Sunday, June 26, 2011

Power Struggle in Iran: What to Expect? And why Khamenei versus Ahmedinejad is a non-battle with important global effects

Over the last couple of months, IR Iran saw a real political conflict develop into something that caught the attention of analysts all over the world. President Ahmedinejad wanted to fire the Intelligence Minister, but was summoned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei not to do so.

It was remarkable to see how a lot of Western observers indicated that this might be proof of a weakening of the leadership in Iran. Some even said that this was probably directly related to the Arab Spring elsewhere in the Middle East. But as so often 1+1 is not always 2 in the Middle East.

The first thing that all outsiders always seem to forget is that IR Iran is just that: an Islamic Republic, i.e. a theocracy where the parliament has operational and political responsibilities defined within the guidelines laid-out in the Constitution with the Shariah and Quran as important other beacons. So important that they themselves - as the Word of God - are not questioned and/or left open for discussion by politicians within the parliament.

You can argue as long as you want about a system in which the leading beacons are embedded within the religious system. if it is not yours, then oppose the system or leave the country if it is not collapsing from within. Just like you - when you don't like an orthodox Christian political party like the SGP in the Netherlands - probably don't want to be part of it. Of course, there is a big difference in that the secular structure in the Netherlands and the fact that the SGP is normally gaining just 2 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament doesn't translate into tremendous powers for mr Van Staay, its party leader. And neither does it make the religious leaders (and the Bible) who he will consider its guiding beacon that important. Although.....a recent Senate election in the Netherlands led to a situation in which the seats of the SGP will be decisive in giving today's Christian-Liberal right wing government the edge in parliament. But with or without that power, whatever is going on in the Netherlands politically on the left sight of the political spectrum - and that is more or less everything for SGP members! - they won't mind either. Their roots and power base are built upon the Bible and its teachings. And at a smaller local and regional level  the SGP strongholds do in a way have elements in them that are quite similar to the cultural and political infrastructure in Iran. Of course, most Westerners would strongly oppose this suggestion but being from such a region originally your author is not afraid to write it down anyway.

But back to Iran: the thing is totally different when the majority of the population is of such a religious background (Shiah Islam) and treated in such a way in the past (both within the country and outside) that it can be reasonably assumed that the Supreme Leader is like a kind of 'Pope' to them. And just like the powers of the Pope do still indirectly seem to be there to their fullest, and even dominant, amidst huge problems for his Roman-catholic 'system' (pedophile priests) the Supreme Leader in Iran is in a position of power not known in many other countries.

Does that make him a dictator or some thing? No: First, the Supreme Leader is appointed by the Council of Experts and the ''search'' is a tough one since the Leader has to be a) a leader, i.e. good manager of the system; and b) a religious scholar of the highest standing. And be sure that many ambitious people in such a system would like to gain this position of power. Just like Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) or Cardinal Radzinger (today's Pope Benedict)  liked to become Pope. But still: the system is stable when looking at the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is just the second Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic after replacing the late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 after the latter's death.

But he is also no 'real' dictator in that he can be very sure that as soon as he would 'forget' what the religious guiding beacons are all about (Islamic Law, Shariah, Quran) and fall for less divine traps so prominent in the secular world (e.g. kings, politicians and dictators falling more in love with themselves, money and other 'fringe benefits') the Council of Experts would be quick to correct this and start an impeachment. That it did not happen so far is maybe an indication of 'dictatorial' powers (as opponents suggest). It is however more likely an indication of the prudent use of powers bestowed upon them by mr Khamenei and before him mr Khomeini.

But obviously, if the Supreme Leader is just as much a religious leader (a Pope) as he is the ultimate decision taker (e.g. a kind of king or president in the US meaning of the word), then it is also very likely that he needs a cabinet with a president and prime minister to make sure that things run smoothly operationally.

And don't forget: the Supreme Leader of Iran is a true religious leader in that he is the Grand Imam for Shiah Muslims all over the world, similar to the Grand Imam in Egypt for Sunni Muslims, the Pope for Roman-Catholics or the Dalai Lama for Tibetans.

Now, in such a ''stable'' structure at the top, it is not strange when the political power structure that surrounds parliamentary elections will occasionally lead to situations where political figures 'test' their powers. Maybe not so much to challenge the Supreme Leader but far more to ensure that their own followers and associates are given the best possible positions as soon as society is starting to think about elections again.

And that is what happened to mr Ahmedinejad. He overestimated his powers seen in the light of a) a political faction that was built around anti-American and anti-Israel feelings (and which was clearly hurt by recent Arab Spring tendencies!); and b) previous elections that weren't clear in the first place with the more liberal camp led by Mussavi losing surprisingly, leaving people with the idea that the election was fraudulous.

Now, it is nothing more but human to err in such a situation. Ahmedinejad is too intelligent to see him challenge the Supreme Leader himself openly if the Supreme Leader were to be the target. If ever there would be a power struggle at THAT level, be sure we wouldn't be analyzing about it before the system collapses or the president would be imprisoned or executed (depending on who wins). That is not the issue here at all. Ahmedinejad is not the type to be afraid of death and power struggles, but he is not suicidal in a situation that would label him an idiot instead of a martyr.

An older picture still clearly showing who is calling the shots. On the left two reformists who are now also not in a strong position anymore: Rafsanjani and Khatami. Ali Khamenei is standing stronger than ever when we assume that his power in early days was more or less the result of him being catapulted in the position after the death of the incredibly strong and charismatic Ruhollah Khomeini.


So: what does this mean for us? It means that within Iran the religious leader made it clear to the extremist faction led by Ahmedinejad that they cannot go too far. Or in other words: the Supreme Leader uses his authority to overrule decisions. We believe that this is an extremely good sign for what we can expect from Iran in the next couple of months/years.

Of course, the outside world might always think of the religious leader of Shia Islam as an extremist, but be sure: he is not. And to the extent you refuse to go this far: he is at least a more or less predictable one. His position of power has further increased. Maybe to some extent because of what he had to 'show' Ahmedinejad. But also to another by what the world has shown Shia Muslims in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon. That their rights are not part of the Arab Spring but more or less secondary to geopolitical and energy interests.

The combination of the two provides the Supreme Leader of Iran with an opportunity to show his powers without having to fear that the Arab Spring might endanger his or his systems might. On the contrary: expect a more confident Iran (led by the Supreme Leader with a president who could still be Ahmedinejad or if he steps down or is fired a replacement).

This should be good news for Americans. But will the US Government understand that? If there was ever a chance to get the dialogue with Iran started then it is now. Unfortunately LMG is not too optimistic about the Rest of the World being Shia-savvy enough to see things this way. At least not yet.

But we also believe that current events in Iran will have their impact on the next parliamentary elections in which the power of the Ahmedinejad faction has clearly deteriorated. And that will definitely translate into more dialogue. So: if we don't start it now, it will happen next year. It looks as if Turkey's PM Erdogan is the only top level politician who clearly understands where the Middle East is heading. A few years already. And yes: the Turkish economic growth story in that period cannot be analyzed without incorporating this background information. You don't believe it?

Travel to the South-East of Turkey (Diyarbakir area) and see the trucks driving back and forth. Turkey is enjoying a 'Wirtschaftswunder' more or less German-style but this time built on Iran as important catalyst at a time when the European Union is licking its wounds.

Attached an interesting Al Jazeera interview/report in which the tension between the guests at the end of the report is more than amusing.

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