A Generational Divide in Iranian Leadership

in Program

By Andrew Noble – The continuing power struggle between Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei may be
characterized as a generational conflict. The clerical establishment in Iran, which has dominated Iranian politics since
the 1979 Revolution, is now being challenged by younger men who were foot
soldiers in the Islamic Revolution and veterans of the 1980s war against Iraq; they seek
to establish an Iranian, as opposed
to Islamic, republic. As
Ahmadinejad’s closest adviser and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei has
stated, “An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous
country like Iran….
Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clergy]
are not horse racers.”[1]

Ahmadinejad’s supporters have attempted to curry favor with
Iran’s mostly young population by appealing to their Persian nationalism.  Furthermore, Ahmadinejad has attempted to
undermine the power of the clerics, and Khamanei in particular, by insinuating
that he and others are in contact with the hidden Mahdi, the twelfth Imam of
Shi’a Islam, who is expected to return one day to rid the world of injustice
and tyranny.

In early 2011, Ahmadinejad said of Khamanei, “Hazrat-e
[His Excellency] is a good man and leader, but there are other people
who are in constant and direct contact with Emam-e Zaman [Imam Mahdi].”[2]  By suggesting that lay people are capable of
connecting with the hidden Mahdi, Ahmadinejad is questioning the usefulness of
the Supreme Leader, who claims to be the “earthly” deputy of the Prophet
Muhammad and the twelfth Imam. Needless to say, Khamanei and his allies in the
clerical establishment have not let these challenges go unanswered.

Public political warfare heated up in April, when
Ahmadinejad fired the Minister of Intelligence, Hojjat al-Eslam Heydar Moslehi,
a close ally of Khamanei, who very quickly reinstated Moslehi to his post.  An infuriated Ahmadinejad then refused to
attend cabinet meetings for two weeks. Following this incident, Ahmadinejad
nominated himself the interim head of Iran’s Oil Ministry. The Guardian
Council, led by Iran’s clerics, soon declared that this move was
unconstitutional. In June, the clerics began a campaign to remove several of Ahmadinejad’s
closest followers. The Iranian parliament, largely supportive of the Guardian
Council, moved to impeach the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, over the selection of his deputy.

In late June, several Ahmadinejad loyalists, including Mashaei,
were arrested and charged with “sorcery.”  Those arrested were labeled part of the
“deviant current” in the government. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a firm supporter
of Khamanei, declared that defying the Supreme Leader amounted to “apostasy
from God.”[3]
Ahmadinejad, reeling from the clerics’ counterattacks, acknowledged the rift to
reporters in June, “It is very clear now that we are 180 degrees away from them
– we are actually on opposite sides.”[4]

Key to the outcome
of the conflict will be the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps
(IRGC). In recent years, the IRGC has profited greatly from its increased
involvement in the Iranian economy, often to the chagrin of the clerics. The
IRGC has economic interests in the construction industry, investment firms,
engineering firms, and auto manufacturing, among many other sectors. Thus, it
is in the IRGC’s interest to keep Ahmadinejad from amassing too much power. So
far, General Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, has openly sided with Khamanei,
declaring in July that the Revolutionary Guard would handle the “deviant
current” in the government.[5] For
his part, Ahmadinejad has countered the IRGC’s attempts to strip him of power
by issuing veiled threats of exposing the widespread economic corruption in the
Revolutionary Guard.

The IRGC has to tread carefully, as many of its senior
officers and rank and file troops are either supporters of Ahmadinejad or the
reformist Green movement. Approximately a year after the 2009 election
protests, four former IRGC officers who had fled Iran spoke anonymously to The Guardian about the IRGC’s use of
torture and rape against dissidents. The officers also spoke of widespread
discontent amongst Revolutionary Guard soldiers regarding the regime’s
brutality. One former officer decided to go public with his anger with the
Iranian government.  Muhammed Hussein
Torkaman, once a member of Khamanei’s security detail, told The Guardian, “I want people
outside to know what is happening and what this regime is doing to them.”[6]

Last February, a group of IRGC officers sent an open letter
to General Jafari, asking him to order restraint should there be massive
protests in Iran, such as those
then-occurring throughout the Middle East. The
letter declares, “We promise our people that we will not shoot nor beat our
brothers who are seeking to express legitimate protest against the policies and
conduct of their leader.”[7] The
former minister of culture and Islamic guidance and current IRGC officer
Mohammad Hossein Safar Harandi has acknowledged the “disobedience of some
forces in the Sepah [IRGC].”[8] If
there are popular protests against Khamanei or Ahmadinejad in the near future,
neither man may be able to rely on the IRGC as a tool to crush the opposition.

For the time being, it appears that Ahmadinejad’s attempts
to change the status quo in Iranian politics and gain more power for himself
have largely failed. The clerical establishment, as well as the conservative
Iranian parliament and the IRGC leadership, motivated by power and economic
interests, have successfully blocked moves by the nationalists to transform the
country from an Iranian theocracy to a republic based on Persian nationalism.
However, the fractured nature of the Iranian leadership and its institutions has
left plenty of room for speculation about the future of this conflict.  

[1] Reza
Aslan, The Atlantic “Do We Have Ahmadinejad All Wrong?” < > January 13, 2011

[2] Muhammad
Sahimi, PBS “Analysis | Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens into Abyss” <>
May 7, 2011

[3] Saeed Kamali
The Guardian “Ahmadinejad
allies charged with sorcery” < > May 5, 2011

[4] The Guardian “Iran’s President Admits Rift with Country’s Senior Islamic Figures” <>
June 7, 2011

[5] Al Arabiya “From Iran Primer: Ahmadinejad vs. the Revolutionary Guards” <
> July 12, 2011

[6] The Guardian Angus Stickler and Maggie O’Kane “Former Elite Officers Reveal Tensions in Iran
Regime” < > June 11, 2010

[7] Con
Coughlin, The Telegraph “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Appeal for
Restraint against Demonstrators”  <
> February 19, 2011

[8] PBS “Fissures in the Revolutionary
Guard’s Officer Corps?”  <>
March 1, 2011


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