Power Struggle in Iran

Article Summary
Despite the growing hostility between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they have managed to suppress reformist currents within the Iranian government, writes Sarkis Naoum. This marks the first time that the Islamic Republic has witnessed such a standoff, begging the question: Who holds real power in Iran?

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have succeeded in suppressing the extensive popular demonstrations that had swept the streets of major cities in Iran, in protest of what [the people] considered to have been a deliberate rigging of the last presidential elections [which took place in 2009]. [As a result], the reformist current within the Islamic Republic’s regime was excluded from the presidency, and Ahmadinejad - the icon of the ultra-conservatives - was reinstalled for a second term.

[Ahmadinejad’s success in sidelining the reformist current] led many [analysts] inside and outside of Iran to draw several conclusions. [One of the first observations they made was that] the conservatives exhibited a strong degree of unity, which enabled them to manage the military, security, political and media repression machine to successfully quell the protests, albeit after several months. [Second, certain analysts] claimed that it was clear that the reformists enjoyed wide popularity in major cities, including the capital Tehran. On the other hand, they only had modest [popularity] in rural areas - where the majority of the Iranian people reside -  for numerous reasons. In addition to the influence of religion, one of the main [factors] behind the lack of support for the [protest movement in rural areas] was the close relationship that Ahmadinejad established with [rural Iranians]. [Ahmadinejad] has made a point of paying a great deal of attention to them. One example of this was an initiative he launched - perhaps running counter to the common logic of governance - in which money was distributed to rural dwellers as compensation for the lack of state services and development.

What’s more, the Islamic regime’s conservatives and ultra-conservatives were able to overcome the important obstacles facing them due to the unity that existed between their civilian [supporters], their military and security [apparatuses], and the clergy.

Throughout the period [of the protests], Iranian diplomatic intelligence in several Arab and regional capitals reported that a "civilized" solution - if such a description is appropriate - was being discussed between the victorious regime and the reformists. It is also impossible to deny that ties indeed remained between [the reformists] and those officials in the regime who won the elections. The most important tenet of the solution was the official allowance that was made to the reformists to establish a reformist Islamic party [after they obtained] a license. Democracy - which has so far been only partially existent in Iran - would in this way be reinforced through a partisan duality, the kind of system that has proven a principal source of stability and prosperity in the developed world. [The regime has hoped that the establishment of this kind of a dynamic] would lead the vast majority of the Iranian people to support Iran's Islamic system of government.The influence of the [regime’s] opponents - which use every popular protest in Iran to incite the people against [the regime] - would then decrease.

However, the “democratic discussion" referred to above is not yet complete, and positive results have yet to be seen. This demonstrates that radicalism and extremism are still the most powerful [forces that the Iranian regime wields]. [The fact that negotiations with the reformists never ended up being concluded] is a sign of the regime’s strength, which can be attributed to its institutions and the unity between its diverse political-religious currents. However, shortly after the beginning of Ahmadinejad’s second term, certain events led Iran's allies, friends - even its enemies in the region and abroad - to question the nature of the developments taking place inside [Iran]. The Supreme Leader [...] is the first and last decision-maker in Iran. [Supreme Leader] Khamenei recently clashed with the president, despite the full support that he has given [Ahmadinejad] in the past. The Iranian and foreign media  - whether sympathetic or critical of Iran - have pointed out a variety of presidential decisions that have contradicted the wishes of the Guide [Khamenei]. [Moreover], the president has also refused to carry out several of [Khamenei’s] judgements.

This disconnect has given off the impression that there is a serious ongoing conflict within the Islamic regime in Iran. It is the first time that the Guide [Khamanei] has proven incapable of implementing his own rulings, given that he holds the almost [semi-divine] post of deputy of the infallible and absent Imam Mahdi. It is also the first time that the “mortal” civilian president has succeeded in confronting the Supreme Leader and refusing to implement his decisions. All of this has raised further questions about who holds the actual decision-making power in the Islamic Republic - as opposed to the official decision-making power delineated in the Constitution. If Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are incapable of either getting along or achieving victory over the other, despite their differing positions, then there is likely a very strong team managing the conflict between these powerful leaders which sees no interest in resolving [the ongoing conflict]. This may be because of disagreements within this strong team - which could turn out to be the Revolutionary Guards; inopportune circumstances; or [the regime’s] commitment to the Islamic [political system] and fear that a [conclusive] solution would destroy [this system]. [This is especially so] given that [the regime] is in confrontation with most of the world and hopes to emerge victorious, with an influential regional - and even international - role.

Are there answers to the questions above, and particularly to the question: Who holds real power in Iran?

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