Iran’s ongoing presidential campaign has unleashed a level of political excitement and engagement that has been seldom seen in the country since the days of the 1979 revolution. Nearly every night in the past week the streets of Tehran have been filled with young supporters campaigning for their candidates. But the greatest drama in this election has been unfolding not in the streets, but rather on the sound stage of Iran’s government-controlled television network which has been hosting one-on-one debates between each of the four candidates.
This is the first time that an Iranian election has included televised debates of this type and the lively sessions speak volumes about the difference between this campaign and others. Most notable in these debates has been the manner in which internal divisions between the Islamic Republic’s various factions have been exposed, a sort of public airing of the regime’s dirty laundry.
Leading the charge has been President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who on live television has leveled accusations of corruption against some of the most powerful men in the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy. During a debate with his reformist opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad repeatedly alleged that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President (and current supporter of Mousavi) who remains one of the regime’s top figures, was corrupt and had financially profited from his place in government.
While rumors of the wealth acquired by Rafsanjani’s family have been widespread in Iran for years, these accusations have never been aired in such a public or forthright manner, let alone by someone in Ahmadinejad’s position. Ahmadinejad also accused several other high level stalwarts of the Islamic Republic’s previous governments of corruption. In his debate with Mousavi, Ahmadinejad even alleged that, Mousavi’s wife, a former university chancellor with a relatively high profile role in Mousavi’s campaign, had improperly obtained her doctorate degree. With each debate unveiling a new series of allegations and counterallegations, it is no wonder Iranians are glued to their television sets watching the Islamic Republic’s election soap opera.
In the midst of all this sensational campaign theater it is important that that any underlying strategic shifts signaled by this campaign are not missed by Iranians or those outside Iran looking to these elections to get an idea of possible future directions for the country. While it is still too early to draw conclusions and much will depend on the outcome of the election, several important developments can be noted.
Perhaps most important is that the regime’s internal divisions have entered a new confrontational and overt phase, with the elections potentially just part of a greater showdown to come. Ahmadinejad’s attacks are possibly part of a broader strategy by Ayatollah Khamenei (the Supreme Leader and hence the Islamic Republic’s number one figure) and the President to actively attack and discredit parts of the old guard of the Islamic Republic which they view as rivals. It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad could break the taboo of direct accusations against leading members of the regime if he did not at least have the tacit backing of Khamenei in doing so. And while Khamenei has made statements in the past few days urging candidates to not level accusations, he has not come down as forcefully on the issue as he could have.
It is important to note that Khamenei’s place at the top of the regime has not always been assured. At the time of his appointment as Supreme Leader following Khomeini’s death, there were many in Iran’s clerical elites who felt that Khamenei did not have the religious qualifications for the post. Rivalries within the regime’s old guard of clerics have been longstanding and while the structure of the Islamic Republic places Khmenei in a dominant position, it also allows for possible confrontations. Rafsanjani, for example, is currently the head of the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics which is charged with electing, and if need be, removing the Supreme Leader. It is in Khamenei’s interest to weaken those rivals with strong revolutionary and religious credentials, as they could challenge him in the future. Challenge from such rivals would be especially likely and threatening to Khamenei if Iranian society pushes in a more reformist direction, as it seems to have a tendency to do every few years. Khamenei and his allies are wary of other regime rivals outflanking them by riding a wave of reformist sentiment to power.
In confronting these potential rivals, Khamenei can rely on a new generation of power brokers in the Islamic Republic that have few large personalities from the early days of the revolution and owe their loyalty more directly to the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad and his supporters, namely in the Revolutionary Guard and Basij, are the leading members of this new generation. Khamenei has, especially in the last few years with Ahmadinejad’s help, cultivated a strong relationship with these groups by largely aligning with their interests and policy preferences. This has been evident in a whole range of areas. In economic and industrial policy the Revolutionary Guard have played an increasingly significant role in key industrial sectors such as oil and imports. Other core areas of convergence include political and foreign policy issues such as the support of Ahmadinejad in opposition to the reformist movement and the unwavering support of the nuclear program.
