The Middle East Channel

Rooting for Khamenei

A long-brewing power struggle recently burst into public view over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decision last month to dismiss Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi. The ensuing power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has left the Iranian president deeply weakened and revealed many useful lessons about the closed and convoluted political workings of the Islamic Republic. On the surface, the battle appeared to be over when Ahmadinejad backed down. But there are deeper issues at stake which remain far from resolved. When Khamenei gave the president an ultimatum to reinstate the minister or resign, the supreme leader was not only preserving his own power -- the supreme leader has final say over government affairs -- but that of the entire clerical establishment.

The real fight was not about cabinet ministers. It was part of a test of wills between the Ahmadinejad loyalists, especially those in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the ruling clerical establishment over ideology, religion, the survivability of the Islamic Republic, and Iran's influence in Arab states now in transition. Khamenei appeared to believe that the cocky, alarmist Ahmadinejad, who in recent months had been boldly advancing an Iran with minimal clerical influence run by the IRGC and inspired by Iranian nationalism, not Iranian revolutionary Islamism, had to be slapped down. Otherwise, the Islamic Republic, as it has existed since the 1979 revolution, risked extinction. It might seem counterintuitive, but Khamenei's survival and that of the clerical system is in the West's interest. The alternative -- a highly militarized state run by the Revolutionary Guards -- would be much worse.

Since his election to a first term in 2005, Ahmadinejad had carefully courted Khamenei, his most powerful advocate in the volatile world of Iranian politics. In June 2009, in a rare but highly symbolic moment, Ahmadinejad became the first president in the Islamic Republic to kiss the hands of the supreme leader during his second inauguration ceremony. But no longer. Ahmadinejad embarked on another new trail by becoming the first president in the republic to publicly disobey the supreme leader. Angered by Khamenei's interference in the management of his cabinet, the president staged a boycott and did not show up for work for 11 days.

Khamenei and other powerful figures have clearly come to believe the president poses a very real threat to the system. This has prompted even many of Ahmadinejad's ardent supporters to side with Khamenei. Reactionary cleric Mesbah Yazdi, a longtime mentor of the president, turned against him and criticized the president for challenging supreme clerical rule, the foundation of the Islamic political system. "Some people introduce themselves as supporters of velyat (supreme clerical rule), but in reality they act otherwise," Yazdi said. "The restoration of anti-clerical thinking could be the next great sedition in this country," he said, clearly demonstrating his fears of a plot to do away with, or at least weaken, Iran's political clergy. Other reactionary clerics have gone as far as to throw the president in with Iran's "enemies," a category usually reserved for Israel and the United States.

As much as Khamenei detests the United States, he will always prefer "soft power" to a military confrontation, whether it is with Israel, the United States, or regional rival Saudi Arabia. This is not the case for Ahmadinejad and his partisans inside the IRGC whose members have gained greatly in both political and economic influence. Ahmadinejad is still believed to have powerful supporters inside the Corps, despite comments made last week by Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, warning the president to "stay away from deviant factions," a term used to refer to Ahmadinejad's chief of staff and close confidant, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie. Many high-ranking officers and the rank and file of the IRGC share Ahmadinejad's radical views and political ideology and have greatly benefited from his government's policies in the past six years. They will stop at little to provoke Israel and empower Iran's regional proxies, which include Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

While the two factions have disagreed in the past on nuclear negotiations with the United Nations, their real differences revolve around the future direction of Iran's Islamic system, with the nuclear program only a proxy arena for waging those deeper political battles. The president's pretenses of reaching out to engage the United States and Western governments are solely to increase his power internally, with the hope that the power structure might change and Khamenei might be the last supreme leader.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaie, whom the president hopes will succeed him when his term expires in 2013, envision a future Iran devoid of Islamic orthodoxy. This attempt to take Iran in a new direction has prompted accusations from high-ranking clerics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaie are influenced by religious "deviants" who believe in supernatural powers and djinns, or spirits. In fact, in the past Mashaie has said he can interpret for himself the Islamic texts, such as the Quran, and does not need the clergy -- an enormous threat to the clerical establishment's claim to religious sanction for their hold on power. In response, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told a group of IRGC officers and staff that, "In order to learn the religion, one must go to scholars of the religion and not to exorcists and monks. Which wise person would accept learning the faith from exorcists and monks instead of scholars of the faith?"

Not only would Ahmadinejad and Mashaie's vision lead to the marginalization of Iran's clerics, but it would also make it far less likely that Iran could exert influence in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine and continue to call the shots in Iraq. Without the clerical establishment, Iran would have no religious or moral authority to interfere in these countries, where Iran seeks to extend its political influence in the name of Islam. This is definitely bad news for the United States and other Western governments, which worry that Iran will succeed in extending its influence in the Arab world, particularly after the Arab uprisings.

While this is a downside to Khamenei's triumph in the power struggle, his victory has preserved a system the West might not understand but one that so far remains somewhat predictable. Such is the state of affairs inside Iran's regime that Khamenei and the conservatives the United States once called "hard-liners" are now a safer bet than the wild card that is Ahmadinejad.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at the National Security Network and the Century Foundation and the editor of insideIRAN.org. Arash Aramesh, a researcher for the program, contributed to the article.

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The Middle East Channel

Iran's unwanted revolution

Iran moved quickly to frame the uprisings across the Arab world as an "Islamic Awakening" and as a parallel to its own Islamic Revolution in 1979. But Tehran is visibly shaken by the possibility of regime overthrow in Syria. Despite American efforts to highlight Iranian support for the Syrian regime's efforts to retain power, in fact Tehran has little control over the future of political order in Syria. The turbulence in Syria and Iran's limited influence have significance beyond the immediate, urgent question of the survival of Bashar al-Assad. It shows powerfully how much Iran's influence is a function of external developments rather than internal strength -- and how that influence might be severely affected by changes in the regional environment beyond its control.

