Ideological Battles in Iran

New lease for Islamic Republic

In many ways, Ahmadinejad’s victory is the latest and perhaps final clash in a battle for power and influence that has lasted decades between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran.

By BILL KELLER and MICHAEL SLACKMAN

Enlarge this photoTEHRAN, Iran —

The jokes among Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s detractors are legion. In one, he looks in the mirror and says, “Male lice to the right, female lice to the left.” In the West, one American tabloid rarely misses a chance to refer to him as “Evil Madman,” and in the days before his re-election here he was taunted as a “monkey” and a “midget.”

But the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was announced winner of a second four-year term this week is no cartoon character. Whether his 62 percent victory is truly the will of the people or the result of fraud, it demonstrated that Ahmadinejad is the shrewd and ruthless frontman for a clerical, military and political elite that is more unified and emboldened than at any time since the 1979 revolution.

As president, Ahmadinejad is subordinate to the country’s true authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who commands final say over all matters of state and faith. With this election, Khamenei and his protégé appear to have neutralized the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said.

“This will change the face of the Islamic Republic forever,” said one well-connected Iranian, who like most of those interviewed declined to be named in the current tense climate. “Ahmadinejad will claim an absolute mandate, meaning he has no need to compromise.”

In many ways, his victory is the latest and perhaps final clash in a battle for power and influence that has lasted decades between Khamenei and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who, while loyal to the Islamic form of government, wanted a more pragmatic approach to the economy, international relations and social conditions at home.

Rafsanjani aligned himself and his family closely with the main reform candidate in this race, Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who advocated greater freedom and a more conciliatory face to the West. Another former president and pragmatist, Mohammad Khatami, had also thrown in heavily with Mousavi.

The three men, combined with widespread public support and disillusionment with Ahmadinejad, posed a challenge to the authority of the supreme leader and his allies, political analysts said.

The elite Revolutionary Guards and a good part of the intelligence services “feel very much threatened by the reformist movement,” said a political analyst who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “It is a confrontation of two ways of thinking, the revolutionary and the internationalist.”

When he was first elected president in 2005, Ahmadinejad showed his fealty to Khamenei, gently kissing his hand. On Saturday, the leader demonstrated his enthusiasm for the president, hailing the vote as “a divine blessing.”

Ahmadinejad had been plucked from an obscure provincial governorship and made mayor of Tehran. There he established himself as a promising populist politician. He refused to use the mayor’s big car or occupy the mayor’s grand office. He didn’t accept his salary.

Four years ago, the supreme leader anointed him as the fundamentalist presidential alternative to two candidates the leader thought less reliable — Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament.

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Although his first election was marred by allegations of cheating, Ahmadinejad was credited with being genuinely street-smart. He roused crowds with vague attacks on the corruption of the elite, with promises of a vast redistribution of wealth and appeals to Iranian pride.

“The old generation of the Islamic Revolution was going to die off,” said one Iranian analyst. “We thought they would inevitably give way to the reformers. But they found Ahmadinejad, and he was a wise choice. He was a new breed of populist — a new breed of demagogue.”

As president he has presided over a time of rising inflation and unemployment but has pumped oil revenues into the budget, sustaining a semblance of growth and buying goodwill among civil servants, the military and the retired.

More important, he has consolidated the various arms of power that answer to the supreme leader. The Revolutionary Guards — the military elite — was given license to expand into new areas, including the oil industry and shipbuilding.

The president seemed to stumble often. He raised tensions with the West when he told a U.N. General Assembly that he rejected the post-World War II order. He was mocked when he said at Columbia University in 2007 that there was not a single gay person in Iran. In April, nearly two dozen diplomats from the European Union walked out of a conference in Geneva after he disparaged Israel.

But political analysts said that back home, the supreme leader approved, seeing confrontation with the West as helpful in keeping alive his revolutionary ideology and his base of power. President Obama’s conciliatory tone toward Iran, some Iranians believe, threatened to relax Iranian vigilance and the powerful forces to defend it.

On Sunday, Ahmadinejad told a rally that his willingness to reconcile with foreign governments would depend on their willingness to swallow his disputed election.

Asked about speculation that in his second term he would take a more moderate line, he smirked, “It’s not true. I’m going to be more and more solid.”

Unless the street protests achieve unexpected momentum, the election could cast the pro-reform classes — especially the better off and better educated — back into a state of passive disillusionment, some opposition figures said.

“I don’t think the middle class is ever going to go out and vote again,” one Mousavi supporter lamented.

Courtesy Seattle Times