, could be a sign that the Islamic Republic’s problems may be intensifying. Khamenei, who had been attempting to mediate between the different sides through his personal authority, had in recent months withdrawn into the background because of the damage done to his prestige as a result of being ignored. He recently created the “Supreme Council for Resolving Conflicts” in order to mediate between the different sides without directly intervening, but to date none of his solutions appear to have lowered the intensity of political conflict in the regime.

Is this the ordinary working of politics, or an emerging crisis of a higher magnitude? The inability of the supreme leader to address differences through his personal authority or by negotiating a settlement behind the scenes suggests that it is more than a run of the mill political dispute. While in democratic political systems such disputes may be commonplace and manageable, it is unclear if Iran’s authoritarian system can tolerate such strife without beginning to show deep cracks.