Note: Click here to view a shorter version of this article (originally published in the 12 March 2008 edition of The Irish Times).
To understand why Ahmadinejad has already won this month’s parliamentary election you need to understand recent Iranian history, writes Richard Whelan.
When campaigning for the Iranian presidency in 2005, Ahmadinejad portrayed his election as the inauguration of the “third Islamic revolution” in Iran returning the country to the purity of the early days of the revolution. According to Ahmadinejad the first Islamic revolution had been the deposing of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 while the second Islamic revolution was the seizure of the US Embassy on 4 November 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini ruled for 10 years, a period which saw the revolutionary vigour weaken, a highly destructive war with Iraq instigated by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and international adventurism generated by Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric with the resultant isolation of Iran.
In 1989, the year after the end of the Iran-Iraq war or what Iranians called the “Holy Defence” Khomeini died. He was replaced as Supreme Leader by Ayatollah Khamenei while a few months later Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected President. Rafsanjani served two terms and was followed by the reform years under President Khatami. For Ahmadinejad and his supporters, the period from 1989 until his own election in 2005 is seen as a betrayal of the revolution.
Rafsanjani’s presidency was to be one of reconstruction after the costly war with Iraq, but intra-elite bickering, widespread corruption and the economic structure within Iran precluded significant progress. One Iranian commentary explained the relationship between Rafsanjani and what are termed the mercantile classes: “In simple terms, the relationship was one whereby the mercantile elites effectively funded the state, mostly through informal and often dubious business arrangements with individual members of the elite and clerical institutions, and in return the state, in the image of President Rafsanjani, supplied an economic environment in which they could make money.” (Iran under Ahmadinejad The Politics of Confrontation – Ali M. Ansari – Adelphi Paper 393 The International Institute for Strategic Studies).
This led to a predictable response: “Many ordinary Iranians deplored the growing disparity in wealth as a new ‘thousand families’ emerged who indulged in a good deal more conspicuous consumption that had been exhibited by the elites under the Shah”.
From the early 1990s onwards, this “arrangement” and the related corruption and lack of major tangible benefits from reconstruction, led to significant dissension amongst the general population and even the elites. The underlying elite policy was to keep the general mass of the population happy with the occasional populist policy. When this failed religion was always there to keep the faithful content and happy with their lot. As Ansari puts it “The righteous rich looked down upon the mass of the poor safe in the knowledge that religion would protect them from opposition”.
As part of this and little noticed, in the outside world, was a constitutional amendment in 1989 which formally designated the Supreme Leader as “absolute”. He (it would always be a he) is literally the Supreme Leader and acts to ensure that the state follows the appropriate Islamic path and has absolute power to do so.
Increasingly, the general population, and particularly veterans of the appalling tragedy that was the Iran-Iraq war, saw Rafsanjani and his hardline critics as equally corrupt mirror images of each other. This corruption was seen particularly in the notorious Foundation of the Oppressed (Bonyad-e-Mostazafan). This foundation, the head of which is appointed by the Supreme Leader, was in essence a huge conglomerate of businesses whose function had been to redistribute wealth to the poor but eventually became nothing more than a laundering operation for the corruptly obtained monies of the elite, with little if any legal constraints on its activities.
As his own power eroded during what was widely seen as an incompetent and corrupt
presidential term of office, Rafsanjani threw his support behind the reform movement led by his former cultural minister, Mohammad Khatami who eventually replaced him as president. Many of the reformers felt that the Iran-Iraq war had distracted the revolution from the process of reform and political development. They wanted to strengthen the aspects of the constitution that provided for electoral freedoms and that held the state to account, changes that were fundamentally opposed by the hardliners.
The reform project appeared to be at the zenith of its power when the reformers seized control of the Majlis (parliament) in the 2000 elections. Reformers then controlled the legislative branch as well as the presidency, significantly threatening their hardline opponents.
Paradoxically the decline of the reformers can be traced to this point in time, principally because they had and have little access to the key centres of coercion in Iran, (the Judiciary, the Interior Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Basij Militia, and the Ministry of Intelligence), and continued their internal bickering even in the face of a hardline assault on them.
