President and clergy vie for power in Iran

Two years after his controversial re-election, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad faces an even more difficult political challenge: a rearguard attack from fellow conservatives, including top clerics. Policy differences and access to power play a role in the conflict, but the deeper source of contention revolves around the fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic: clerical rule. Hard-line and conservative figures claim that Ahmadi-Nejad and his advisers represent a "deviant current" whose aim is to rid clerics from power, pitting the president in an unequal power struggle with Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.


  • The Islamic Republic was founded on a political philosophy that grants guardianship of the state to the supreme religious figure.
  • The suggestion that Ahmadi-Nejad has undermined this principle thus poses a direct threat to the clergy.
  • If a more pliant parliament emerges after the 2012 parliamentary elections, Ahmadi-Nejad will be strengthened.
  • However, his hopes of seeing top adviser Rahim Mashaei succeed him as president in 2013 have been dashed.

What next

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.
  • Therefore, 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.

Hard-line campaign

In prayer sermons and newspaper reports, an anti-Ahmadi-Nejad 'party line' has emerged. It includes:

  • 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 the cabinet.

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;
  • the justice system; and
  • hundreds of billions of dollars in assets through para-statal foundations.

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.

Follow up

This article is drawn from the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief® which analyses the regional and global implications of key geopolitical, economic, social, business and industrial developments. It provides government, corporate and financial clients with timely, authoritative analysis every business day.

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