By Robert Tait,
Ahmadinejad sitting next to
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (August 2009)
Is President Mahmud Ahmadinejad looking to get out from
under the influence of the ayatollahs?
He has built his political
career and populist appeal on twin pillars of pious religious faith and
messianic fervor. But now Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is risking a
breach with his fundamentalist allies by toning down his Islamist tub-thumping
rhetoric in favor of a new oratorical weapon: nationalism.
Amid a deepening split within the Islamic system's "principlist" conservative
faction, the combative president has begun stressing nationalistic Iranian
themes in what some observers characterize as an attempt to carve out a new
political constituency amongst nonpolitical types who neither identify with
religion nor the pro-reform Green Movement.
The new emphasis is highly controversial because of the focus of many
nationalists on Iran's pre-Islamic past and the tendency of some to characterize
Islam as a foreign religion imposed on the country by Arabs.
It has coincided with attempts by the president to distance his government from
renewed attempts to enforce Islamic dress codes, an issue that has already
brought him into conflict with conservative clergy.
The approach has been spearheaded by Ahmadinejad's controversial chief of staff,
Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, who has previously angered hard-liners with
conciliatory statements about Israel and other actions deemed to be out of step
with Iran's Islamic ideology.
Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's new
Earlier this month, Rahim-Mashaei -- who was forced to resign as
Ahmadinejad's vice president in 2009 after his appointment provoked an uproar
among clerics -- caused fresh outrage by telling Iranian expatriates that true
Islam was embodied only in the Shi'ite faith embraced by Iran.
"There are different interpretations of Islam but our understanding of the real
nature of Iran and of Islam is the Iranian school," Rahim-Mashaei said. "From
now on, we must present to the world the school of Iran."
He went on to say that "without Iran, Islam would be lost" and added, "If we
want to present the truth of Islam to the world, we should raise the Iranian
His remarks prompted an ominous warning from Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi,
a cleric widely considered to be Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor. "Certain people
who are shamelessly promoting the Iranian school in the place of the Islamic
school are outsiders, not insiders," he said in a speech to military commanders.
"We did not sign a brotherhood pact with just anyone. If somebody deviates from
the right path, first we advise him and then we beat him with a stick."
Ahmadinejad Under Attack
Mesbah-Yazdi's warning -- shocking in its tone from such a staunch ally -- was
the latest in a series of developments that appeared to show Ahmadinejad
becoming isolated from his erstwhile religious base.
On July 22, Mehdi Mohammadi, political editor of the ultraconservative "Kayhan"
newspaper, described the movement behind the president as "the third pillar of
sedition," a term previously applied to the defeated reformist candidates in the
disputed 2009 presidential election, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi.
"In Iran, a new movement is appearing that wants to say that it's more
revolutionary than the supreme leader," Mohammadi told a meeting of
fundamentalist Ansar-e Hizbullah supporters, who previously supported
"This new movement doesn't want to see the country in peace and tranquility. It
even wants to vacate the surroundings of the supreme leader from others and only
keep itself in his proximity. And when this happens, it will want to say that
'We are the only ones who stayed, therefore all authorities should be
surrendered to me because I won 25 million votes.'" Ahmadinejad claimed to have
received 25 million votes in last year's presidential election.
Further discord was displayed with the resignation of Ahmadinejad's
religious-affairs adviser, Mohammad Nasser Saghaei-Biriya, a close associate of
Mesbah-Yazdi. Saghaei-Biriya is said to have been prompted to quit -- reportedly
after a meeting with Mesbah-Yazdi -- because of the president's public criticism
of police crackdowns on "un-Islamic" clothing and hairstyles.
Less Islamic Society
Hushang Amirahmadi, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and
president of the American-Iranian Council, says the tensions reflect a profound
social shift that is seeing the country enter a fourth phase of its development
since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which national interests trump Islamist
Many young Iranians reject police enforcement of
"I believe we are entering into a new stage in the life cycle of the Islamic
republic, which I call the Iran-Iran stage, where Iranian nationalism certainly
dominates the Islamic interests and pan-Islamism," says Amirahmadi, who argues
that the country has come a complete circle from the revolution's early years,
when it began with a stage he calls "Islam-Islam" before progressing
successively to "Islam-Iran" and "Iran-Islam" phases.
