Originally published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
by Reza Akhlaghi
The post-election turmoil in Iran and the enormity of the threat it posed to the regime’s stability forced the Iranian government–under a new and still emerging makeup—to put great emphasis on social stability and, as a result, to divert its resources toward the containment of the Green Movement and the ensuing unrest that gripped the country. The regime’s security and intelligence forces adopted a containment strategy that revolved primarily around preventing the unleashing of blood baths in the streets, an act that would have had significant international ramifications.
Instilling widespread fear in society was the chief strategy that was put in place in lieu of creating blood baths. The regime created the intended atmosphere of widespread fear based on the highly well-executed tactic of sexual violation of protesters across the country (both male and female). This brutal tactic proved highly effective in containing the Green Movement and bringing back a relative state of calm to a country that was teetering on chaos.
For many Iranians, Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, his relentless anti-Western diatribe, and resulting discrediting of Iran on world stage posed a sense of national embarrassment. The sense of embarrassment was reinforced by the widely rigged elections and resulting government crackdown that offered Ahmadinejad a second term in office. However, it is noteworthy that Ahmadinejad’s recent presence at the annual United Nations (UN) Assembly and his near omnipresence in major U.S. media outlets has brought him a certain degree of credit and popularity among some Iranians.
With the government’s post-election militarist make-up becoming clear as represented by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), ideological rifts between the new militarist block and the old clerical guard has emerged as the hallmark of a new page in Iranian politics. The rifts have included projection of independence on the part of Ahmadinejad in formulating policies and his continuous attempts to marginalize the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and other influential clerics. Significant to this rift has been the realization by the new military block of the deep frustration that most Iranians hold with the clergy and the latter’s long-standing abuse of power while claiming to be source of religious morality and divine emulation.
A remarkable demonstration of the above rift, barely covered in Western media, has been the marginalization and quiet ouster of the ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts—a once powerful body of clerics charged with electing, monitoring, and dismissing the Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani also holds the chairmanship of the Expediency Council—an unelected assembly that is charged with resolving legislative conflicts between the Iranian Parliament and the Council of Guardians. Today Rafsanjani is nothing more than a figurehead with mouthful titles.
On the other hand, the new ruling IRGC block has been well aware of the continued tide of public opinion against Ahmadinejad and his belligerent anti-Western stance and deep economic mismanagement, but due to the volatility of social and political life in post-election Iran, the new militarist rulers of Iran are in no position to remove Ahmadinejad from his post—an act that would call for holding new elections—which would nearly guarantee renewed social unrest. Therefore, the ruling IRGC block has no choice but to manage Ahmadinejad’s remaining period in office while it continues solidifying power and tackling Iran’s grave economic problems.
Parallel to above efforts and central to the character of the new, post-election administration is a gradual build-up of a nationalist narrative surrounding Iranian nationalism. This narrative aims to revitalize publicly the nationalist sentiments of Iranians about pre-Islamic Persian glory. Moreover, the narrative is part of a meticulously thought-out strategic approach to lure back a public opinion that is deeply frustrated with three decades of clergy-run political management system marked by economic crises, undelivered promises, a horrific brain drain, rampant prostitution, and exacerbating economic sanctions. One of the key figures shouldered with carrying out this nationalist narrative is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s current Chief of Staff and a figure increasingly known for his blunt expressions of nationalist sentiments with a focus on the pre-Islamic glories of Persia as once a superpower on world stage.
The emphasis on Iranian nationalism is also seen in Ahmadinejad’s domestic and foreign diplomacy agenda. In his recent speeches, Ahmadinejad has openly talked about the Persian Empire and the glories of past Persian dynasties. Recently, the Iranian government, after months of political wrangling with Britain, managed to borrow the Cyrus Cylinder, the ancient clay cylinder on which the Persian king Cyrus is known to have written in 6th century BC the first declaration of human rights.
The Cylinder was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon and its subsequent incorporation into the Persian territory by Cyrus. The Cylinder has been on display for public viewing, which has caused widespread unease among the traditional clergy in Iran, who have historically refrained from recognizing Iran’s pre-Islamic glory. Ayatollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution, had no qualms to express his displeasure against Persian kings, both ancient and modern.
The act of borrowing the Cylinder is significant in that it serves to nurture the nationalist sentiments of many Iranians for whom the bitter memories of the brutal post-election crackdown remain fresh. With social stability and calm under apparent control, there remains one crucial next step for Iran’s militarist administration; how to extricate the country from its economic morass. If the current removal of economic subsidies is any indication, the question arises as to whether the new administration plans to implement wide-ranging and serious economic reforms and prepare the ground for foreign investment parallel with attempts to resolve the nuclear crisis.