It is likely that Khamenei will wait to see how this first chapter in a more overt confrontation with his potential rivals will play out. If Ahamdinejad is defeated in the election, Khamenei will likely try to distance himself from the more radical elements of the new generation and seek reconciliation. But this opening gambit launched by Ahmadinejad is not without risk for Khamenei and the regime as a whole. By attacking some of the regime’s top personalities directly, Ahmadinejad may have just opened up a Pandora’s box. In the last few days the President’s rivals have already attacked him and his allies with numerous counter-allegations of corruption, incompetence and untruthfulness, the magnitude and tone of which are extraordinary for the Islamic Republic. Iran’s timid electoral scene which has traditionally been dominated by deference to the powers that be, may in effect be replaced by a more open and confrontational landscape where nothing is sacred, even direct attacks against the Supreme Leader. If Rafsanjani and the others that have been attacked view the attacks as coming from or with the support of Khamenei, an eventual campaign against Khamenei would not be out of the question, especially as there is a great deal of pent up anger in the public that could support such a confrontation. Previously, criticism of Khamenei has been limited, covert and swiftly punished, so any such campaign would put the Islamic Republic in unchartered territory.
If Ahmadinejad comes out victorious from the election it is highly possible that the confrontation continues. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are successful in such a confrontation, the result would be an Islamic Republic where power is even more fully concentrated in the hands of Khamenei and his hardline supporters. Ahmadinejad has already stated that he intends to pursue the corruption allegations he has leveled if he is elected. If Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are successful in removing some of the old guard from positions of power and also isolating or defeating the reformist movement, Iran will be in a substantially different place than it is today. While many outsiders have long viewed the Islamic Republic as a radical revolutionary regime, more astute observers have recognized that there have also been significant moderating forces within the regime that have caused it to choose more pragmatic policy options at important junctures. In the area of foreign policy for example, Iran has in many instances followed rational national interest calculations rather than revolutionary zeal.
If the more pragmatic elements of the regime are removed or weakened as a result of the infighting going on with the regime, the Islamic Republic will be viewed very differently by Iranians as well as foreign powers. The confrontation that seems to be coming to the surface in Iran now is not just a matter of conservatives versus reformists. A Khamenei/Ahmadinejad victory would be much more significant than the defeat of the reformist movement after Khatami’s second term. The individuals being targeted today (Rafsanjani, Nateq Nouri, Rowhani, etc.) are not cutting edge reformists. They have been some of the leading (albeit pragmatic) figures in the Islamic Republic since its inception and have played an important role in all phases of the regime’s evolution to date. An Islamic Republic that omits this grouping will be significantly more oppressive domestically and more prone to hardline positions in its relations with world.
An Islamic Republic fuelled by the renewed revolutionary zeal of a new generation of leaders would also be less likely to compromise on issues like Iran’s nuclear program. The increased likelihood of internal and external confrontation would usher in a perilous period for the country. The possibility of social unrest and political violence in such a scenario is heightened by the apparent thirst for change among Iran’s youth, as evidenced by their energetic support of reformist candidates like Mousavi and Karroubi in this election. Just to be clear, this author’s view is that such confrontation and unrest should be avoided as it would come at great cost and would be more likely to lead to a more closed and oppressive Iran than to sustainable positive change in the country.
The significance of these Iranian elections comes into focus when viewed against the perspective of these scenarios. The reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not only signify the continuation of his failed policies to the detriment of Iran, it could also be the first act in a new more radical phase of the Islamic Republic with power more fully monopolized by Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their supporters. If Iran’s reformist politicians and potential voters needed any more reason to fight against Ahamdinejad’s reelection, this past week’s campaign theater should have provided them enough of a preview to redouble their efforts and to get out the vote against Ahmadinejad.