January 19, 2006


Iran's master puppeteer (Sanam Vakil, 1/20/06, Asia Times)

[Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, after 16 years in power, has learned the delicate and tactical process of manipulating the complicated political system and its flamboyant actors.

While Khamenei is indeed the final arbiter and puppeteer of the Iranian political system, he has been using President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his ideological international approach to moderate his own public image since Ahmadinejad was elected last summer.

In this recent taqieh or dramatic passion play, Khamenei is the one character who will emerge from behind the political scenes having captured not only his domestic audience but also an international one. [...]

Ironically, factionalism is enshrined in the Iranian political system. These factions have competed in the parliament, often reinventing themselves, creating not only a level of competition but also a clear sense of patrimony. With parliamentary elections every four years, factional shifts in the system occurred in 1992 in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War and in 2000 when reformist politicians brought wind of a "Tehran spring". Indeed, the reformist challengers to the Iranian state were marginalized in the 2004 parliamentary elections due to the much-maligned, behind-the-scenes direction of the supreme leader.

Equally important to the Iranian political structure is the institutional system. Modeled after the French political system with a parliament, president and judiciary, the government maintains clerical oversight bodies that are appointed by the supreme leader. The former institutions have been dominated by factional competition as evidenced by the reformist emergence. Indeed, president Mohammad Khatami's 1997 and 2001 electoral victories posed political challenges for the clerical conservatives.

After 16 years at the helm, though, Khamenei has learned to use this factionalism and institutional control to his advantage, pitting those who support him against those who do not. Using unelected institutions such as the Guardian Council to vet candidates prior to elections and to negate legislation passed by the reformist parliament, Khamenei enabled the final consolidation of conservative power evidenced in the recent round of elections when only clerically approved candidates were permitted to run for political office.

The problem with this entire analysis is the assumption, which seems not to be borne out by reality, that Khamenei wanted Ahmadinejad to be elected in the first place and knew that the Reformists would successfully boycott the election, rather than elect Mostafa Moin, whho he forced down the Guardian Council's unwilling thoats..

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 19, 2006 8:54 AM

The Iranian political structure is modeled after France? That explains a lot. And instead of the myths and dreams about French glory, there is the shadowy religious component.

But I don't think Khatami's election posed too much trouble for Khameini - the strings were just pulled a little tighter. If anything upsetting was going to happen, it would have been early in Khatami's term. By 1999, it was clear that he was ineffective.

And how can the parliament be a 'co-equal' branch when the judiciary keeps disallowing candidates to run?

Iran is a carefully constructed semi-totalitarian state. The Guardians have one function - to make sure that the mullahocracy is not challenged. If Ahmadinejad does stray from his script, he will disappear. And the West will think that is a good thing.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 19, 2006 12:40 PM

Khamanei is the Guardian Council. He put Moin in to defuse a wave of popular hostility engendered by the anti-democratic act of blocking him from the ballot. The anti-democratic act of not counting his votes was harder to detect or prove, and therefore more sensible for Khamanei.

Posted by: pj at January 19, 2006 12:55 PM

There is no reason to believe that Ahmadinejad is anything but Khameni's talking sock puppet. when there are done with him, he will disappear.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at January 19, 2006 1:01 PM

There's plenty of reason to believe he's not and none to believe he is.

Posted by: oj at January 19, 2006 1:29 PM


There were no protests that mattered and Moin would have won had not the reformists boycotted.

Posted by: oj at January 19, 2006 1:32 PM


A Moin victory would have put him in the same place as Khatami. And if he had strayed too far from the script, he would have disappeared.

I don't understand your reluctance to call Khameini exactly what he is - a tyrant. Sure, he has layered his government in a way that Saddam and Hafez and even the Shah never did, but he runs the show, along with his shadow buddies of the Guardians. They even have their own private army, separate from the Revolutionary Guards (kind of the like the SS).

He is not as 'inspirational' as his predecessor, but he is much more dangerous. Khomeini was a political idiot for the most part, and when he died, it was clear that the "Revolution" was a mess. But Khameini has held on to power for many years, while advancing his nation's drive towards the bomb. Will he use it? Unlikely, but the possibility is much more tangible than with any other country who has it. Hence the problem.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 20, 2006 11:22 AM


Yes, that's what Khamenei wants--a reformist government that he can stop from reforming much. He's Gorbachev thinking he can save the system.

Posted by: oj at January 20, 2006 12:43 PM

Perhaps you are willing to bet on Khameini's "Gorbachevness". I am not. I highly doubt if there are any Islamic words to match glasnost or perestroika, and certainly none that the Grand Ayatollah would use.

And you can be sure that there are worse men in the shadows. The only real solution for Iran is to kill their entire government, and then see if the 'moderates' are willing and able to run the country. But it is possible that they cannot - they were eviscerated in 1979-80, and again starting in about 1999. Sure, the nation (the youth, the middle class) is ripe for change, but does it have the energy? In some ways, Iran resembles China in 1976, except there is no Deng to squash the old leadership and point the way forward. There is no alternative to the militant Islamic drones that avoids the accusation of heresy.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 20, 2006 2:07 PM

They'll change when they're tired of the current heresy. As Ayatollah Sistani has shown the regime there is inconsistent with Shi'ism. In the meantime bomb their nuclear weapons sites.

Posted by: oj at January 20, 2006 2:10 PM

If you are relying on a battle of dueling Ayatollahs, I'll take another bet, thank you.

Posted by: ratbert at January 20, 2006 3:18 PM

There's a difference between not being a Realist and being unrealistic.

Posted by: oj at January 20, 2006 3:45 PM