In response to the reformers’ electoral success the hardline conservatives, especially Ayatollah Misbah-Yazdi, began to redefine conservatism, adopting much from the West, leading to what might be termed Iranian “neo-conservatism”. The political spectrum in Iran can broadly be divided into the reformers, now jaded and occupying a position at the centre, Rafsanjani and his supporters situated somewhere at the centre right as “moderate conservatives”, while on the extreme right you have the “neo-conservatives”. What the neo-conservatives were doing, just like their namesakes in America, was to take the ideas of others – particularly radical Islam, nationalism, socialism and particularly populism (especially the idea of a populist and genuinely popular President) and redefining them in a way that suited themselves – topped by a very aggressive approach at home and abroad.
The reformers and moderate conservatives in Iran then faced an opposition (the neo-conservatives) that harassed, imprisoned and eventually even killed some of them.
To the neo-conservatives reform literally was “heresy” and those involved in it “traitors” and “enemies of Islam”. The neo-conservatives maintained that reform failed because of the failure and inadequacy of the very concept of democracy which they argued was ill-suited to Iran. The neo-conservatives selectively interpreted Islam to “prove” that politics was the preserve of a select elite (themselves) and therefore they, with their religious qualifications (and power), were uniquely qualified to rule. Missing the obvious comparison to the Shah, they continued to try to enhance the power and strength of the position of Supreme Leader to the point where he would effectively become a Shah-like figure.
As this tough no-holds barred approach promised to deliver results, contrary to the reconstruction and reformist periods of Rafsanjani and Khatami, it attracted some support. As Ansari put it, the neo-conservatives “were conviction politicians who believed firmly in the primacy of the Islamic state over any sort of democracy and in a particular interpretation of Islam over any suggestion of pluralism, and who argued, in effect, that it was better for their own inner circle to govern, via the institutions of the Supreme Leader, than to allow any type of government that involved the participation of those who did not adhere to or ‘understand’ the faith. This was a highly elitist philosophy that went against one of the central myths of the Islamic Revolution: that of its inherent popularity and mass base”.
The neo-conservatives spent much time considering how to get away with this massive contradiction.
They came up with four simple tactics.
- Firstly they distracted attention from this contradiction by focusing on the failures of reconstruction and reform under the two previous regimes while slowly and contemporaneously increasing political repression.
- Secondly they used populism to excite and distract the masses – focusing on the revolution and on nationalist myths to promote a sense of Iranian victimhood at the hands of a treacherous world. (This populist approach was brilliantly successful but needed a continuing atmosphere of national and international crises to deflect attention from these contradictions and to suppress dissent).
- The third tactic was to find a president who would reflect the previous tactics, popularise them, and capture the public’s imagination and support as President Khatami did. (Khatami was a genuinely very popular president, particularly during his first term). Eventually they found Ahmadinejad who fitted this bill perfectly.
- The fourth tactic was to build up a personality cult around him.
These tactics were particularly geared towards the parliamentary (Majlis) elections in 2004 which the neo-conservatives needed to win at all costs.
Having won easily in the municipal elections in February 2004 because of a low turnout due to voter apathy, and helped by their own ability to get out the fundamentalist vote, the neo-conservatives, facing a turnout of 60%-70% in parliamentary elections, had to come up with a different strategy. Their response was simple. As they dominated the Interior Ministry and were influential in the Guardian Council they simply barred more than 3,000 potential candidates from running for parliament, many of them sitting parliamentarians, a process that took place behind closed doors. (The Guardian Council has 12 members who are appointed directly or indirectly by the Supreme Leader. It is charged with checking legislation to ensure it conforms with their view of Islamic law, with a power of veto, and with vetting candidates for election to make sure they are suitable) Candidates who were barred from running were never given any detailed reasons for their disqualification.
This “parliamentary coup”, as it was described by a reformist politician, unfortunately was greeted with silence in Europe despite the obvious monumental electoral fraud. The result – the neo-conservatives achieved a dramatic landslide victory in the parliamentary (Majlis) elections in May 2004. Some European diplomats particularly, and also some US officials, saw the supremacy of the neo-conservatives as a positive. They thought they could do business with these “practical” people. This was a crucial error as these neo-conservatives were not the old traditional conservatives they had dealt with before but are more accurately described in Iranian and Islamic terms as “fundamentalists”.
The neo-conservatives considered the electoral victory through such fraud as almost an act of God. One neo-conservatives said that the successful Majlis candidates had been named by the Hidden Imam in a message to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei (The Hidden Imam was descended, through the Prophet’s son-in-law, the first Shia Imam, Ali. He is believed, within the dominant sect of Shia’sm in Iran, to have gone into “greater Occultism” in the ninth century and is expected to return to the world at the end of time to inaugurate an “age of justice and peace”).
