Tempering Tantrums in Tehran

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Tempering Tantrums in Tehran


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


Around the globe, alarm bells started ringing when Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had already established himself as a hardliner over Iran's "nuclear issue", called for Israel to be "wiped off the map". The president's inflammatory statements also caused considerable consternation in Tehran. Now, supreme leader, Ali Al Khamenei, is falling back on old friends and rivals in a bid to neutralise the fiery new head's message both at home and abroad.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's president from 1989 to 1997 and seen in some quarters as a relative moderate, had been widely expected to make a comeback by

winning the presidential election in June. But in the end he was unexpectedly trounced in a run-off vote by the little known hardline mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a rank outsider. Rafsanjani and his supporters complained that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the pervasive Basij militia had strong-armed the electorate into voting for the upstart Ahmadinejad.

For the first time in nearly a decade, hardliners controlled every centre of power in Iran. But it seems that in the opaque world of Iranian politics wherein numerous factions are constantly vying with each other for dominance, this did not sit well with Ayatollah All Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. He saw Ahmadinejad and the young turks he brought into the executive branch of government as a potential threat to his authority and the Islamic republic's political equilibrium at a particularly delicate moment in Iran's dealings with the West.

The new administration's uncompromising position in the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, along with its populist economic policies, violent rhetoric and lack of experience in foreign affairs, caused shudders of alarm in the political establishment, especially amongst the Old Guard who had spearheaded the 1979 Islamic revolution with the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Recently, Ali Khamenei, who holds the ultimate authority in the Islamic republic, has sought to outflank Ahmadinejad and curb what many see as his impulsive tendencies that are causing international diplomatic jitters at a critical time in the Middle East and in Tehran's negotiations with the West.

This is especially true over discreet back-channel contacts with the Americans over Iran's nuclear programmes, which are operating at a level not seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The hardliners in Tehran are not happy with the direction in which these contacts are going. The move by Khamenei has serious implications since the new president's allies in the IRGC, whose political clout had been steadily growing in recent years, now control Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Ahmadinejad has also been promoting Revolutionary Guard and intelligence veterans to key military and security posts, bringing out into the open a breach between the political Old Guard and a new generation of hardliners who won their spurs during the Islamic revolution.

In some ways, the political confrontation is a generational clash as much as anything else between, on the one hand, the radicals who led the 1979 revolution and have matured politically over the years, and on the other, the younger generation who grew up under the revolution and remain true to its ideals. The latter are now moving into positions of power to challenge the Old Guard.

Ahmadinejad, widely seen as a humble man of the people who is incorruptible (he is reported to take a packed lunch to work every day), campaigned on a populist platform for economic and social justice and against rampant corruption in the clerical and ideological establishment.

Khamenei, aged 66, turned to his old revolutionary comrade and sometime political rival Rafsanjani, 71, to counter Ahmadinejad's self-proclaimed "second revolution" and his confrontational impulses. Khamenei amended Iran's power structure by giving the Expediency Council, a 32-member non-elected political arbitration body--established by Khomeini in 1988 and chaired by the pragmatic Rafsanjani--sweeping new authority to supervise parliament, the judiciary and the executive. …

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