For several weeks now, observers and analysts of Iran have been referring to an emerging rift between the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The recent back-and-forth between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei reflects a deeper generational shift. After three decades of Iran’s clerical network dominating the political scene, the emergence of the Islamic Republic’s next generation of leaders—nonclerical, war-veteran technocrats—may well portend larger ramifications for Iran’s inward and outward orientation.
The common narrative argues that all Iranian leaders—especially given the vetting system that one must go through to enter politics—are cut from the same cloth. “He is one of them,” or “He is like all the rest,” has increasingly become the mantra of a society and much of its Diaspora who have grown tired of decades of disappointment. At the moment, though, Ahmadinejad and his cronies have emerged as an unlikely group challenging the status quo in Iran; simply put, when looking at the trajectory of the Islamic Republic and what it has stood for since its inception in 1979, the current president and his cabinet have done more to shake the system to its core than any other group, including their reformist predecessors.
This should not be taken as an endorsement of Ahmadinejad, or a suggestion that he intends to dismantle the system—far from it. But continuing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable by the Islamic Republic’s own standards is certainly a trend worth tracking. It is through this paradigm that the recent rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei tells the real story: It’s not about Ahmadinejad as much as what and who he represents: a generation of war veterans who felt the Iranian power structure had cast them aside. This generation increasingly personifies everything that Iran’s clerical establishment is not; they are seen as young and confident; as the real reason for Iran’s revolutionary survival and at the heart of a dissipating mistrust of the West in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. Above all, they represent a belief system predicated on Iranian self-reliance and self-sufficiency. They have remained loyal to the Supreme Leader for religious reasons, but are hostile towards clerics who grabbed power while they fought to protect Iran from Iraqi aggression. To that end, they believe that the Islamic Republic has become corrupt and deviated from the true path of the 1979 Revolution. Perhaps more than seeking to profit from their inclusion amongst Iran’s political elite, this new generation of technocrats seeks to include Iran more fully in the global economy.
Many policymakers and pundits have long predicted a consolidation of the conservative faction in Iran, and this is the latest example that proves the notion incorrect. The recent Ahmadinejad-Khamenei spat personifies a larger truth: Iranian conservatives are as varied and divided as the reformists were during former President Mohammad Khatami’s tenure. And given the various power networks in the Islamic Republic—clerics, technocrats, merchants, the military, the Revolutionary Guard (current and former, high-level to rank-and-file, and far from monolithic)—the consolidation of power in the hands of a single faction is practically impossible. Herein lies the strategy behind the Ahmadinejad camp’s gambit: these “developers” (or “Abadgaran” in Persian – the name of their political faction) are betting they can get the aforementioned generation of Iranians behind them, and they have managed a certain degree of success. But even if the Abadgaran’s gamble fails to pay off, their repeated challenges to Khamenei and the clerical network he represents have created previously non-existent political space for rival factions from the new generation of political elite to continue systematically shifting influence to Iran’s non-clerical power networks.
In the beginning, the Abadgaran had the tacit blessing of the Supreme Leader and, unlike today, intentionally placed Iran in a state of international isolation to systemically eliminate domestic political opponents. Ahmadinejad, who had stumbled upon his anti-Israel remarks, quickly realized their potential and utilized them to effectively kill any prospect of U.S.-Iran rapprochement during his first term. With Iran’s international disputes capturing headlines, its increasing isolation provided space for a new round of domestic political fratricide. From 2005-2009, despite beneath the surface rifts among conservatives, they worked together to marginalize the reformists. Now that there are no reformist scapegoats left to target, conservative factions are now openly fighting one another. Having seen what happened to the reformists, it is clear to all those vying for power this is about political survival and the future of the Islamic Republic.
While Ahmadinejad is indeed a man of ideology, it has never been the key determinant of his policy positions—or the policies of the Islamic Republic. Every Iranian leader, including Khamenei, has routinely sacrificed ideology in favor of more practical self-interest or regime survival, which is why Ahmadinejad is moving away from the old policy of successfully isolating Iran and instead taking policy in the opposite direction. It is now an agenda all about improving relations with the U.S.; economic improvements in Iran’s impoverished provinces; attempts at relaxing social restrictions for the masses; and championing nationalism over the clerics’ more traditional political Islam—all initiatives that the Abadgaran have paid lip service to and, if nothing else, demonstrate their radical idea of what the future of the Islamic Republic should entail—more radical than the reformists, and divergent from the Supreme Leader’s clerical network.
The internal opposition to Ahmadinejad’s policies—steady since he assumed office in 2005, vociferous since Khamenei withdrew his political protection—demonstrates that each faction within Iran’s new generation of political elite supports different ideas, tactics and strategies. Indeed, as the system absorbed repeated challenges from Ahmadinejad, it also positioned itself to increasingly contain his camp, much in the same way as it contained former President Khatami; gradually whittling away his authority, and passing that authority to parallel institutions. The Supreme Leader finds himself in an increasingly difficult position; having overtly backed Ahmadinejad since 2005, domestic political constraints have not allowed an immediate reversal of his long-standing support. Instead, Khamenei has played his usual game of patience with the aim of empowering himself at the end. He has every reason to believe in it because it worked during Khatami’s presidency.
Nevertheless, marginalizing Ahmadinejad and the Abadgaran will be more difficult than containing Khatami. Unlike his more urbane predecessor, Ahmadinejad is not the type of guy to go down without a fight. Rather than any personal or political attribute, his influence derives from making himself a force to be reckoned with—on the basis of audacity and an unwillingness to be sidelined. Strength is power in the Islamic Republic, and a propensity to utilize assertiveness for the acquisition of power continues to color decision making within the system. And as various factions within the new generation of Iranian political elite continue to assume power, they will increasingly take into account changes in Iranian society and the international community—if for no other reason, to reduce the risks facing the preservation of the system.
The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei rift does not foreshadow the collapse of the Islamic Republic. The power structure and those within it are all that matter. Insiders are bound by layers of political, military, business and family ties, and a shared commitment to preserving order – albeit with divergent views of what that might entail. And these insiders remain the only game in town. Within Iran, widespread popular dissatisfaction has not evolved into organized opposition, and there is no coherent challenge to the system—the government’s coercive capacity prevents such an emergence. Iranian dissidents abroad and permanent expatriates have thus far found no meaningful way to impact the power structure in Iran and have been relegated to being bystanders to its evolving political dynamics. Worth noting is Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami’s recent call for national reconciliation, underscoring his—and potentially both Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi’s—continued support for the principle of an Islamic Republic.
As in the post-Soviet states—and more recently, in post-Mubarak Egypt and Post-Ben Ali Tunisia—it is insiders that will likely shape any future iteration of government in Iran. With the new generation of Iranian political elite increasingly assuming positions of power, the Islamic Republic may enter a new phase in its history that allows for notable changes in domestic and foreign policies—perhaps short of the regime change that some outside Iran prefer, but far from negligible to the millions of Iranians living inside the country who know they deserve better than the status quo.This article also appeared in The National Interest.Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and a former Iran Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State. Jason Rezaian is an American born journalist living in Iran whose stories have been published in several media outlets including Time, San Francisco Cronincle, and the New York Times. The Iran Working Paper Series is supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ploughshares Fund and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.