The neo-conservatives then turned their attention to the 2005 presidential elections.
After much jockeying and some very significant u-turns, they threw their support behind Ahmadinejad and, with the help of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij Militia, he came second to Rafsanjani in the first round of the presidential elections. Ahmadinejad’s first round victory was accompanied by major allegations of electoral fraud with, it was said, institutionalised widespread involvement of the Basij Militia in vote-rigging.
Despite the significant complaints about electoral irregularities, which were quickly dismissed by the Supreme Leader, the stage was then set for a showdown in the second round. Ahmadinejad ran a populist campaign focusing on the economy and political corruption, ignoring his own personal hobbyhorse of religion. Claiming to have been a successful mayor of Tehran and governor of Ardebil province (despite the fact that in the first round he came fifth out of six candidates in Ardebil) and giving little detail of what his plans actually were, Ahmadinejad eventually won the election or more accurately Rafsanjani defeated himself through election mismanagement and his widely-suspected corruption (he is said to be a billionaire) and incompetence in government. It was quite clear that many voted for Ahmadinejad without enthusiasm. The post-election atmosphere was so negative that the Supreme Leader refused Ahmadinejad permission to celebrate his victory in public.
Ahmadinejad and the neo-conservatives then refined their four successful tactics to complete their hegemony in Iran. This involved political and economic populism, repression, and the generation of crises in foreign relations, all driven through a personality cult around the new president and his supposed charismatic qualities. This personality cult, mainly directed at the poor and the less sophisticated provincial citizens, was generated through a mixture of religious fervour and Iranian nationalism.
Ahmadinejad was widely known to be obsessed with the ‘imminent’ return of the 12th or ‘Hidden’ Imam. During his campaign he was alleged to be a member of the Mahdaviyyh cult (which believes that the Hidden Imam can only return to save the world and rule it in perfect peace and harmony after the world has been plunged into chaos) and is known to be close to the extreme neo-conservative Ayatollah Misbah-Yazdi. Ahmadinejad claims to know where, if not exactly when, the Hidden Imam will return, claiming that he will appear from a well south of Tehran in the town of Jamkaran. For this reason he made it a priority to keep the shrine at Jamkaran well supplied with refreshments and amenities to encourage pilgrimages.
Claiming such religious charismatic authority in Iran poses a direct challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader who has not been adverse to claiming that he himself is in some form of communication with the Hidden Imam.
The tactics of Ahmadinejad and the neo-conservatives may keep them in power in the short to medium-term. In the long run they will so damage the economy that they will face a serious reckoning. The maintenance of foreign relations crises, thereby minimising crucially important external investment in Iran and access to international funds, has justified and eventually facilitated the tightening of the repression at home. At the same time worsening economic conditions mean that the neo-conservative leaders increasingly depend on fears of external threats and enemies to keep the masses distracted from domestic economic failures and personal misery.
However these manufactured crises, while sustaining high oil prices, under Ahmadinejad’s incompetent and erratic management, have ensured that the economy has not been able to stabilise or recover, thus reinforcing the problems that the government continually attempts to alleviate by turning up the pressure in international relations. The impact has been the creation of a sense of desperation and crisis within the Ahmadinejad and neo-conservative camp, adding to the self perpetuating cycle that can do nothing but damage Iran significantly in the short, medium and long-term. Part of the reason for this is that the neo-conservative worldview sees Iran, and in particular the Islamic Revolution, as totally incompatible with international integration and collaboration because it would dilute the purity of the Islamic Revolution. Thus confrontation externally and internally is the norm and Ahmadinejad is the perfect personality to deliver it, helped by incoherent US policies and unhelpful pronouncements and uncoordinated European policies.
A major reason for the decline in his domestic popularity that set in shortly after Ahmadinejad’s election was his incompetent management of the economy. Despite the Oil Reserve Fund that the previous president had built up for hard times, and even with a significant increase in oil prices and therefore oil revenues, the new regime began to squander Iran’s golden economic opportunity. Partly this was because Ahmadinejad appointed friends and fellow neo-conservatives to key ministries rather than the competent people he had promised during his election campaign. In addition, it became obvious to many that the neo-conservatives were as willing to plunder the resource of the state for their own ends as any of their predecessors.
