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The Real Power Struggle in Tehran

By Jalal Alavi

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (center) and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right)

Some Iran observers are of the opinion that a genuine power struggle has been triggered in Iran between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the reinstatement of an ousted minister.

This, however, is not an accurate assessment of the situation, if only because it reduces the role of the supreme leader in Iranian politics to that of the president, thus taking for granted the Constitutional supremacy of Khamenei over all matters of state.

Also, one must take note of the fact that, according to conservative Tehran lawmaker Ahmad Tavakkoli, Ahmadinejad lacks the ability to utilize his popularity or electoral base for challenging, let alone undermining, the rule or authority of the supreme leader, which is another way of saying he lacks popularity [1].
The real power struggle, then, one that is increasingly becoming less obvious to the world but that has forced Khamenei and his allies to gradually withdraw their support for Ahmadinejad is between Ali Khamenei and reformist opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi who, along with Mehdi Karroubi, has been under house arrest for more than one hundred days now [2].
In a sense, it all goes back to a grudge that Khamenei developed against Mousavi during the 1980s, when Khamenei, as president, was forced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader and founder of the Islamic Republic, to work with the then Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
The two had divergent views right from the very inception of the Islamic Republic on many matters of state ranging from economics to foreign policy and so it was up to the Ayatollah to make the final call as to who should serve as prime minister, especially during the time Iran was defending itself against Iraqi aggression.
It may be argued, therefore, that Khamenei’s support during the course of the 2009 presidential race for the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an ambitious yet immensely unscrupulous individual who had proven capable of “winning” a presidential election once before, was highly expedient in nature, in that it created the sorts of conditions necessary for Khamenei to gradually do away with one of his foremost opponents, Mir-Hossein Mousavi (and Karroubi, for that matter), from the landscape of Iran’s electoral politics once and for all.
Here, the question arises as to what Khamenei could hope to gain by marginalizing and eventually getting rid of his once favorite presidential candidate, Ahmadinejad.
A few ideas readily come to mind: First, it may be argued that by pushing Ahmadinejad (and not merely some of his aides, which has been the objective of some Khamenei supporters) to the sidelines and eventually blaming him for all the ills that have befallen the country ever since he took office in 2005, Khamenei could hope to regain at least some of his long lost credibility as supreme leader and thus eliminate the possibility of another major uprising throughout the country.
Second, he could hope that his recent treatment of Ahmadinejad as more of a liability than asset to the regime might strike a chord with disgruntled politicians, high-ranking clerics, and ordinary citizens, thus prompting many of them to not only set aside their differences with him, but also take part in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
Third, Khamenei could hope that by distancing himself from Ahmadinejad and his allies, alienated governments the world over might consider reestablishing friendly relations with the regime, thus reducing the amount of diplomatic and economic pressure that has been mounting on Iran for years.
Fourth, he could hope to gain the mercy of those whose lives he has either ruined or destroyed due to his years of unwavering support for Ahmadinejad.
Whatever gains Khamenei might have in mind, one thing is for certain: his elimination of Ahmadinejad and his allies from the realm of politics in Iran will not accomplish anything unless it is followed by firm steps towards a genuine national reconciliation, which must include the total exoneration of Mousavi and Karroubi from all governmental allegations leveled against them, as well as meaningful democratic reforms.
Politically speaking, such reforms must, at a minimum, lead to high levels of transparency and accountability at all levels of government and in all matters of public concern as well as guarantee the creation of an efficient bureaucracy, an independent judiciary, and open, free and fair elections.
That respect for the human and civil rights of each and every Iranian citizen must be a focus of any and all political reforms is hardly in need of elaboration here.
Economically speaking, such reforms must lead to the creation of policies and programs that can significantly enhance Iran ’s productive capacity in all spheres of industrial and commercial activity, thereby facilitating the creation of meaningful jobs in urban and rural areas throughout the country.
As it stands, Iran’s economy is in ruins due to high levels of corruption and government manipulation (in a non-Keynesian sense), with massive amounts of wealth and capital leaving the country on a daily basis [3], thus requiring measures such as the above to save it from a painful collapse.
Khamenei and his allies can, of course, choose to ignore the above caveats and suggestions altogether, but they would be doing so at their own peril.

About the author: Jalal Alavi is a sociologist and political commentator specializing in issues related to Iran.


1.  Tavakkoli has explicitly mentioned Mousavi, though, as having possessed such ability and popularity ever since at least the 2009 presidential election.  Read his remarks (in Persian) here:
2.  Having fought for reforms alongside their husbands for years, the spouses of these opposition leaders, Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karroubi, have also been put under house arrest for the past four months.
3.  For example, according to news accounts, some $18.5 billion worth of gold and raw cash was “legally” shipped to Turkey by a single Iranian citizen just a few months ago.  Experts claim that this amount of gold and cash could not have been carried out of Iran legally without the official approval of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  

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