"I am not saying that this new stage means no Islam," Amirahmadi adds. "It
simply means that Iran and Iranian nationalism has become a dominant factor in
decisions that the Islamic republic makes."
However in Iran itself, public recognition of the forces behind such a
transformation is overwhelmed by resentment over the influence of Rahim-Mashaei,
whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, Mehdi, and who is increasingly
seen as something of an intellectual mentor to the president.
Amirahmadi -- who has promoted the idea of rapprochement between Ahmadinejad's
government and the United States -- describes Rahim-Mashaei as a
"religious-nationalist" whose commitment to Islam is being subsumed by his
pro-Iranian sentiments. But that is merely a response to the social reality of a
mainly young population eager to engage with the rest of the world. Meanwhile,
there is little chance of Ahmadinejad bowing to pressures from hard-liners like
Mesbah-Yazdi to rein in his chief of staff.
"Ahmadinejad has a particular relationship with Mashaei," Amirahmadi says. "For
him Mashaei is more important than Mesbah-Yazdi and he has made it known to
every religious leader that he is not going to easily give up on Mashaei, of
whom he is a follower."
While Amirahmadi believes that Ahmadinejad will "have a tough time with
fundamentalist religious leaders like Mesbah-Yazdi," he believes that
hard-liners like him "really have little option because the problem is not just
Mashaei or Ahmadinejad. It is the whole country, a population that has
increasingly grown hostile to fundamentalist ideas. They obviously want a freer
society, they want a more open place. They are Muslim but they don't want to
associate with an Islam that is terrorist, fundamentalist, anti-West and
Striding The Religious Divide
On the other hand, Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, describes Ahmadinejad's new nationalism as a cynical
political ploy. He says the president's previous apocalyptic rhetoric, stressing
his belief in the return of the hidden or 12th imam, the Mahdi, has been
de-emphasized because of the need to cultivate a new support base in time for
parliamentary elections in 2012.
"Apocalyptic-ism would not work any more for Ahmadinejad. He needs a secular
discourse," Khalaji argues. "A secular discourse would be nationalism.
Nationalism in Ahmadinejad's version is a very shadowy concept. It has
everything and it doesn't have anything. He uses this ambiguity to attract
anyone who doesn't feel associated with either the reform movement or the
At the same time, Khalaji says, Ahmadinejad has begun to despair of keeping the
support of Iran's religious classes in the face of fierce opposition from
clerics and pragmatic conservatives like Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker.
As an alternative, he has turned his attention to the non-politicized youth.
"He is not hopeful about religious people. He needs to attract young people,
especially great numbers of Iranian young people," Khalaji says. "They are not
political. What they want is their private freedoms. These are more important
for them than political ideals like democracy and justice and so on.
According to Khalaji, this explains Ahmadinejad's attempts to distance his
government from police plans to crack down on Islamic dress. "He tries to
disassociate himself from those actions that make apolitical people angry," he
According to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born commentator with the Israel-based
Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, Ahmadinejad and
Rahim-Mashaei genuinely believe they are in tune with Iran's young people. But
the desire to satisfy their demands may ultimately be doomed because of
Ahmadinejad's political dependence on the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
who has the final say on all state matters.
Javedanfar says that their beliefs regarding the 12th imam and Iran's system of
clerical rule "is in conflict with their other ideologies and beliefs, such as a
more nationalist lexicon and moderate approach to issues such as women."
He says that despite this "clash in their policies," "they see themselves as a
force, as a duo which will ultimately have the biggest following within the
conservative movement in Iran. Whether that's actually true, I think in time we
will find that Ahmadinejad doesn't have what it takes because he's only there
because of Ayatollah Khamenei's support and nothing more."
Copyright (c) 2010 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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