- By Geneive AbdoGeneive Abdo is an Iran analyst at the Century Foundation.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant to kick off his annual visit to the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York with the grand gesture of releasing two U.S. hikers held captive for over a year. Instead, he was humiliated in public by Iran’s powerful judiciary, which stated on Wednesday that the president could not fulfill that promise.
Nothing could more clearly symbolize Ahmadinejad’s fading fortunes. Gone is the self-confident rhetorician of revolutionary outrage and nationalist fervor. In his place stands a broken man. The hikers’ episode is only one more piece of evidence that the last eight months have proven to be the beginning to the end of the president’s political career. Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech will probably be as loquacious as ever, and may contain interesting surprises — such as his declaration last year that it was the United States Government which launched the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But his words should not be taken as a message from anyone other than Ahmadinejad.
Even before the judiciary embarrassed Ahmadinejad, many in Tehran doubted that the president would be allowed to travel to the U.N. General Assembly to deliver the official speech on September 22. 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. The president has challenged the authority and legitimacy of supreme clerical rule, and he cast doubt on the divine attributes of the clergy — without which the Islamic Republic could not exist in anything like its present form. At this point, it is unclear whether Ahmadinejad will even be allowed to finish out his term.
In recent days, as if to run victory laps around the president, key regime figures have all made it clear that the president’s political faction — labeled by his foes as the "deviant faction" — will not be permitted to run candidates in parliamentary elections in March. The word "deviant" stems from the desire of Ahmadinejad and his cronies to do away with the traditional structures of cleric rule. His in-law and closest confidant, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaiee, who has been completely ostracized from the regime, has repeatedly made statements hinting at his disregard for the way Shiite jurisprudence is interpreted, practiced, and enforced by the clerical establishment.
In a Friday prayer speech on August 31 to celebrate the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Khamnei acknowledged the lack of unity among the factions within the regime and noted the shortcomings of the current government — a rare admission but one aimed directly at Ahmadinejad and his administration. "Elections are the manifestation of religious democracy," said Khamenei. "However, enemies seek to misuse elections to harm the country." Here, the word "enemies" is not a reference to traditional adversaries, such as the United States or Israel, but to Ahmadinejad’s political faction, which has caused havoc within the regime.
According to Ali Falahian, Iran’s former intelligence minister, the traditional conservatives are now drafting a list of potential candidates for the parliamentary elections, but it will not include representatives from Ahmadinejad’s faction. "Drawing clear boundaries with the deviant faction is one of the main goals of conservatism," he said. He also chastised those who have remained silent as Ahmadinejad defied orders from Khamenei and many other senior clerics over the last several months.
As for the release of the hikers, it was clear even as Ahmadinejad made the announcement on Tuesday in the U.S. media that the decision was not made by him. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ahmadinejad referred to the release of the hikers as a "unilateral humanitarian gesture." When pressed for a guarantee for the release of the two hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, Ahmadinejad enigmatically replied, "I hope so. I hope I will do that," according to the Post.
Ahmadinejad’s inability to know what he will do next is due to the fact that Iran’s judiciary, not its executive, presides over the fate of the two U.S. men. Having recently lost a fierce, drawn-out battle against the loyalists supporting the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad is anxious to appear relevant on the world stage and simultaneously reluctant to admit he does not have the final say in the two hikers’ case.
This is not Ahmadinejad’s first clash with the Iranian judiciary. His attempts to annex certain key government ministries to his control, such as trying to create a parallel foreign ministry and takeover the oil ministry last spring, were one of the key drivers of his political downfall. In a pointed counterattack, the judiciary began corruption proceedings against a number of high-ranking pro-Ahmadinejad officials within the executive’s highest levels. Sadegh Larijani, head of the judiciary, and his brother, Ali Larijani, head of the legislature, are both inveterate critics of Ahmadinejad and his camp and have worked hard to ensure his political faction is finished.
Ahmadinejad has long served as the much-needed anti-Israeli foil, the embodiment of a modern Iran, which is a strange mix of Islamic orthodoxy, post-revolutionary nationalism, and Third World Marxist-socialism. Until the Arab awakening, he was also a hero for Arabs as the U.S. irritant par excellence. Now, the Arabs have found their own, direct means to defy the United States and Israel.
But his usefulness has come to an end. As he distracted the world with his rhetorical excesses, Iran moved ahead steadily with its nuclear program and extended its reach into Iraq and other countries in the region. The paradox of today’s Iran is that it is the ruling elites who have rendered him politically irrelevant, not the protesters demonstrating in the squares of downtown Tehran. For many Iranians, this is a blessing and also a tragedy: while Ahmadinejad makes his exit, the regime is still alive and well.
Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation. Shayan Ghajar and Reza Akbari, researchers for the program, contributed to this article.