The conflict has roiled an already fractious body politic, and will further paralyse
government decision-making in the near-term. Ahmadi-Nejad will continue to test
Khamenei, while seeking to avoid direct conflict, but will not back down from lesser
foes. The battles will increasingly occupy the time and attention of the president
and top officials. As the 2012 parliamentary race heats up, this will slow decision-making
on vital issues such as oil, the nuclear programme and foreign relations.
Over the past two months, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad has faced a withering
political assault from fellow conservatives. Former hard-line clerical allies have
abandoned him, publicly repudiating him in Friday prayer sermons:
- The commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) implied
that Ahmadi-Nejad's coterie represent an "internal evil" that must be defeated.
More than two dozen top aides to the president have been jailed since April, including
his own office's Friday prayer leader, on accusations ranging for sorcery to corruption.
Tensions among conservatives had been brewing over the past year over Ahmadi-Nejad's
efforts to marginalise the parliament, policy differences over his subsidy reform
plan, and his relatively more liberal attitude to popular displays of religion such as women's
dress. However, such political and social policy differences remained manageable.
The red line that Ahmadi-Nejad and his team have crossed centres on the fundamental
guiding principle of the Islamic Republic: clerical rule. His critics accuse him
of undermining velayat-e-faqih, the religio-philosophical underpinning that grants
guardianship (velayat) of the state to a supreme religious figure (faqih) -- currently
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. No politician in the history of the Islamic Republic
has crossed this "red line" and survived.
The 'Hidden Imam'
Iran's constitution, written in 1979, declares Shiism its official state religion.
Some 90% of Iranians are Shiite Muslims. Pious Shiites believe that their twelfth
and last imam went into hiding (occultation) more than 1,100 years ago and will
return one day as a messiah figure to restore justice to the world. This occultation
forms the centrepiece of revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini's conception of
velayat-e-faqih. In a series of lectures in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in 1970
and later published in a book titled "Islamic Government", the leader of the 1979
revolution outlined his basic political philosophy. He argued that:
- Islam is an all-encompassing faith that must play a role in politics;
those Muslim states that separate mosque from state have abandoned the spirit of
the faith; and
- in the absence of the 'Hidden Imam', Shiite clerics represent
the guardian of Islam on earth; thus, they should rule the state.
Ironically, Ayatollah Khomeini's ideas were not 'fundamentalist', but in fact an
aberration from a millennium of classical Shiite thinking that argued the opposite:
- In the absence of the 'Hidden Imam', all governments are profane.
the cleric might advise the state, but should not rule it.
This view -- known as 'quietist' -- is still held by the majority of top-ranking
ayatollahs worldwide, and directly repudiates Khomeini's conception. The leading
'quietist' cleric is Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq, believed to be the most widely
followed cleric in the Shiite world.
Ahmadi-Nejad's 'direct line'
Ahmadi-Nejad has not declared himself a quietist, but repeated intimations from
his advisers that the president has a 'direct line' to the 'Hidden Imam' coupled
with his reluctance to appoint clerics to his cabinet has angered the hard-line
establishment. The non-cleric Ahmadi-Nejad's 'direct line' encroached on the turf
of Iran's clergy, who see themselves as mediators between the masses and the 'Hidden
Imam'. Without this mediating role, the concept of velayat-e-faqih collapses.
In prayer sermons and newspaper reports, an anti-Ahmadi-Nejad 'party line' has emerged.
- charges of economic corruption and mismanagement;
- lurid tales of sorcery
and devil worship among his allies; and
- most importantly, the suggestion that
the Ahmadi-Nejad team do not believe in velayat-e-faqih.
Leading figures from the IRGC have also openly repudiated the president. Hard-line
web sites and newspapers are rife with editorials slamming his chief adviser Rahim
Mashaeie, who has displayed a disregard for traditional clergy, and several former
hard-line Ahmadi-Nejad supporters have openly regretted voting for him. The roll
back and jailing of his top aides has reached the level of deputy ministers, prompting
Ahmadi-Nejad to declare 'a red line' on his cabinet in a late June speech that was
censored by state TV.
Khamenei vs Ahmadi-Nejad
The struggle thus pits Ahmadi-Nejad against Supreme Leader Khamenei, the country's
current faqih. While Khamenei supported Ahmadi-Nejad at the critical point in the
post-2009 election protests, tensions have been brewing. Ahmadi-Nejad has routinely
tested the Supreme Leader's power, dismissing Khamenei favourites from government
and dragging his feet on 'directives' from the Leader.
In April, Ahmadi-Nejad dismissed Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi. Khamenei
baulked, demanding Moslehi's reinstatement. Ahmadi-Nejad sulked, refusing to attend
government meetings for eleven days. Khamenei stood his ground.
Iranian newspaper reports suggested that Ahmadi-Nejad threatened to resign. Khamenei
did not blink. Eventually, Ahmadi-Nejad relented, and allowed Moslehi to rejoin
Any political struggle between the president and the supreme leader is not a battle
of equals. Constitutionally, the supreme leader wields far more power than the president.
He can veto virtually any presidential action, as he did in the Moslehi affair.
The supreme leader controls:
- the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards, as well as state-affiliated militias
that routinely harass opponents;
- the vast network of mosques across the country
as well as Friday prayer leaders;
- state radio and television;
justice system; and
- hundreds of billions of dollars in assets through para-statal
Partly owing to this awesome power and partly owing to the respect he commands as
faqih, the conservative establishment has overwhelmingly lined up behind him.
Thus far, Khamenei has 'allowed' the attacks on Ahmadi-Nejad and his allies, but
has demonstrated restraint in delivering a final blow. Parliament has threatened
impeachment, but as long as Khamenei demonstrates restraint, is unlikely to take
this drastic step.