Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iran’s Conservative Crackup

A series of political defections and a new poll proves that Ahmadinejad is losing support among the conservatives who once made up his base.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The circle around Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hardening and shrinking -- and more and more, his former allies are turning against him. The regime seems determined to pursue a policy of dictatorship at home and isolation abroad, whatever the cost. Iran's snub of Western attempts to negotiate a deal over its nuclear program -- and the added insult of its recently announced plans to expand its uranium enrichment program tenfold -- are clear signs that cooler conservative heads in Tehran and Qom have lost ground to Ahmadinejad's hard-liners. Many religious Iranians and some conservative clerics, for example, have begun to increasingly feel that the theocratic system has become un-Islamic.

The demonstrations that erupted on Dec. 7 in cities across Iran included not only Westernized students but conservative Iranians as well. The Islamic Republic attempted to thwart the rally by shutting down Internet access, but thousands of Iranians nevertheless marched in the streets. The protests included not only Westernized students, but religious and conservative Iranians as well -- evidence that conservative Iranians are becoming more and more opposed to the state, even if their response is not usually to participate in social unrest.

It's not just protesters, either. A groundbreaking Iranian survey, first published on insideIRAN.org, shows that, in provinces where Ahmadinejad once held widespread support, Iranians now say they wished they had not voted for him.

The circle around Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hardening and shrinking — and more and more, his former allies are turning against him. The regime seems determined to pursue a policy of dictatorship at home and isolation abroad, whatever the cost. Iran’s snub of Western attempts to negotiate a deal over its nuclear program — and the added insult of its recently announced plans to expand its uranium enrichment program tenfold — are clear signs that cooler conservative heads in Tehran and Qom have lost ground to Ahmadinejad’s hard-liners. Many religious Iranians and some conservative clerics, for example, have begun to increasingly feel that the theocratic system has become un-Islamic.

The demonstrations that erupted on Dec. 7 in cities across Iran included not only Westernized students but conservative Iranians as well. The Islamic Republic attempted to thwart the rally by shutting down Internet access, but thousands of Iranians nevertheless marched in the streets. The protests included not only Westernized students, but religious and conservative Iranians as well — evidence that conservative Iranians are becoming more and more opposed to the state, even if their response is not usually to participate in social unrest.

It’s not just protesters, either. A groundbreaking Iranian survey, first published on insideIRAN.org, shows that, in provinces where Ahmadinejad once held widespread support, Iranians now say they wished they had not voted for him.

The polling surveyed more than 11,000 people from 11 rural and small villages in the provinces of Fars and Isfahan. Polling was conducted in four intervals from the summer of 2008, before the contested June 12 presidential election, to the fall of 2009. In the two pre-election polls, respondents were asked to state their choice of candidate. In the two post-election polls, respondents were asked for their views on the disputed election.

Before the election, Ahmadinejad had enjoyed 58 percent support in rural areas and 44 percent support in the small urban areas. After the election, however, it was a different story. The two post-election polls showed that 39 percent of the youth and 23 percent of those over 45 who had voted for Ahmadinejad now regretted their vote. The reasons for this included the rape, murder, and torture of young men and women who participated in demonstrations after the June presidential election and the belief that Ahmadinejad was to blame for the country’s economic crisis. In fact, 57 percent of those who said they no longer supported Ahmadinejad admitted that they had received money from Ahmadinejad’s subsidy program, which was designed to solidify the president’s support among poorer segments of Iran’s population. Still, they said, even the money wasn’t enough to keep their support.

Ahmadinejad is also facing increased public opposition from traditional conservatives. Their action can only be viewed as an act of protest against Ahmadinejad and his all-powerful supporter, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Now, clerics from the traditional right have joined leftists, such as Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, in moving away from Ahmadinejad’s political faction.

The most prominent cleric to resign is Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi-Amoli, one of Iran’s most senior conservative clerics, who quit on Nov. 26 as one of Qom’s Friday prayer leaders. Amoli was one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s close confidants during the 1979 establishment of the Islamic Republic. Three other prayer leaders from Qom have also resigned their posts, despite the prestige and influence of the pulpit, after criticizing the events in Iran in the wake of the stolen presidential election.

In his last Friday prayer sermon, Amoli told worshippers that he felt hapless in trying to fulfill his religious duties because he no longer had the power to solve their problems. "I can no longer serve as your prayer leader," Amoli said. "A prayer leader has two duties, and if he does not fulfill them he will be responsible before God."

As the regime’s powerful inner circle shrinks, formerly central figures are being alienated in the political realm, too. These conservative politicians and military figures have nowhere to go: Disillusioned with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei’s clique, they are also at odds with the symbolic leaders of the opposition movement, including Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami.

One such figure is Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who ran as a candidate in June against Ahmadinejad. Rezai has been outspoken in the past about the need for Iran to reach a diplomatic solution with the international community on its nuclear program. But he, like many other conservatives including Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, are at odds with Ahmadinejad and his hard-line faction. In a recent interview with the conservative Panjereh weekly, Rezai spoke candidly about the rifts within the conservative establishment and how conservatives tried desperately before the presidential race to reach a consensus on a conservative candidate who would have a good chance of defeating Ahmadinejad. He said they feared another four years of Ahmadinejad would lead Iran to ruins.

Now that the system is so fractured — even among conservatives — Iran’s political future is uncertain. But it is unlikely the conservatives who now oppose Ahmadinejad and Khamenei will remain silently on the sidelines for too much longer.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive

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