Showdown in Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is fighting for his political survival. But that doesn't mean his clerical enemies will be the winners.


While much of the Middle East is in the throes of a historic struggle for democracy, Iran’s main political fissure pits the clerical establishment against muscular, nationalist upstarts who seek to usurp power. And in this contest between Iran’s elite factions, the world should be rooting for the clergy.

The primary players in this battle are President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The two forged an ideological alliance in 2005 and worked closely to crush the "Green Movement" after the disputed 2009 election. They are now engaged in a public spat over the spoils of power and, more importantly, over the proper interpretation of the Shiite fundamentalist ideology that inspired the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The contest spilled dramatically into public view in April over Ahmadinejad’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to dismiss Iran’s intelligence minister, and again this week with the forced resignation and arrest of the deputy foreign minister, an ally of the president’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

The political bickering masks a more fundamental dispute over the direction of the Shiite fundamentalist ideology that Iran’s theocracy draws its legitimacy from. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini guided the 1979 revolution through a mix of religious zealotry and leftist revolutionary activism, with the aim of fomenting class war set to an Islamic tune. The Islamic state he envisioned was a dictatorship of the proletariat ruled by the clergy; in homage to Plato’s Republic, Khomeini privileged a class distinguished by its education in Islamic law. He advanced the claim that, in the absence of the Shiite messiah, the Hidden Imam, they represent him in the world. And Khomeini assumed the position of the cleric supreme, vali-e faqih, the all-knowing philosopher-king with divine political authority.

The Islamic and the leftist components of Khomeinism came apart after his death in 1989. Exhausted by war and revolution, Iran opted for normalcy. Those interested in the Islamic aspect of the revolution, the so-called conservatives, gathered around Khamenei. They ended revolutionary activism, opened the economy to private-sector activity, and erected an authoritarian theocracy run by the supreme leader.

Meanwhile, the more radical Jacobin faction, which fed on revolutionary activism and favored a socialist economy, was pushed to the margins, only to resurface in the late 1990s in the guise of reformists. So it is that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leftist prime minister of the 1980s, has emerged as the face of the Green Movement.

Conservatives and reformists-cum-reconstructed-leftists have fought over power for the past two decades. Reformists have placed their hopes in elections and a Vatican II-style transformation of Shiite theology. Conservatives have resisted tampering with both religion and ideology and have used brute force to hold on to power. In the process, Iran’s Shiite fundamentalist ideology, shorn of its leftist legacy, turned stolid and unpopular, and the regime turned to repression to survive.

Ahmadinejad arrived on the scene in 2005 promising to breathe new life into the dying revolution by combining religious fundamentalism with Iranian nationalism and economic populism. This formula — the same one Khomeini had used to dominate the revolution in 1979 — proved to be a clever political strategy that won him the presidency. But the promise of unending revolution came crashing down in the 2009 election, when reformists mounted a winning election campaign and then brought millions into the streets to protest the fraudulent results.

What Ahmadinejad preached posed a direct threat to the supreme position of clergy in the Islamic Republic. The president and his circle of advisors are of the view that, because of the Islamic Revolution and his defeat of the reformist challenge, Iran is now a genuinely Islamic state, and the state should take over the role of the clergy.

This only confirms the singular importance of the Islamic Revolution to Shiite history and theology. If, as Khomeini claimed, the Islamic Republic is the embodiment of a just and sacred government, Shiites no longer need the clergy as the anchor of their faith. Holiness rests in the state and not the guardians of the state. The idea appeals to the muscular nationalism and Bonapartist ambitions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which believes that military might, rather than clerical leadership, sustain Iran against domestic and foreign enemies.

Many Iranians dismiss Ahmadinejad’s cultish messianism as no more than boorish superstition and clever political positioning. The clerics see it as a direct threat. Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has charged his cabinet to sign a pledge committing them to serve the Hidden Imam, peppered his speeches with messianic themes, and even claimed that he leads the "Hidden Imam’s government." It is a folksy but religiously charged proposition.

Ahmadinejad was ridiculed when a video clip showed him bragging to a senior ayatollah that the Shiite messiah had visited him during his 2005 address before the United Nations. The larger message, which was not lost on skittish ayatollahs, was that the lay president was giving notice that the messiah favored him over the clerics. Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s close advisor, has been blunter, declaring that Shiism can and should do without clerics and that the Islamic Republic no longer needs a supreme leader.

Unsurprisingly, many in Iran have come to see Ahmadinejad as the Shiite Martin Luther, determined to break the clergy. Senior ayatollahs have accordingly criticized the president at every turn and refused to receive him or his representatives in the holy city of Qom.

Ahmadinejad may believe the Hidden Imam is on his side, but for now Khamenei holds most of the cards: He controls the media and can mobilize the parliament, judiciary, and security forces against the president. Still, Ahmadinejad’s ouster may not herald the death of his brand of Khomeinism. That will depend on how ambitious military leaders react and whether Ahmadinejad’s base among the poor stays by his side. For now, both the IRGC and the base are divided over their allegiance to old Khomeinism and support for Ahmadinejad’s new variety.

Around the region, Ahmadinejad has had little impact. The Shiite revival in the Arab world, which started in Iraq in 2003 and spread across the region, looks to the Iraqi Shiite religious center Najaf’s quietist brand of the faith for inspiration. In pockets of Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon, where Khomeinism commands support, fealty belongs to Khamenei. The supreme leader has even bypassed Ahmadinejad’s government and assigned a trusted advisor to oversee relations with Hezbollah.

Yet any victory the clergy could win against this new upstart will only be a Pyrrhic one. Ahmadinejad is a threat to clerical supremacy, but without him, Khomeinism is even more vulnerable to reformist challengers. The alternative would be a right-wing ideological state — nationalist, fundamentalist, populist, and ruled by militarism, something akin to the Japan of the 1930s. And that cannot last. In this contest between Iran’s elite factions, the world should be rooting for the clergy — their victory will bring about the quickest end to the Islamic Republic.

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat. Twitter: @vali_nasr

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