Iran’s Imperial Presidency

As the fallout continues from the June election, Ahmadinejad is working to consolidate power in his secular executive branch, and away from the mullahs. But what happens if his play backfires?


Taking advantage of the chaos following June’s civic protests, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is moving to consolidate authority in the executive office — and to wrest it away from the clerical wing of the Iranian government, particularly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had established a guardianship of Islamic jurists headed by a supreme leader to oversee the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Iran’s government. Khamenei, who became supreme leader in 1989, was a mentor to Ahmadinejad and during June’s protests, quickly endorsed his presidential candidacy to keep their relationship smooth. Although Ahmadinejad had begun centralizing authority during his first presidential term, he usually deferred to Khamenei if there was a divergence of opinion. But Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, junior members of the 1979 revolution who are just now coming into their own politically, are not themselves clerics. And though they claim deep religiosity, they are best described as secularists, as their primary aim is consolidating political power in their own hands. Since the recent election, members of the executive branch are openly disregarding revolutionary or activist mullahs — knowing full well that most clerics are quietists who prefer not to be directly involved in politics. Even Ahmadinejad’s famous incident of kissing Khamenei’s shoulder or characterizing their relationship as "like that of a father and son" is just etiquette, not a sincere sign of deference.

Ahmadinejad’s secular political expansionism is made possible by the schisms and weaknesses that have emerged among fundamentalist clerics in the wake of this summer’s election protests. Most threatening for Iran’s religious system of governance, the protesters’ focus expanded from the rigged presidential election to the more basic question of why Iran needs a faith-based supreme leader. The idea of cutting out the theocratic branch, while retaining the executive, legislative, and judicial ones, has gained considerable popularity. Ahmadinejad saw a power vacuum among the clergy, plus the shifting tide of public sentiment against theocracy, and moved pragmatically to fill it — though not in ways that a majority of Iranians desire.

Recently, Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, suggested, "The era of religious sovereignty is over" — and to all appearances, he is right. Ahmadinejad’s new presidential administration prevented the usual prayers for mercy and salvation at Khomeini’s mausoleum. Additionally, he and his cohort canceled Eid al-Fitr, or fast-breaking ceremonies that mark the end of Ramadan, at traditional locations in Tehran. They even are determining who may or may not address prayer congregations at the clerics’ home base, the city of Qom.

To mitigate religion-based criticism of his policies, Ahmadinejad convened the first meeting of his new cabinet ministers in the shadow of the tomb of the eighth imam, or spiritual guide, in the northeastern Iranian holy city of Mashhad. But in fact, Ahmadinejad’s new cabinet appointments reveal the extent of his power grab. When thanking parliamentarians for confirming a majority of the cabinet nominees on Sept. 4, Ahmadinejad laid out his political vision: "We should not leave the burden of administering the country on the shoulders of the [supreme] leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]. We must administer the country according to Islamic, revolutionary, and pragmatic values." Notably, Ahmadinejad has appointed only one cleric, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, to a cabinet position (as opposed to three clerics in his last administration), and Moslehi has ties to secular radicals via the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), where he served as a commissioner, as well as to the supreme leader. So his appointment is politically safe for the president. It is also strategically safe because the Intelligence Ministry is packed with Ahmadinejad loyalists, who will stand up to Moslehi if Khamenei tries to use him as a puppet.

Ahmadinejad is also appointing women to his cabinet, in a direct rebuff to fundamentalist ayatollahs who are demanding, on orthodox religious grounds, that women not hold senior positions in Iran’s government. He successfully appointed a female loyalist as health minister and is expected to nominate women as ministers of welfare and education, even though his previous female nominees to those cabinet positions were recently turned down by parliament.

Iranian sources have indicated that Ahmadinejad is using the IRGC and its paramilitary wing, the Basij, to centralize power within the executive branch. The upper ranks of the IRGC and Basij served as training grounds for many of the increasingly secular militants now in power, including the president himself, who was an influential Basij organizer while studying at the University of Tehran. During Ahmadinejad’s first term, the IRGC used its presidential connections to acquire major financial stakes in important industrial sectors that were being privatized. In exchange for helping Ahmadinejad by intimidating clerics and ordinary citizens, the IRGC and Basij are only deepening their hold over the Iranian economy, and it is growing increasingly difficult to untangle the IRGC’s economic interests from its national security role. The prospect of ostensibly private companies working closely with the executive branch could strengthen the president’s hand.

But this is Iran, where politics have become a blood sport; this game is far from over. Khamenei will likely seek to wrest back authority via fundamentalist members of the judiciary and parliament. However, the new judiciary chief, Sadeq Larijani, has political ambitions of his own and so might chart a course between the supreme leadership and presidency. Likewise, the parliament is headed by Sadeq’s elder brother Ali, who previously served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Larijani family is known to have its own public base of support independent of both the weakened supreme leader and the autocratic president. Ali Larijani in particular has been critical of both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in the recent election fiasco. Many Iranians expect the 51-year-old Ali to remain a political moderate in order to emerge as a major candidate for the presidency in 2013. So far, however, the supreme leadership, judiciary, and parliament have only mitigated, not prevented, Ahmadinejad’s growing authority.

Activist mullahs such as Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (originally another mentor of the president), and Ahmad Khatami have been critical of Ahmadinejad’s secularist official appointments, elevation of women to high-ranking posts, and disregard of the supreme leader’s directives. They and other fundamentalists are coming together, despite past differences, to fight back, and will work through the Guardian Council, the conservative wing of the Assembly of Experts, and hard-line clerical associations to thwart the president if possible. So too will more moderate clerical politicians like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi, who once also were part of Iran’s Islamic Revolution but have gradually united with ordinary Iranians to oppose both fundamentalism and autocracy.

But for now, the president and his supporters are on their way toward creating an imperial presidency bereft of both theocratic and democratic oversight. The announcement of comprehensive talks between Iran and major world powers in October has only strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand, especially given that what the West really wishes to discuss — Iran’s nuclear program — is not up for negotiation. As prominent Iranians like the sociopolitically moderate Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and activist Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani — daughter of the former president and a former parliamentarian herself — have cautioned fearfully, the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ahmadinejad "soon will be neither Islamic nor a republic."

Yet Ahmadinejad’s imperial presidency is far from a done deal. The competing groups of secular radicals, theocratic fundamentalists, and clerical moderates might end up neutralizing each other’s influence over Iranian politics. Consequently, factional struggles within the fragmenting revolutionary hierarchy may very well benefit the re-emergence of democracy in Iran by generating public space for secular, moderate politicians. Ahmadinejad’s play for an imperial presidency could end up leading to a very different future for Iran than he imagines.

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