During an August 9 visit to Syria, Ali Akbar Velayati, influential adviser to
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated that Iran was ready to negotiate
with the United States regarding its nuclear program. Last Wednesday, however,
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast announced that Iran had no plans
for bilateral negotiation with Washington. These and other conflicting signals
point to deep internal divisions among former allies in Iran’s hardline camp.
Such divisions are part of a longstanding pattern in the Islamic Republic: As
soon as one faction seizes power by cutting out its opponents, it splits into
warring parties.Ahmadinejad’s disputes with old conservatives
surprised observers last year with the Green Movement protests, Iran will likely
surprise them again soon with a bitter dispute among the hardliners, who have
already divided into two main factions: old conservatives and new
Until recently, the groups remained united because they
saw the reform movement as a serious threat to the regime.
now believes that the regime’s oppressive machinery has successfully managed the
As a result, the unbridgeable gap between President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s circle and traditional power centers such as the clergy
and bazaar has become apparent.
Several recent episodes have highlighted
this fissure: Hardliner clerics
At the recent Grand Conference of Iranians
Living Abroad, presidential chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashai emphasized how
much the government wanted to work with Iranian emigrants, depicting them as
part of the “Iranian school” that can help defeat the West’s plans.
response, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah- Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s former main
booster among the clergy, stated, “We did not sign a brotherhood contract with
[just] anyone. If somebody deviates from the right path, first we advise him,
and then we beat him with a stick.”
Such criticism reflects how
Ahmadinejad has already destroyed his last bridge to the clerical
Mesbah Yazdi also argued that the next political crisis in
Iran may emerge from people who currently seem loyal to the regime – implicitly
fingering the president’s circle as the Islamic Republic’s next potential
Prominent businessman Habibollah Askar-Oladi
criticized Mashai’s comments as well, stating, “America may want to pay these
people [like Mashai], and if they are not already paid [then] they are
[America’s] unpaid servant.”
In addition, the bazaars in Teheran and
several other large cities were recently closed for several days in protest of
Ahmadinejad’s steep tax increases on merchants.The judiciary and
Ahmadinejad has publicly bashed the judiciary for its treatment of
journalists who support him. This week, judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani fired
back: “We expect the president to use a well-founded and polished rhetoric and
established expressions and also be correct and fair.”
have been similarly outspoken about both Ahmadinejad’s policies and his
language. As one legislator put it, “using slum-dweller vocabulary and being
alien to the diplomatic rhetoric damages the country.”
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a significant conservative figure and secretary of the
powerful Guardian Council, has criticized Ahmadinejad for purging government
staff and excluding former conservative members.Ahmadinejad’s strategy:
Create his own political identity
The embattled president has long attempted to
draw a distinctive line between himself and the old conservatives who helped
Khamenei come to power 21 years ago. To do so, he needed a new constituency
drawn from social strata that have been neglected or excluded by the classic
This need forced him to chose nationalism as his main
political discourse and marry it with apocalypticism.
side of this coin was intended to attract radicals in the Revolutionary Guard
and other military, political and economic organizations – mostly
religious-minded individuals connected to government either directly or
The nationalistic discourse was meant to conquer the hearts
of the young generation and of secular elements holding valuable capital such as
wealth, Western business or political connections, or intellectual
These mostly left-wing elements are not necessarily fond of
the Islamic Republic, but they take pride in Iran’s defiant nuclear policy as
well as its anti-Israeli and anti-American stances.
and nationalism have an anticlerical tendency, manifested in Ahmadinejad’s
decision to ignore Shi’ite jurists’ advice on many issues. Examples include
appointing women as cabinet ministers and gathering Iranian emigrants at an
expensive conference where female participants did not show respect for the
Islamic dress code.
Most of the president’s critics in the government
believe that if he showed faithfulness to Khamenei and ran the country according
to the supreme leader’s advice, most of the current problems would vanish. But
Ahmadinejad wants to assert himself and forge his own distinct rhetoric,
identity and constituency.
He therefore welcomes a battle with old
conservatives who also benefit from Khamenei’s support and have a long history
of consolidating his power.
As for why Ahmadinejad feels the need for
such independence, one must keep in mind how he came to power in the first
place: by attracting the lower classes and promising them economic prosperity
and punishment of government corruption.
Yet more than five years later,
and despite the highest oil prices in history, Iran’s economic situation has
only worsened. The president hopes to save his political future with a mixture
of apocalypticism and nationalism, along with demagogic economic policies and
vulgar political rhetoric.
Whatever its strategy, Ahmadinejad’s faction
will face colossal difficulties during next year’s parliamentary
As in the past, he will likely court ordinary Iranians who
have been left behind by classic conservatives over the past 30 years.
also attempt to convince government radicals that he, not Khamenei,
their last refuge in the event of political turbulence.
His policy of
giving the Revolutionary Guard as many economic advantages as possible
read in this light.
Stalemate and chaotic behavior
The two warring
factions are currently in a stalemate: the old conservatives control two
branches of government (the judiciary as well as the Majlis and its
Guardian Council), while the more powerful executive branch is in the
new conservatives led by Ahmadinejad. Neither faction seems capable of
eliminating the other from the political scene, but each can impede the
initiatives – such as sabotaging each other’s efforts to reach the
community and resolve the nuclear crisis.
Accordingly, both factions will
likely continue to emphasize their ideological and political differences
seemingly strange strategy considering that both want to preserve the
Republic’s basic power arrangements, which, as shown by last year’s
most Iranians reject. Yet intense factional infighting has characterized
republic since its infancy, and the current confrontation is no
With Ahmadinejad and his rivals disagreeing on where national
interests lie, the near term promises more chaotic foreign and domestic
policymaking from Teheran.
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at
Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shi’ite
groups in the