by Reza Akhlaghi
As a new generation of Arabs in the Middle East continues to jolt the region into a new, tumultuous, and yet-to-be-defined era, Iran’s internal politics is undergoing its own transition that has recently become increasingly vocal. The assertion of independence in decision making on the part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a theocratic system known for its Shiite clergy with a Supreme Leader on top of the decision hierarchy, is a whole new phenomenon. This new development bears hallmarks of a major ideological transition in Iran with its reverberations yet to be felt domestically, regionally, and internationally.
In the labyrinth of Iran’s power structure, the Iranian president does not have full sway over matters of foreign policy, economic policy, and armed forces. Nor is he expected to be chief decision maker in Iran’s nuclear saga. Such matters are under the ultimate control of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as bestowed upon him by the Iranian constitution. So what is the significance of Ahmadinejad’s assertion of power and his gradual declaration of independence as head of the executive branch?
Following the June 2009 Presidential elections in Iran and the following anti-regime mass demonstrations that posed the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic, the state of affairs in Iran took a turn toward militarization. The turn in militarization was initially seen as a result of the direct role that the Revolutionary Guards played in supressing the Green Movement and the crackdown that followed against dissidents, activists, journalists, and intellectuals. Subsequently, the Green Movement largely disappeared from public scene and its leaders incarcerated and kept in incommunicado. With continuous and unmitigated support from both Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad emerged victorious with an ambitious mandate for his second term in office.
But the turn toward militarization in Iran was not just about suppressing democratic aspirations of millions of Iranians; aspirations that were largely embodied in the Green Movement. The move toward militarization is, in fact, the dawn of a new political era in Iran whose overarching theme is an about-face in the state’s ideological orientation. This about-face sees little, if any, role for the Shiite clergy. It is in this context that Ahmadinejad as an institution, not an individual, puts on display a growing independence in decision making.
Ahmadinejad is the face of an institution that is tasked with the ideological transitioning of the state and moulding it into its intended new shape. The intended shape is not democratic and will not be as such. However, as the state takes its new shape, Ahmadinejad and Co. carry a key message for both domestic and international audiences: The era of clerical rule in Iran has come to a closure. As this new project in Iran gets underway, it manifests itself domestically, regionally, and internationally in following ways.
Since the June 2009 post-election uprisings in Iran, the present administration has come to a point that sees itself consolidated enough to feel insulated from the Arab uprising and view its impact in relation to Iranian domestic affairs quite insignificant. Recent announcements about plans to overhaul the Iranian economy are a reflection of this sense of confidence about domestic stability. The regime surely feels secure from any potential social unrest and is gradually shifting gears to prepare for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
In recent public announcements (as recent as Sunday May 15, 2011, on a nationally televised program) Ahmadinejad and Co. have launched a campaign to reach out to the young with the message of ‘ just distribution of the country’s wealth’. This is in response to a realization that widespread corruption in the management of the economy could have social consequences for the regime and its stability. Therefore, promises of wealth distribution, to overhaul the healthcare system, and job creation on a massive scale are a first step to reach out to the young and the unemployed. These promises by Ahmadinejad—however empty they turn out to be—convey an implicit acknowledgement: the failure of the clergy in running the country’s domestic affairs.
On a regional basis, the current Iranian government does not feel threatened by the uprisings in the Arab world as they have had insignificant impact on Iran’s domestic affairs. This degree of confidence also stems from having the leaders of Green Movement under house arrest with their ability to communicate with the outside world reduced to the point of impossibility. On the Arab uprising, the official line from Tehran has been primarily lip service on the importance of self-determination by the Arabs and the importance of transparency on the part of their governments against which Arabs are rising.
As a testament to its ideological about-face, the Iranian leadership (with the exception of a number of loud clerics leading Friday prayer sermons), does not project the Arab uprising as an Islamic awakening and an opportunity to intervene and export Iran’s revolutionary ideology. This is in direct contradiction to Iran’s constitution, whose preamble mandates the state to seize upon any opportunity to export the revolution to neighboring states.
As an institution in the process of power consolidation, Ahmadinejad and Co. have equally important messages for the outside world. Under the current administration, Ahmadinejad wants the world to know that the affairs of the state, foreign policy in particular, are formulated and set by the executive branch of the government and that the influence of Shiite clergy, along with that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is on the wane. These messages have been channelled to Western and American officials during secret meetings in the region and European capitals, whose impact have been felt domestically in Iran in the form of accusations and counter accusations between Ahmadinejad and his opponents.
Other components of the above message consistently conveyed to the international community include readiness to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear dossier and gradual decline in the use of hardline language against the West and Israel.
On the economic side, Ahmadinejad and Co. wants to project its current wide-ranging economic reforms as a sign of its seriousness to overhaul the Iranian economy and prepare to join the global trade system. The goal here is to present Iran as a market ready for foreign investment on massive scale and execute on the promise of creating jobs and reducing the country’s dangerously high unemployment rate.
With much of the Arab world entering unchartered waters and Turkey finding its strategic interests there exposed to high degree of uncertainty, Iran’s Ahmadinejad finds itself in a position of stability and confidence. The question is what the future holds for the remaining two years of Ahmadinejad administration. Should the pace of power consolidation in the hands of Ahmadinejad and Co. continue, the next stage for his administration could be constitutional reforms, a not so far-fetched idea.
The internal tug-of-war between Ahmadinejad and his opponents, the traditional clergy in particular, will continue to be the main act in Iranian politics. One shall see whether Ahmadinejad’s key message “the closure of the era in which the clergy call the shots” will be executed smoothly and felt domestically and internationally in a tangible manner.