12 June, 2008

Iran: cut and thrust

Recently in the pub I found myself discussing Iranian politics with my old friend "Ken". The subject of that country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came up. Many people in the West assume that, because Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran, he must be in charge of the country. This is, of course, not true. The presidency is just one of several offices in which political power resides, with the posts of Supreme Leader and chair of the Expediency Council being other loci of influence. Ali Khamenei is Iran's Supreme Leader; his title is a subtle clue to the fact that he is the pre-eminent figure in the country's political structure. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, meanwhile, is the chairman of the Expediency Council, and is arguably also a more powerful political figure than the country's president.

In some respects, it is not too surprising that people in the West typically assume that Ahmadinejad is Iran's paramount leader. He is a far more public figure than either of the other two figures, and has attracted considerable notice in the world media for his somewhat buffoonish approach to diplomacy. However, all his talk does not change the fact that it is the Supreme Leader who controls the country's military and security apparatus, with Ahmadinejad not really being in a position to act on his big foreign policy talk. The media does not cover the intricacies of Iran's internal politics, so people miss that Ahmadinejad is not the actual leader of his country.

When I thought about it a bit more, though, I reckoned that people who have paid even the slightest attention to current affairs over the years have no real excuse for seeing Ahmadinejad as the supreme figure in Iran. Before Ahmadinejad, the presidency was held by Mohammed Khatami. Khatami was elected on a reformist ticket, but his programme was largely blocked by conservative figures in the Iranian state apparatus. Khatami's inability to overcome his opponents was widely reported in the Western media, so anyone had been awake during the Khatami presidency should now be wise to the relative weakness of that office.

One other thing about Iranian politics that people have more justification for missing is that Ahmadinejad is, like Khatami before him, something of a radical. He was elected on a populist ticket after appealing to the have-nots in Iranian society, people who feel that the country's current establishment are lining their pockets at the people's expense. One thing often said is that Ahmadinejad's inflammatory approach to international relations is designed to boost his popularity in Iran, where anti-American and anti-Israeli statements go down well. It also makes it harder for his enemies to move against him, as Iran's conservatives are wary of being seen to attack someone of impeccable anti-Western credentials.

And so to current events. Brian Ulrich on American Footprints reported earlier this week that Abbas Palizdar, a parliamentary ally of Ahmadinejad, has recently made various allegations of corruption and malpractice (extra-judicial executions, that kind of thing) against figures within the country's establishment. >He (Palizar, not Brian Ulrich) has since been thrown into jail on charges including "spreading lies and disturbing public opinion". Palizdar's actions could represent an early move of Ahmadinejad's campaign for re-election or an attempt by the president to discredit his opponents in the unelected part of the state's power elite. This could play in a number of ways. It was when Khatami's allies attempted an anti-corruption drive that the Iranian establishment moved to effectively neutralise his presidency.


Paul said...

Although Ahmadi-Nejad is something of a radical as you say, isn't it true that he only was elected after an endorsement from Khamenei? If I recall correctly, this seriously boosted his popularity immediately before the presidential vote.

This would indicate that his radical-ness is shared by the powers that do control Irann, or at least, that they want to present themselves as radical in this way?

Ian said...

I read something more recently that suggested that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad might be in alliance against other factions within the clerical establishment.

My very limited sense of Iran's internal politics suggests that Khamenei is a very careful politician and one who is able to cultivate alliances with people you might not expect him to get on with. The Iranian establishment, meanwhile, is maybe more like a self-perpetuating political class than people in a uni-directional power structure.