The ongoing feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei escalated on Sunday when Khamenei, in a speech to students, hinted at future changes in Iran’s electoral laws that would allow parliament to choose the president. Such a move would emasculate the powers of the presidency since members of the parliament, or Majlis, are all vetted for office by the powerful Guardian Council, which is completely under the control of the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei’s suggestion, couched in terms that suggested the change would occur sometime in the future, nevertheless was a challenge to Ahmadinejad’s power and fed the growing rift between the two leaders.
The power struggle had an impact on the endgame that resulted in the release of the American hikers who had spent 3 years in prison after authorities accused them of being spies. And there has been some speculation in the US government that the quarrel may have played a role in the recent plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.
The feud may have burst into the open relatively recently, but the tension between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad has been simmering for months. Ahmadinejad and his loyalists wish to reduce the tremendous influence of the clerical establishment on his decision making as president, making Iran more nationalistic and authoritarian, while giving a bigger role to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Khamenei, as the Supreme Leader, is the nominal head of the clerical establishment, although he is not respected as an expert on the Koran or Islamic law. However, to guard their prerogatives, the clerics are supporting him in the feud down the line. This includes the extreme conservative Ayatollah Yazdi who has been Ahmadinejad’s biggest booster among the clerics in the past, but who has sided with Khamenei in the dispute.
As Supreme Leader, Khamenei commands the Guard, but Ahmadinejad is the first president with an independent power center within the IRGC. The Iranian president was a senior commander of the Qods Force, the extra-territorial arm of the IRGC, and has given numerous economic opportunities to key members of the Guard during his terms as president. There are many in the Guard who share Ahmadinejad’s ideology and believe in his confrontational approach in dealing with Israel and the the US. Khamenei, on the other hand, has not let his hatred of Israel and the West affect his more secretive attitude in foreign affairs.
The real challenge to Khamenei’s authority came last April when Ahmadinejad dismissed a crony of the Supreme Leader’s, Heydar Moslehi, who was serving as intelligence minister. Within hours of the announcement of Moslehi’s resignation, Khamenei reinstated him – despite the fact that the Iranian constitution gives the president the power to hire and fire ministers. This infuriated Ahmadinejad who went to Khamenei and threatened to resign unless Moslehi was sacked. Khamenei called Ahmadinejad’s bluff, telling him, in effect, to go ahead, but Moslehi was going to stay.
In protest, the Iranian president absented himself from cabinet meetings for two weeks and when he came back, refused to allow Moslehi to attend cabinet meetings. Finally, after the Iranian Majlis threatened to impeach him, he relented and gave in to Khamenei’s demands. As a result of his opposition, 29 of his confidantes were arrested. Suitably chastened, Ahmadinejad explained his actions in the context of wanting what was best for Iran. “I am convinced that a strong and powerful president would lead to dignity of the Leadership and especially the nation. A strong president can stand firm as a defensive shield, advance affairs of the state, and bring dignity upon it,” he said in a statement upon his return.
In this particular dust up, and in other conflicts between the president and the Supreme Leader, Khamenei holds most of the cards. He is seen as Allah’s representative on earth and going against him as Ahmadinejad did was considered a shocking transgression. Ayatollah Yazdi remarked that disobeying Khamenei was akin to “apostasy from God” – a sentiment echoed by senior leaders of the IRGC.
What is behind Ahmadinejad’s “apostasy” is nothing less than a struggle for the future of the revolutionary Islamic Republic. In the past, Ahmadinejad has chafed at ministers who have been imposed on him by not only Khamenei, but also former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the cagey parliamentarian, Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani. In response, Ahmadinejad has fired a record 11 ministers during his term of office, replacing them largely with cronies and loyalists who may not have been the best qualified applicants to manage the ministries for which they were chosen to run.
The president and his supporters in the IRGC have been advancing the idea in recent months of running Iran with minimal clerical influence and based more on nationalism than revolutionary Islam. This is a direct threat to members of the clerical establishment, who have grown fat and fabulously wealthy in the current system, receiving kickbacks and payments from various companies and ministries. Giving some of those plums to IRGC commanders has increased Ahmadinejad’s independence – a threat not only to Khamenei’s rule but to the concept of the Islamic Republic itself. What’s worse, Ahmadinejad’s preferred successor, his close confidant and former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has made it plain that he believes in an Iran without a Supreme Leader. This has caused Khamenei loyalists to refer to Mashaei as a “deviant current” in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle – a warning that Ahmadinejad should distance himself from his friend and advisor.
The power struggle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad played a role in the recent release of three American hikers who were captured in 2008 and held for two years in an Iranian prison. They were eventually tried and convicted of espionage, but released after posting “bail” of $500,000 each.
The Iranian president got in trouble with the judiciary – dominated by Khamenei loyalists – by announcing the release of the hikers before the judges had signed off on the deal. Ahmadinejad had also requested leniency for the hikers, but the judge gave them 8 years. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time that “the sentencing is also likely designed as a check to the president’s power.” CSM also quoted an analyst in Tehran who said that the “judiciary doesn’t want to hand the government any victories or to be dictated to by the government.” Khamenei’s stranglehold on the judiciary has blocked Ahmadinejad on other issues as well.
And now speculation about the recently uncovered assassination plot targeting the Saudi ambassador is including the possible attempt to embarrass either Ahmadinejad or Khamenei. The key to the affair for many analysts is that the plot – called “amateurish” by some – is that it’s seeming unprofessional execution was deliberately done so that the attack could be exposed before it came to fruition.
Using an Iranian used car salesman to contact a Mexican drug gang and act as a go-between with the IRGC seems incredible in almost any context, given past attacks sanctioned by the Guard and the manner in which it carefully covers its tracks. However, no matter how unlikely, the fact that $100,000 was transferred from a bank account belonging to a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards in payment to the assassins gives credence to the seriousness of the plot.
Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, writing in The Diplomat, believes it is possible that the plot was fomented to embarrass the Supreme Leader. He asks, “Why would Khamenei make himself and his regime so vulnerable by wiring money directly? Why wouldn’t Iranian security officials use third parties operating through third countries?”
Javedanfar further speculates:
The fact is that looking at Khamenei’s background, such a reckless initiative as the one he is accused of is almost too radical, the costs too high for his regime. This is why it seems at least plausible that elements within the Iranian regime could have orchestrated this to hurt him, with the goal of eventually pushing him out of power.
The Iranian regime is already fractured, and the business interests of many officials are being undermined by Khamenei’s nuclear policies. Meanwhile, the children of former officials such as Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, are reportedly in jail because of their opposition to the regime. Anyone who wants to hurt Khamenei from within would have plenty of reason to undertake such an initiative, especially as it would ultimately tar the supreme leader.
Other speculation centers on Khamenei using the Qods force – the primary mover behind the plot – “to embarrass and discredit the president in the region and on the world stage,” according to CNN. Either gambit is possible, but no evidence exists that would confirm or deny any such allegation.
With tensions rising between Iran and the US, and Khamenei threatening “decisive action” against the US if America attempts to retaliate, as well as Iran apparently losing influence in Arab states that are in revolt (including close ally Syria), the internal struggle for the “soul” of Iran may be a weakness that could be exploited. Regardless, it is unlikely that either Khamenei or Ahmadinejad will lose their positions as a result of the conflict, which means there will be no change of course for the Iranian regime either domestically or in foreign policy for the foreseeable future.