May 16, 2011


Rooting for Khamenei (Geneive Abdo, May 10, 2011, Foreign Policy)

When Khamenei gave the president an ultimatum to reinstate the minister or resign, the supreme leader was not only preserving his own power -- the supreme leader has final say over government affairs -- but that of the entire clerical establishment.

The real fight was not about cabinet ministers. It was part of a test of wills between the Ahmadinejad loyalists, especially those in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the ruling clerical establishment over ideology, religion, the survivability of the Islamic Republic, and Iran's influence in Arab states now in transition. Khamenei appeared to believe that the cocky, alarmist Ahmadinejad, who in recent months had been boldly advancing an Iran with minimal clerical influence run by the IRGC and inspired by Iranian nationalism, not Iranian revolutionary Islamism, had to be slapped down. Otherwise, the Islamic Republic, as it has existed since the 1979 revolution, risked extinction. It might seem counterintuitive, but Khamenei's survival and that of the clerical system is in the West's interest. The alternative -- a highly militarized state run by the Revolutionary Guards -- would be much worse.

Since his election to a first term in 2005, Ahmadinejad had carefully courted Khamenei, his most powerful advocate in the volatile world of Iranian politics. In June 2009, in a rare but highly symbolic moment, Ahmadinejad became the first president in the Islamic Republic to kiss the hands of the supreme leader during his second inauguration ceremony. But no longer. Ahmadinejad embarked on another new trail by becoming the first president in the republic to publicly disobey the supreme leader. Angered by Khamenei's interference in the management of his cabinet, the president staged a boycott and did not show up for work for 11 days.

Khamenei and other powerful figures have clearly come to believe the president poses a very real threat to the system. This has prompted even many of Ahmadinejad's ardent supporters to side with Khamenei. Reactionary cleric Mesbah Yazdi, a longtime mentor of the president, turned against him and criticized the president for challenging supreme clerical rule, the foundation of the Islamic political system. "Some people introduce themselves as supporters of velyat (supreme clerical rule), but in reality they act otherwise," Yazdi said. "The restoration of anti-clerical thinking could be the next great sedition in this country," he said, clearly demonstrating his fears of a plot to do away with, or at least weaken, Iran's political clergy. Other reactionary clerics have gone as far as to throw the president in with Iran's "enemies," a category usually reserved for Israel and the United States.

As much as Khamenei detests the United States, he will always prefer "soft power" to a military confrontation, whether it is with Israel, the United States, or regional rival Saudi Arabia. This is not the case for Ahmadinejad and his partisans inside the IRGC whose members have gained greatly in both political and economic influence.

Khamenei just has to have more faith in his own people, who'd be only too happy to elect a reformist leader who likewise supports the Republic.

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Posted by at May 16, 2011 6:16 PM

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