May 28, 2006


Iran Chief Eclipses Power of Clerics (MICHAEL SLACKMAN, 5/28/06, NY Times)

Mr. Ahmadinejad is pressing far beyond the boundaries set by other presidents. For the first time since the revolution, a president has overshadowed the nation's chief cleric, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on both domestic and international affairs.

He has evicted the former president, Mohammad Khatami, from his offices, taken control of a crucial research organization away from another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, challenged high-ranking clerics on the treatment of women and forced prominent academics out of the university system.

"Parliament and government should fight against wealthy officials," Mr. Ahmadinejad said in a speech before Parliament on Saturday that again appeared aimed at upending pillars of the status quo. "Wealthy people should not have influence over senior officials because of their wealth. They should not impose their demands on the needs of the poor people."

In this theocratic system, where appointed religious leaders hold ultimate power, the presidency is a relatively weak position. In the multiple layers of power that obscure the governance of Iran, no one knows for certain where the ultimate decisions are being made. But many of those watching in near disbelief at the speed and aggression with which the president is seeking to accumulate power assume that he is operating with the full support of Ayatollah Khamenei.

"Usually the supreme leader would be the front-runner in all internal and external issues," said Hamidreza Taraghi, the political director of the strongly conservative Islamic Coalition Party. "Here we have the president out front on all these issues, and the supreme leader is supporting him."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is pursuing a risky strategy that could offer him a shot at long-term influence over the direction of the country — or ruin. He appears motivated at least in part by a recognition that relying on clerics to serve as the public face of the government has undermined the credibility of both, analysts here said.

The changing nature of Iran's domestic political landscape has potentially far-reaching implications for the United States. While Iran has adopted a confrontational approach toward the West, it has also signaled — however clumsily — a desire to mend relations. Though the content of Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush was widely mocked here and in Washington for its religious focus and preachy tone, it played well to Iran's most conservative religious leaders. Analysts here said it represented both Mr. Ahmadinejad's independence and his position as a messenger for the system, and that the very act of reaching out was significant.

"If the U.S. had relations with Iran under the reform government, it would not have been a complete relationship," said Alireza Akhari, a retired general with the Revolutionary Guard and former deputy defense minister, referring to Mr. Khatami's administration. "But if there can be a détente now, that means the whole country is behind relations with the West."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is trying to outpace the challenges buffeting Iran, ones that could undermine his presidency and conservative control. The economy is in shambles, unemployment is soaring, and the new president has failed to deliver on his promise of economic relief for the poor. Ethnic tensions are rising around the country, with protests and terrorist strikes in the north and the south, and students have been staging protests at universities around the country.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's critics — and there are many — say that the public will turn on him if he does not improve their lives, and soon. It may ultimately prove impossible to surmount these problems while building a new political elite, many people here said.

You can't sustain an argument that Khomenei believes in the Iranian theocracy and at the same time wants to transfer his own powers to the secular authorities. The fact that even the most extreme leaders n Iran recognize their system can't work provides us a world of opportunities.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2006 8:58 AM

There's a simpler explanation for the available facts: Khamenei is not the "supreme leader" who "holds ultimate power." Rather, he's been displaced as the leader by Ahmadinejad & his backers, who stole the last presidential election from Khamenei's favorites (and Khamenei could do nothing about it). The Iranian constitution is no more respected than the Soviet constitution was.

On this view, you can reject the idea that Khamenei wants to transfer powers to secular authorities and needn't answer the question of whether he believes in the Iranian theocracy -- he doesn't matter.

Posted by: pj at May 28, 2006 10:34 PM

Yes, on that view the secular revolution has already taken place and Iran has ceased to be a theocratic state even in name. It was inevitable, though this is the least desirable way for it to occur and not likely what's actually happened.

Posted by: oj at May 28, 2006 11:24 PM

Seems the natives are restless in Iran.....

Posted by: Sandy P. at May 29, 2006 1:37 AM

The anti-Nazi resistance was prepared to kill Hitler during the Munich Crisis. Although they wanted to eliminate Hitler for a while, they thought they could only do so if he was seen provoking a war that the German people did not want. That was their cover as Hitler was very popular and killing him another time would lead to a backlash. Of course, the West capitulated before they could do so.

If we want Ahmadinejad gone and think the Iranians will do it themselves, escalating the crisis is probably the best thing we can do. Of course, that means if we are wrong and Ahmadinejad is not deposed we'll be at war.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at May 30, 2006 1:22 PM