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Geopolitics

President Ahmadinejad Wrestles Supreme Leader For Control In Iran

As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei quarrel, the guardians of the Islamic Revolution are growing stronger.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Stephane Bussard

The Islamic Republic of Iran is in the midst of a leadership crisis unlike anything it has experienced since its founding 32 years ago. For the past four months, a war has been raging–-not between conservatives and reformists, but among conservatives themselves. Considering its possible importance, can this power struggle radically change the balance of power in Iran?

Recently, former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, called for a national reconciliation, a sign that reformists hope to come out of the shadows. In the meantime, several conservative figures have deemed it necessary to bring reformists back onto the political scene. After the defeat of the Green Movement following current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested June 2009 election, reformists were sidelined. If this internal struggle lasts, it could prove costly for the conservative leadership.

Unlimited boldness

Conflicts between the supreme leader and the president have always existed. In 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed the first post-revolutionary president, Abdulhassan Bani Sadr. When Ali Khamenei replaced Khomeini, who died in 1989, there were underlying tensions with Ali Akbar Hachemi Rafsandjani, president between 1989 and 1997. The animosities, however, remained hidden. In the same way, Mohammad Khatami and the supreme leader also had a tense relationship, although their disagreements were more visible.

The relationship between Mahmud Ahmadinejad, an anti-cleric who wants women to be allowed to attend football games, and Ali Khamenei started off well. During his first term as president, Ahmadinejad was all the more unassuming considering he had no real support.

"Ahmadinejad gained confidence after he was elected for the second time," says Fereydoun Khavand, professor of International Economic Relations at the University René Descartes in Paris. "He developed his networks. He also understood that people were tired of hearing about religion. Nevertheless, the clash between him and the supreme leader will not lead to Khamenei's dismissal. Ali Khamenei will try to considerably weaken the president. He will only attack if Mahmud Ahmadinejad decides to go further."

There are many disagreements between the two, and Ahmadinejad has shown unlimited boldness. "The president tried to enter areas that are controlled by the supreme leader," says Clément Therne, who wrote an essay on the relationship between Russia and Iran at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. "He wanted to fire Heydar Moslehi, Iran's intelligence and national security minister, and he dismissed Foreign Affairs Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who is close to Khamenei."

Above all, he refused to dismiss Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie after the supreme leader asked him to. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, has two hypotheses on the subject. According to him, either Ahmadinejad wants to change the Constitution so he can run for a third term as president, or he wants to do what Vladimir Putin did with Dimitri Medvedev: encourage Mashaie to run for president in 2013 so he can stay close to the center of political power.

The Army of the Guardians of the Revolution on the watch

So what might happen? Medhi Khalaji, a research worker from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, considers the Iranian regime highly unstable because of its overreliance on the figure of the supreme leader. Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, who was powerful because he was charismatic, Ali Khamenei has no real political or religious credibility. Yet he continues to exert tremendous influence, having placed himself at the center of a 1,000-person network that links into the country's principal spheres of influence.

"The growing power of Khamenei is the main obstacle preventing the constitution of a real state," says Khalaji. If the Supreme Leader dies, according to the analyst, those who really hold power, the revolutionary guards or Pasdaran, will undoubtedly keep it. For now, no one seems able to succeed Ali Khamenei.

"The Revolutionary Guards are the ones with the real power," adds Abbas Milani. "They control security, the oil and gas industry and the building industry. A few days ago, their chief, General Jafari, was explaining the political and economic orientation Iran should follow. Under Khomeini's regime, revolutionary guards had no right to interfere with politics. Today, the supreme leader can rely only on the Pasdarans and on the paramilitary Basij militia, having lost most of his popular support following the events of 2009."

Ali Khamenei's successor is thus essential. The revolutionary guards could support one of their own to replace the supreme leader, even if Abbas Milani claims that the power of the theologian jurist (velayat-e-faqih) disappeared in 2009 when Iranians from the Green Movement were chanting "down with dictatorship." Their other option is to form a temporary committee with the president, something that is allowed by the Constitution, and thus lead a regime that will be mainly military.

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Photo - Daniella Zalcman

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Iranian woman wearing a headscarf

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