18 May 2007

The two 'kings' of Iran

it's not often that you find a well written, informative and inciteful look into Iran's internal politics but this article by Sami Moubayed is an interesting and fact filled read. You can click the link in the title for the whole article if you like what you read below.

The two 'kings' of Iran
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - There is an old Arab saying that two kings - or heroes - cannot live in one room.

Well, there appear to be more than two "kings" in Iran. The obvious one - who ironically is seemingly least in control - is President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The second is the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

Both "kings", however, are members of the same radical establishment, the "hawks" of Iranian politics. The other group of "kings" is headed by the so-called pragmatists, led by ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who now heads the Expediency Council, and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Fate - and Ahmadinejad's policies - brought the two former presidents, who traditionally represent opposite ends of the political spectrum, into alliance. They are the "doves" of Iran.

Riding the wave of the hostage crisis
One of the signs that the Iranian president is not as powerful as the world believes he is can be found in the crisis over the 15 British sailors and marines taken hostage by Iran, and then freed by Ahmadinejad, in March-April.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) engineered their capture, under orders from the president, claiming that they had ventured into Iranian waters. Ahmadinejad needed the crisis for a variety of reasons. First, it would be great for local consumption and boost his image in the eyes of ordinary Iranians. Second, it would serve as a reality check for the West, showing Washington and London that he was a man who lived up to his word and should be taken seriously when he challenges the superpowers.

Third, Ahmadinejad may have wanted to strike a deal with the United States through Britain: we free the sailors, you lift the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program. A formula along these lines, which included suspension of Iran's nuclear program, was even being discussed with Iranian leaders at the United Nations.

So the IRGC went ahead with the arrest of the British, having no clue how the rest of Iran - and the world - would react. One immediate indicator was that the Iranian press did not mention the crisis until it was leaked by the British, and even then tried to play down the event in the hope of minimizing the damage caused by the IRGC.

This clearly shows that not everybody agreed with the president - and certainly not everybody wanted to use the crisis to boost Ahmadinejad's image in the Iranian street. The Iranian newspaper Aftab e Yazd wrote: "If we wanted, as the president says, to pardon them while we had the authority to try them, why did we not release them before [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair's ultimatum or three days after it?"

This is where other power brokers came into play to overshadow the Iranian president. They included reformers such as Khatami and Rafsanjani, and hardliners who nevertheless see Ahmadinejad's bravado as childish adventurism.

Ali Larijani, the secretary of the Supreme Council on National Security, said that the captives would not be tried and that the crisis would be resolved peacefully. An ally of Khamenei, Larijani was right, and the hostages were released.

Although Khamenei made no comment, it is believed that he was categorically opposed to the staged arrest and the decision may have been made without his knowledge. But an even more important decision - setting them free - needed his approval. It could not have been done without Khamenei and it is his constitutional right as Supreme Leader to issue pardons and to overrule any decision taken by the president.

Denis Ross, a veteran US diplomat in charge of Middle East affairs under the Bill Clinton administration, argued, "Khamenei ordered the sailors released but allowed Ahmadinejad to do it - giving him a platform to weave his own public story and to bestow medals upon the IRGC soldiers who seized the sailors."

He argued that the pragmatists in Iran, who opposed the hostage crisis from Day 1, are the officials that the US must engage to get Tehran to suspend its nuclear program. They are the ones, he believes, who can be talked to because they see more danger than benefit in the continuation of Ahmadinejad's defiant attitude toward the Western world. He said, "It may not be easy to stop or suspend the program, but if we could convince those who agreed to cut Iran's losses on the British sailors that Iran's interests can be served better by abandoning their nuclear efforts, it's not impossible."

But if Khamenei was so upset by the hostage crisis, why did he let Ahmadinejad get full honors and publicity for their release? The reason, simply, is that Iran's leaders do not like to show the world that they are in disagreement - even if they are.

They want the Islamic Republic to project unity, given its standoff with the international community and the United States. They may bicker among themselves, and even try to eliminate each other politically in internal politics, but they will seldom come out and publicly let the US gloat at their differences.

It is very un-Iranian (at least since the revolution of 1979) to flash internal disputes before the outside world. Within Iran, however, there is increasing talk about a complete divide between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.

Originally, the grand ayatollah supported Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005, explaining why and how he managed to defeat the veteran and well-established Rafsanjani (whom Khamenei then dreaded). The grand ayatollah could control a nobody like Ahmadinejad, while it was very difficult to control someone like Rafsanjani.

A change at the top?
That control today, two years later, has almost snapped, although Ahmadinejad has never - at least not in public - challenged Khamenei. Some in Iran are even starting to discuss replacements for the president, saying that early elections may be on the horizon and that Ahmadinejad may not even complete his term, which ends in 2009 (ironically the same year as President George W Bush's).

Ahmadinejad promised much in 2005 and has been unable to deliver. He promised a share of the country's oil with ordinary Iranians, more bread on their tables and more jobs. The Iranian economy is still under sanctions from the US, inflation is high, and so is unemployment. Disappointment, frustration, fear and animosity from power centers in Iran all combine to make the president's days look numbered. The threat of a US military strike on Iran aggravates the situation. ....

No comments: