November 23, 2010
Internal Divisions Mask External Unity
Tensions within the Iranian regime’s conservative elite have dominated Iran’s internal political dynamics in 2010. Three key conclusions can be drawn from these fissures. First, public confrontations between key Iranian officials have revealed some divisions among the ruling elite, but it remains difficult to detect permanent fragmentation marked by formal sub-factions or “intra-conservative blocs.” Second, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i's interventions have partially shifted disputes out of the public view, but these measures do not appear to have resolved the underlying conflicts. Third, most of the disputes among conservatives have been limited to issues of Iranian domestic policies and competition for power. Members of Iran’s ruling elite have not fundamentally disagreed in public over Iran’s developing nuclear program, foreign policy, or support for insurgent and terrorist proxy groups. Key figures within the regime, including Khamene’i, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Grand Ayatollah Ali Jannati, and parliament speaker Ali Larijani, for example, continue to denounce the outstanding demands of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and reiterate Iran’s refusal to cease uranium enrichment activities. Even senior Iranian officials critical of the regime’s policies that led the international community to impose additional sanctions, including Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, consistently voice their anti-American and anti-Western views, and reject the legitimacy of UNSC resolutions.
The ruling conservatives in Iran’s political system, including the so-called “principlists,” have gained confidence in the regime’s ability to contain political challenges as Tehran has appeared to survive the near-term prospect of systemic destabilization following the 2009 election and the rise of the Green Movement. The regime has suppressed the most immediate and visible of these challenges—the prospect of unrest akin to the street demonstrations in 2009—through mass arrests, the tight control of communications means, deployment of security forces, constraints on political organization, and related intimidation tactics. The regime’s actions have limited the activities of both pro-reform leaders with professed loyalties to the Islamic Republic and grassroots activists and individuals who fundamentally oppose the current system.
Tensions within the conservative elite that dominates the regime’s key institutions have since become more evident. There has previously been friction among Iran’s conservatives, particularly after 2004 and 2005 when the primary opposition, the so-called reformist faction, lost Iran’s presidency and parliament. The Green Movement’s challenge to the regime after June 2009 muted and overshadowed this friction as the conservative elite prioritized the stability of the regime, choosing to set aside tactical differences to confront what was perceived by it to be a threat to the Islamic Republic. In 2010, the disputes re-emerged with increased public exposure and often involved a greater number of figures within the regime. The tensions are based on personal rivalries, political priorities, economic policy critiques, controversial rhetoric, or a combination of these factors. The disputes between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other conservatives within the regime have, in particular, been amplified since early 2010. Ahmadinejad, his appointees, and perceived allies have appeared at odds primarily with the parliament, headed by its speaker Ali Larijani, but they have also been publicly criticized by other figures, including members of Iran’s senior clergy, direct proxies of Khamene’i, including Ayatollah Jannati, and the Iranian military establishment.
A key point of political conflict has evolved over the last several years between Iran’s executive branch and conservative-majority parliament. The relationship of the two bodies has been stressed due to the rivalry between their leaders—opposing candidates in Iran’s 2005 presidential election—and the deteriorating economic conditions inside Iran, attributed to the executive branch’s mismanagement of the economy. A dispute this past spring over reductions of subsidies for food, gasoline, and other basic goods exemplified the economic policy divide between the “pro-Ahmadinejad” and “pro-Larijani” camps. The debate centered on the size of the subsidies cuts, their impact on economic stability, and administrative control over the expected savings. The Guardian Council’s approval of the government’s annual budget, coupled with Khamene'i’s subsequent insistence that the two sides execute the plan as approved, appeared to force a temporary compromise on that particular issue.
The broader rift, however, has remained. In June, Ahmadinejad questioned the legality of recently adopted laws; Larijani responded by implying that the parliament would present its case against the executive branch for its violations of law if the executive branch insisted on raising the issue of legality. Larijani’s warning likely refers to the outstanding allegations of corruption leveled against appointees in the executive branch by conservatives within parliament and reports that Ahmadinejad’s government refused to implement laws approved by parliament. The same month, Ahmadinejad and groups aligned with his supporters attempted to exert pressure on the parliament to transfer authority over the Islamic Azad University (IAU) system to the executive branch. Former Iranian president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a supporter of the Iranian presidential candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad in 2009, serves as the head of the school’s board of advisors. Ahmadinejad’s government proposed legislation in June to replace the head of the university and take control of the school’s assets and administration. The parliament rejected the legislation while supporting a counter-proposal to shield the school system from expropriation. This move prompted Ahmadinejad supporters and student members of the Basij militia to stage protests outside parliament denouncing the body and Larijani. Khamene’i intervened in this dispute by blocking changes to the school system’s charter and preventing IAU from changing its status to avoid a future takeover, effectively maintaining the status quo.
Ahmadinejad’s strained relations with the parliament have also been at the center of his government’s relations with the Guardian Council, chaired by hard-line cleric Grand Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. Jannati has historically been a consistent supporter of Ahmadinejad and last year he ended the initial 2009 election controversy by endorsing Ahmadinejad’s re-election. The council, whose 12 members are either directly or indirectly appointed by Khamene’i, holds veto authority over parliament legislation, and its decisions are binding on the executive branch. Ahmadinejad has publicly questioned the decisions of the council in the process of critiquing the parliament. He wrote to Jannati in early June describing several recently approved laws as unconstitutional and citing it as his duty as “the people’s servant” to explain the shortcomings of the laws to the council. Jannati rebuked Ahmadinejad in a published letter for infringing on the council’s jurisdiction and said that the executive branch has “no alternative besides abiding by the law.” Determining the constitutionality of laws is a central element of the council’s oversight role. It is not evident that this public spat marked the beginning of a permanent rift between Jannati and Ahmadinejad, but Ahmadinejad’s public questioning of Jannati amounted to a rare direct challenging of the council’s judgment and ability to execute its role.
Other hard-line clerics recently confronted Ahmadinejad’s government over statements made by the head of Ahmadinejad’s executive office, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i. Masha’i told a conference of Iranian expatriates on August 4: “Some criticize me [sic] why I don’t speak about the school of Islam, but speak about the school of Iran. The school of Islam has many interpretations, but our understanding of the truth about Iran and Islam is the 'school of Iran', and from now on we must present the 'Iranian school [of thought]' to the world.” This statement drew a series of denunciations from officials and figures in the regime who apparently interpreted his message as subordinating the theological underpinning of the regime to nationalist sentiments. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a cleric who headed the regime’s judiciary branch for a decade and currently serves as one of Khamene'i’s appointees on the Guardian Council, reprimanded Masha’i for initiating debates “of which he knows nothing.” Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, another supporter of Ahmadinejad known for sharing apocalyptic views with the Iranian president, disapproved of Masha’i for “shamelessly talking of the school of Iran instead of the school of Islam” in a speech before Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other Iranian military personnel.
Masha’i stood by his statement and less than a week later said “…without Iran, Islam would be lost…[if] we want to present the truth of Islam to the world, we should erect the Iranian flag.” Iran’s armed forces chief of staff General Hassan Firouzabadi criticized the rhetoric for creating divisions in the Muslim world and said it was a crime that threatened Iran’s national security, a charge generally reserved for pro-opposition activists. Ahmadinejad came to the defense of his aide the following day, saying he had full confidence in Masha’i and dismissing the criticism against his aide as an attempt by “certain political groups” to discredit his administration, without elaborating on the suspected political factions or their make-up.
Ahmadinejad’s support for Masha’i has been consistent, even against the objections of Khamene’i. Last year, Khamene’i wrote to Ahmadinejad following the appointment of Masha’i to a cabinet position: “The appointment of Mr. Esfandiar Rahim Mashai as Vice President is against your interest, the government, and it is a cause for rifts and disappointment within your supporters. This appointment should be voided.” Ahmadinejad withdrew the appointment, but named Masha’i as the head of his presidential office. Ahmadinejad has since appointed Masha’i to several other positions, including most recently as his direct envoy to the Middle East. Khamene’i did not directly intervene in the controversy over Masha’i’s statements.
Concerns within the regime over the apparent tensions among conservatives have been made public as key figures and institutions have warned against outward displays of division. Ali Larijani, a key party to the disputes, stressed Iran’s need for maintaining unity during a July 27 speech, warning that “intra-factional strifes [sic] and divisive claims” are detrimental to the regime’s interests. The sole uniting factor for the regime, Larijani added, should be the “axis of velayat-e faqih,” a reference to the doctrinal basis for governance in the Islamic Republic that defers ultimate authority to the “supreme leader.” The conservative daily Iranian newspaper Jam-e Jam, published by the state media arm whose head Khamene’i directly appoints, printed commentary in August citing similar concerns. The author of the commentary noted that the executive branch’s failure to implement legislation passed by the parliament resulted in a challenge that will end in “nothing but disagreements and discord.” The author goes on to present the case of the executive branch’s grievances, eventually advising both parties to refrain from further exacerbating tensions. Recognition of and concern surrounding the tensions in the conservative camp have extended beyond these political outlets. The official weekly publication of the IRGC, Sobh-e Sadegh (True Dawn), devoted an article in early July to downplaying and dismissing the recent disagreements and claiming that the pro-reformist media in Iran was “creating” divisions among conservatives. The IRGC’s monthly journal, Payam-e Enghelab (Message of the Revolution), subsequently published an editorial criticizing Ahmadinejad’s government for its treatment of the parliament, its failure to implement laws, and its subordination of Islam to nationalist rhetoric.
Khamene’i’s public interventions have attempted to force key officials toward a compromise solution or to simply end public disputes—both efforts likely intended to prevent the fracturing of the conservative elite and to deny the decisive empowerment of one senior figure (or institution) over another. An example of Khamene’i's interventions is his order in August to form an arbitration body within the Guardian Council to resolve disputes between the executive and legislative bodies of the regime. The spokesman of the Guardian Council said in October that oversight of the differences between the two bodies fell outside the scope of the council’s mandate, however, so it is not clear that any such arbitration body is functioning. In rhetoric, Khamene’i has cautioned against overt signs of political infighting. He said in a June speech before Basij militia members and students: “Today, the country is in dire need of unity. I am against statements, moves and writings—even with a good intention—that may lead to division. I am against it. This is my view in this respect, if anyone's asking for it.” Khamene’i spoke in a more forceful tone following meetings with the heads of Iran’s key institutions two months later, as public disputes lingered and officials’ statements indicated that the executive branch had refused to implement newly approved laws. He said on August 18, before a gathering of top regime officials, that “turning [executive-parliament disputes] to an unsolvable gap and an incurable would [sic—presumably wound] is a grave mistake,” and that “deliberate objection” to cooperation between officials is un-Islamic, especially when it occurs between elites.
Iran’s conservative elite has come to dominate the Iranian political system as other factions, including the so-called reformist bloc, have become marginalized political forces. The aftermath of Iran’s 2009 presidential election posed a significant challenge to this existing state, but the elite’s perception that the regime suppressed the Green Movement, at least in the near term, has ushered in a new dynamic in Iran’s factional politics. Historical divides within the Iranian regime’s conservative camp have re-emerged and, in some cases, widened since early 2010. Further, visible disputes among senior Iranian officials and institutions suggest that there remains a possibility for new rifts to develop. These tensions have the potential to fragment the ruling establishment over time, although they do not appear to fundamentally threaten the current position of hard-liners within the regime.
Overt signs of conflict among Iran’s conservative elite have been partially forced out of the public’s view in the weeks since Khamene’i’s August 18 admonition. The tensions that do continue to surface periodically, however, indicate that Iran’s ruling establishment remains vulnerable to internal friction and that Khamene’i’s interventions have not resolved the underlying conflicts. Khamene’i now reacts primarily to avoid an imbalance of power within the conservative camp—a tactic that could be part of an attempt to compensate for the action last year that further eroded Khamene’i's legitimacy within Iran: the overt backing of Ahmadinejad following the election.
Iranian officials’ ostensible offers for meetings with members of the Permanent Five Plus One (P5+1) group have also limited the visibility of intra-system friction since August by elevating the Iranian regime’s foreign policy and nuclear program in Iran’s domestic political discourse—perhaps not by accident. These issues are open to marginal debates, but do not elicit fundamental public disagreements among the regime’s conservative elite. Iranian policies such as the regime’s support for Hezbollah, its continued uranium enrichment program, and its backing of Shi’a militia groups in neighboring Iraq provide a common cause for the ruling establishment: ideological opposition to the United States and its interests and, more generally, the West.