It is still unclear exactly where the money has and is going. Significant amounts went in cash handouts to the poor, distributed during the president’s tours of the country. Ahmadinejad sees the poor and less sophisticated provincial citizens as his prime constituency, compared to the urban cynics in Tehran and other major cities who view him with ill-concealed contempt. Massive funds also went to revolutionary and religious institutions and to subsidise new religious foundations as well as to finance Hisbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. These disbursements together with Ahmadinejad’s approach of periodically decreeing that the interest rate should be lowered led to significant capital flight from Iran and a boom in housing and property. This led to inflation, which together with the impact of UN and US sanctions, slowly led to significant pressure on business in Iran. By late 2006, Ahmadinejad had lost the support of the mercantile elite and many of the poor. This decline in support was magnified by Ahmadinejad’s continuing flippant and arrogant attitude to his critics and to such “minor” problems generally. The end result of his reckless spending and incompetent economic management has been the extraordinary outcome that Iran is now more dependent on oil revenue than ever before with less reserves to deal with any downturn in the oil price.
At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial antics led to a cooling in the relationship between Iran and Europe, particularly with Germany who until then had the closest economic and cultural links with Iran. No German could realistically associate with or accept the activities of a state whose president questioned the Holocaust.
Iran had always sought to use the EU as a counter-weight to the US but now had put itself in the unenviable position of having a confrontational relationship with both. While relations did improve with Russia due to the similarity of the mercantile economic structure in Iran and the “robber-baron” culture in Russia, and their shared interest in avoiding “velvet revolutions”, there still remains in Iran significant distrust of Russia because of historic differences, and Russia’s approach to the nuclear crisis with the UN.
Ahmadinejad’s one clear victory in the international arena has been that nuclear crisis which he has played brilliantly, helped by significant tactical errors on the part of the US, EU and the IAEA. This culminated in the recent NIE Intelligence Assessment which has given the mistaken impression that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
Counter-balancing that victory has been the philosophical utterance of what his supporters have taken to describing as “the Socrates of the Age”. Ahmadinejad’s attempt at intellectual sophistication backfired, when he claimed at Columbia University in New York last September that there was no absolute knowledge and everything was subject to continual reinterpretation. This radical post-modernism might go down well in some academic areas in the West, however, it fundamentally undermines the whole basis of Iranian Islamic doctrine that teaches that there are significant objective truths, for example the existence of God himself.
Throughout late 2006 criticism of the president began to mount. He lost the support of a number of key allies, even it is said the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij Militia, amidst increasing concern on the part of the religious establishment about his unorthodox religious claims and activities.
In December 2006 two significant elections took place – the municipal elections and the elections to the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is effectively an Islamic College of Cardinals comprised of 86 senior clerics whose main function is to elect the Supreme Leader and to hold him to account. This election was seen as particularly important in 2006 as the Assembly’s Chairman, Ayatollah Meshkini, was quite aged and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was rumoured to be suffering from prostate cancer.
Ahmadinejad and his neo-conservative allies made strenuous efforts to win both elections, assuming that with their coercive methods and with government resources behind them, they would get the result they wanted. They placed restrictions on campaigning so their opponents could not directly reach the public on election issues. However the moderate conservatives and the reformers used private contacts, mobile phone texting and a form of “pyramid” contacting to get their message through to the public. In addition there was a rapprochement between Rafsanjani and Khatami therefore uniting to some extent the reformers and the traditional conservatives in the centre and centre-right space of Iranian politics to counterbalance the tactics of the neo-conservatives on the extreme right.
In a dramatic reversal for Ahmadinejad and the neo-conservatives, they lost control of every municipal council that they controlled in the country, with the traditional conservatives winning in all major cities. The reformers secured a reasonable number of seats in the municipal councils while in the Assembly of Experts the traditional conservatives again secured a significant victory, with Rafsanjani topping the list.
Rafsanjani was then the frontrunner to take the position of chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which he later did, putting him in the position of king-maker to elect the eventual successor to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Subsequently, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed some key figures from the traditional conservative camp to the Expediency Council, a body set up to mediate disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council. In a typical balancing exercise, he also appointed some neo-conservative supporters of Ahmadinejad to the Expediency Council.
Ahmadinejad’s reaction to these reversals was swift – taking draconian measures to silence his academic critics and to bring academia under neo-conservative control – and galvanising public opinion by attacking British perfidy, verbally attacking the British Embassy and those with connections to the British. He also arranged to have one of the key nuclear negotiators during Rafsanjani’s presidency and his close ally Hussein Musavian who was a member of a governing elect, arrested and charged with spying on behalf of a foreign power, Britain. As the penalty for espionage is death this was a significant escalation of the tactic of coercion.