The longer trajectory of Iran's regional power highlights how deeply losing Syria might affect Tehran. Iranian ascendancy over the last decade has been driven by the weakening of its traditional enemies, not by its own internal development or its own actions. In 2001, U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. Thereafter, the United States invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. These actions together transformed Iran's two most hostile neighbors into arenas of competition where Iran enjoyed geographic proximity and deep historic ties and could tap into communities of co-religionists. The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel further amplified Iranian power, as its Lebanese proxy became the first Arab force to be considered to have tied Israel on the battlefield. Similarly, Israel's continued conflict with the Palestinians, culminating in the 2008-2009 Gaza war, enabled Iran to present itself as the leader of the forces of resistance against Western domination.

Over the course of the past decade, Tehran has proved adept and skillful at exploiting regional conflicts to its benefit -- often with the unintended help of its adversaries eager to credit Tehran for their own problems. Its initial response to the uprisings in the Arab world was similarly opportunistic. It initially viewed the regional turbulence as another opportunity to expand Iran's influence and to advance a narrative of Islamic resistance to Western hegemony. In some cases, like Egypt, the removal of a staunch anti-Iranian leader would allow for better relations with Iran. In others, internal political weakness, factionalization, and instability may provide openings for Iranian interference similar to Iraq post-2003.

Western observers may scoff at Iranian rhetorical support for Arab protest movements as pure realpolitik, a thinly disguised effort to support the downfall of regimes allied with the West. Regrettably, this would be an insufficient reading of the prevalent worldview among Iran's leadership. One of the core principles of Khomeinism is that the Islamic Republic stands for the defense of the mostazafan -- the oppressed. And when current Supreme Leader Khamenei voiced Iran's support for "all regional uprisings," he explicitly highlighted that the respective Arab demonstrations were "a protest of a nation against its oppression." The core of the Islamic Republic's leadership seems to truly believe that the uprisings vindicate its foreign policy and align with its principles.

But Iran has been confronted with three inherent contradictions of this position. First, it continued its own internal crackdown on dissidents while Arab revolutions seemed to be vanquishing established regimes in the name of liberty. Second, its proclaimed support for the "people" is incompatible with Western support for the same "people." In other words, since Iran defines itself in opposition to the existing order, Tehran struggles when it finds itself on the same side as the Western powers, as in Egypt, where the international community helped broker the transition away from Hosni Mubarak. Libya has been even more problematic, after the international community authorized military force to protect the civilian population, forcing Iran to attempt the impossible balancing act of proclaiming its solidarity with the rebels while objecting to the actual intervention on their behalf.

But Syria has been by far the most profoundly disconcerting to the Iranian regime. It most vividly exposes Iran's double standards, even if rumors of large-scale Iranian assistance in suppressing the opposition in Syria are exaggerated. After all, Syrian protesters are unarmed Muslims in defiance of a secular and militarized regime, with reportedly more than 800 people killed so far. They therefore symbolize the mostazafan like few others and should thus be deserving of Iranian support. But clearly, given Syria's role as Iran's longest and closest Arab ally, the downfall of the Assad regime would have grave consequences for the projection of Iranian power and Iran's regional positioning. The turbulence in Syria strikes at the heart of Iran's claim that the uprisings are directed against Western hegemony, or that popular support for resistance conferred legitimacy on its allies.

Crucially, Iran's ascendancy has not been a function of its internal strength. On the contrary, Iran remains beset by myriad socioeconomic and political problems. The recent oil price rise cannot hide that Iran's economic growth model is defunct. In the words of a Tehran-based HSBC analyst, it represents a "lopsided economic model reminiscent of the former Soviet Union." Likewise, its elite politics remain divisive even after a consolidation of power among archconservatives.

In the absence of internal resources, Iran's foreign policy relies heavily on external assets, notably its partnership with Syria. Syria provides very critical logistical, political, and military support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and provides Iran's main gateway to relevance in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without Syria, Hezbollah's capabilities could deteriorate and be susceptible to defeat in the next round of fighting. Damascus also facilitates Iran's relations with Hamas, as Syria is (still) the main headquarters of the group outside Gaza. Overall, these points of contact are of extremely high importance as the Arab-Israeli conflict itself is a major foreign-policy asset of Iran on which it builds its legitimacy. Losing direct access to the Arab-Israeli arena would thus be a detrimental blow to Iranian influence.

Damascus also lessens Tehran's isolation as its only loyal ally in the region. Syria aside, Tehran does not enjoy the trust of any other governments in the region. Even Lebanon and Iraq, with their influential Shiite constituencies, are beholden to the complex sectarian makeup of their polities and therefore constrained in their relations with Iran. Above all, Syrian support creates the veneer of pan-Islamic solidarity and reduces Iran's Shiite and Persian character, which otherwise sets it apart from most of the Arab world.

Any regime that would follow Assad would likely be less forthcoming toward Iran. By definition, any successor regime would be more reflective of the Sunni majority and resentful of most legacies of the current Alawite-dominated regime, including its close ties with Tehran. Most problematically, Iran lacks an alternative to Syria. There is simply no other regional player interested and able to provide comparable goods. Therefore, if Assad went down, so would Iran's regional influence. This simple fact should also serve as a reminder for the broader debate on how to deal with Tehran as a regional player, namely, that Iran's position is less a driver of regional events than a function of those events.

Elliot Hentov recently received his Ph.D. in Middle East studies from Princeton University.

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