Saturday, July 2, 2011

Winds of change from unexpected directions?

On Sunday, April 17, 2011 a seemingly not very important thing happened in Iran. The Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi resigned. The resignation has been received by President Ahmadinejad, or better to say, it was somehow compelled because Ahmadinejad disliked Moslehi. But the Supreme Leader Khamenei swept everything off the table.
In Iran, the Ministers are appointed and recalled by the President, but there is an unwritten law, under which the key (national, foreign, intelligence, etc.) ministries must be approved by Khamenei. Is this expression of "indipendent action" by Ahmadinejad just an other symptom of crushing the seemingly monolithic Iranian government?

To clarify, we should repeat a few key data on the distribution of power and slow changes that agitated the pieces on the Iranian chessboard. Previously, people abroad (including the media) often did not distinguish who is accountable for each step of the government. Ahmadinejad became a good target to attack and ridicule, and his statements during his first mandate mostly represented the conservative groups around Khamenei. Khamenei was still pulling the strings. It was apparent until the presidential election 2009, which swirled and divided the society and claimed dozens of victims in the post-election clashes. Despite the widespread belief that the elections were rigged, Khamenei confirmed Ahmadinejad in his second term. That was the move that Mahmoud probably needed to realize his plans: during the first four years he tried to surround himself by loyal allies, mostly various technocrats, some affiliated Revolutionary Guards or his own relatives. In his second term, he even managed to reduce the proportion of clerics in key positions to an unprecedentedly low number.

The first deeper and visible clash between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei was Ahmadinejad's choice of his most important collaborator, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. In a short period (2009 July 17 to 24) he held the post of first Vice-President (there are 12 Vice Presidents in total), but was forced to resign on the order of Khamenei. Than he became Ahmadinejad's closest adviser and the two are also related: Mashaei's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son.

On one side Mashaei in his speeches occasionally pulls out a reminiscence of the glorious pre-Islamic history of the Persian Empire, which is a taboo among conservatives. For example, he lauded the positive message of the ancient Persian New Year holidays (Norooz) and occasionally hitting the nationalistic note, as if Islam did not exist. On other occasions, again he highlights the Iranian Shiite interpretation of Islam as the only correct and decisive for the entire Islamic world. Another time he said that Iranian nation is a friend of Israelis and Americans.

His comments and attitude immediately drew attacks from the conservative clerics Ahmad Jannati, Ahmad Khatami (not to confuse with the Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami or any of his brothers, the matching surnames are purely coincidental) and finally Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi, between people kindly nicknamed "The Crocodile" (temsaah). They unleashed a smear campaign aginst Mashaei and called him a suspect element with unclear intentions, a foreign agent, a member of a banned religious groups, etc.

But something does not fit here. How can an outwardly faithful Muslim, a notorious critic of Israel and the United States and a Holocaust denier tollerate such statements and behavior from his most trusted advisor? When we look a little closer at Ahmadinejad's career, except a few white, or rather dark spots in his past, and several famous quotes ("We do not have homosexuals in Iran"), we can find quite a few interesting deviations from the typical thinking schemes of Islamic conservatives.

In 2006, shortly after his election, he tried to push through a bill to allow women spectators into the football stadiums and also said that Iran has many more important problems than how women dress. These efforts to push through some "innovations" were, of course, ruled out by conservative clergy, who adopted intentionally even a tougher course. These tough measures were sometimes misleadingly attributed to Ahmadinejad's administration. After his controversial re-election in 2009, he tried to nominate three women to ministerial positions in a country where a woman can not hold the post of judge, apparently because she "does not have enough intelligence". He obtained the approval for one of them, the Minister of Health, but women hold also other functions. But why would Ahmadinejad ever deviate from the main conservative mainstream? Why would he try to limit the influence of clerics in the Government? This is a very interesting question. It is possible that all his conservatism is just a pose, he needed to gain the favor and confirm his second mandate. Or perhaps he realized that the government of the clergy only hinders and restricts the development of the country? Or is it out of sheer pragmatism, perhaps because he felt the spirit of change that was slowly but surely creeping over the past thirty years in the minds of people and he only wants to use it to his advantage... That change is the loss of trust in the governance of the Jurist, the Faqih, the Islamic cleric and specialist in Islamic law. It is a phenomenon, which, in the case of Iranian spirit, can be, but not necessarily, connected to the loss of faith in God and Islam itself. Anyway the whole concept of collective, state-organized devoutness is now sounding empty to many people.

At the end, perhaps we will witness a violent power struggle between factions of further quarreling turbans and dark green uniforms. At the beginning the reformist wing split from the Government. They were tolerated, but did not achieve anything important, because they were not able to identify clear goals and their hands were kept tied by their declared loyalty to the idea of the Islamic Republic, as defined by Khomeini. They crossed the threshold of tolerance by protests after the presidential election. They were gradually attacked, discredited and their leaders Mousavi and Karroubi finally silenced in the darkness of house arrest.

Among those who came out victorious from the clashes, a very important group has been reinforced, the Revolutionary Guards. And they are far from being just a street gang of idealistic militants and revolutionaries, like the Basij. It is a highly organized and well armed component, which is in direct control of much of the state itself, including telecommunications, heavy industry and nuclear programme and it's actually a specific type of a capitalist giant corporation.

According to available data, the Guards are one of the largest companies after Iran's state oil company and the effort to include the Guards in the sanctions and to freeze their assets abroad is justified. Originally, the Revolutionary Guards were loyal to Khomeini, and by extension to Khamenei, but who can guarantee that in this powerful and armed organization we will not find purely pragmatic people, untouched by Islamic idealism, who will attempt to change the whole system, of course, in their favor, even by a violent coup, removing of clerical and theological elements and secularizing the whole machinery.

It must not necessarily be a secularization and democratization as the pro-democratically thinking people imagine. Those individuals are also presumably little interested in freedom and democracy, but I think that the removal of religious leaders may not be as difficult as it appears at first. Various religious authorities and pseudo-authorities are already trying hard to somehow highlight the importance and seriousness of Khamenei. The question is, how successfully. A few weeks ago a documentary film appeared that identifies Khamenei with the mythical figure of Seyed Khorasani, who has to prepare the path for the second coming of the hidden Imam Mehdi, the 12th Shiite Imam.

The film provoked considerable controversy among the clergy, a part of them declared it a heresy. Just for fun, some days after, Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed, the leader of Friday prayers in Qom (the holy city south of Tehran) said that Khamenei was a child prodigy, and after he was born he cried in Arabic, "Ya Ali" (invocation of Shiite leader Ali). Well, admit, can anyone with common sense take these people seriously and leave the management of such a country in their hands?

Now it will just depend on how many supporters has Ahmadinejad at all levels, whether they manage to defend him against Khamenei, or will he meet the same fate as the Reformists, who fell into disfavor and were silenced. Khamenei hastily dismissed any disputes and rifts in the Government. It is certain that among conservatives there are enough pragmatists, who will try to avoid the split and weakening of the Government, because over weak and lonely lions there is already a flock of vultures circling hungrily.

(First published 2011 April 27th)