Coercion was also directed at ordinary citizens through campaigns against what was termed “social corruption”, focusing on inappropriate dress or behaviour.
In summer 2007 Ahmadinejad’s popularity plummeted further when he was forced to introduce petrol rationing. This was due to a lack of refining capacity, because of the lack of investment in oil refining in Iran, due to the continual crises generated by Ahmadinejad at home and abroad to sustain his rule. The result is a country with some of the most significant oil and gas reserves in the world forced to ration domestic petrol consumption. There is no greater symbol of the failure of Ahmadinejad’s presidency than this.
Throughout the remainder of 2007 a string of senior officials, mainly responsible for either economic management or the oil sector, have resigned, citing their inability to carry out their duties because of interference from the President or due to his trait of not allowing anyone else to take credit for any success. Ahmadinejad reacted by signalling his intention to bring economic policy and planning under his own control with his abolition of the Management and Planning Organisation, which had been an important arm of the civil service.
Even some in the hardline judiciary, including its head, began to voice concerns that the government was not addressing economic and social problems. The response to all such criticism was to brand it as anti-Islamic and the critics as servants of the US. Ahmadinejad followed this up by introducing a campaign against “thugs and hooligans” which has resulted in a dramatic increase in summary public executions, sending a clear signal that social, economic and political disagreement or agitation would not be tolerated. Ahmadinejad’s external response has been to focus on extending his personality cult abroad – particularly with his comments on the Palestine but also Lebanon, and the supposed machinations of the West, to appeal to the Arab people over the heads of the Arab rulers. This has had the effect of alienating neighbouring governments because of their concern about Iranian and Shia activities in the region, particularly in those countries with significant Shia minorities.
Attention then turned to the parliamentary election in March 2008. Because of the very negative domestic situation it was clear in early 2008 that only widespread manipulation would stop the neo-conservatives and Ahmadinejad from losing control of parliament.
Their reaction was two-fold. Firstly they went out of their way to silence anyone or any outlet who gave the Iranian people their voice. One such was Zanan, Iran’s number one woman’s magazine, which was shut down by the government some weeks ago. The reason given was that “it was a threat to the psychological security of society”. Zanan’s editor, a former religious revolutionary now pragmatic feminist, Shahla Sherkat, had published articles arguing that Iran’s laws which defined unequal treatment for women had no justification under Islamic law. (Recent statistics show that only 8.16% of the current candidates for parliament are women).
Secondly they repeated their successful tactic from the parliamentary elections in 2004. More than 2,400 candidates for the Majlis elections, most of them reformers, have been barred from running in the election on March 14 by the Interior Ministry. The disqualified candidates include three ministers, a dozen provincial governors, many former parliamentarians, deputy ministers and ministerial directors who worked under reformist president Khatami. The grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini who led the 1979 revolution was rejected on the grounds of lack of loyalty to Islam and the constitution.
The Guardian Council, controlled by the Supreme Leader, reinstated a few hundred candidates, including Khomeini’s grandson, but also barred some additional candidates. An example of how thorough this electoral fraud has been is reflected in one party, headed by former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karoubi, which was left with only 36 of its 260 candidates. Iran’s reformers now say they can compete for only 10% of parliamentary seats. Reformist candidates who have passed the Interior Ministry and Guardian Council cull are mainly relatively unknown figures with little chance of victory. The lack of serious complaint by the EU, the US and others in the West, about this extraordinary electoral fraud allows the neo-conservatives to believe that they can continue to exercise “the hand of God” in Iranian elections.
Real power in Iran resides in the absolute Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council appointed by him. The result of the parliamentary elections, and particularly the current struggle for seats between the moderate conservatives and the neo-conservatives, will in essence be determined by the Supreme Leader, through his effective veto on who can run for parliament.
Attention will then switch to the presidential election in 2009 where Ahmadinejad faces a sterner test.
As elections go, this month’s Majlis election probably does not matter as much as many think – parliament’s power is easily vetoed. What does matter is that religious hardliners are stealing yet another election in Iran, a populous country on the geopolitical faultline of the Middle East/Gulf on the brink of obtaining nuclear weaponry. And the major achievement of Western diplomacy to date has been to bolster the position of those least likely to advance the cause of peace in that troubled region.