Analysis: The Iranian crisis at the clerical level

If the Revolutionary Guards continue to take over from the clergy, the regime's legitimacy will erode.

Mir Hossein Mousavi 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
Mir Hossein Mousavi 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
The clergy is affecting the situation in Iran on two levels. The first level is that of the clergy vis-à-vis the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, the volunteer paramilitary force. The second is the personal relationship between Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Husayn Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and former president, and Ayatollah Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential writer, politician and also a former president. Over the past seven years, the role of military elements within the Iranian political regime has grown. As the regime has become less popular, the military has become more important and its influence has increased. Khamenei has been relying more and more on the Revolutionary Guard. There is a certain rift between theologians - who, despite their loyalty to the Islamic system, are not always as happy with everything that goes on - and those clergymen who are essentially politicians, together with the emerging militarized elite. There is also a generational cleavage between the "old guard" of the clergy, and the "war generation" - those who feel that the United States and Europe stole away Iran's victory in war. This generation is losing its respect for the clergy. They see it as becoming too corrupt, too soft. They feel it is losing its revolutionary purity and ardor. Rafsanjani can be seen as a representative of the old generation, whereas Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents the young generation. The personal relationship between Khamenei and Rafsanjani is complex. Both were disciples of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and played leading roles in the revolution and revolutionary regime. After Khomeini died in 1989, Rafsanjani was instrumental in placing Khamenei as his successor. Part of the deal was that Rafsanjani would become president. Throughout the 1980s, Iran's political system featured a weak president and a strong prime minister who always clashed with each other. The idea was that the role of prime minister would be abolished, leaving a more effective president. It was thought initially that Khamenei and Rafsanjani would be equally powerful, though the constitution made it clear that the supreme leader was superior to the president. However, Khamenei gradually gained more power - eclipsing Rafsanjani, who had meanwhile acquired a reputation for corruption. There was collaboration between the two, but also much tension. Khamenei feels that he is unquestionably above Rafsanjani, and is not too unhappy to see Rafsanjani suffering humiliation - for instance, in the 2001 parliamentary elections, when Rafsanjani was not elected. At the same time, he realizes the importance of their relationship. When the reformist Muhammad Khatami was elected president in 1997, Khamenei appointed Rafsanjani as head of the Expediency Council, the supreme arbiter between parliament and the Council of Guardians, as a means to compensate Rafsanjani and block Khatami whenever necessary. The greatest rift came in 2005 when Rafsanjani was defeated in the presidential election by Ahmadinejad, who was strongly supported by Khamenei. For Rafsanjani, this was humiliation. However, he managed to recover part of his authority when, in 2007, he was elected chairman of the Assembly of Experts - the assembly that elects the supreme leader and, theoretically, has the authority to depose him. This gives Rafsanjani some leverage over Khamenei. Tensions began to break out between the two the week before the latest election. Ahmadinejad attacked Rafsanjani very harshly in a debate with Mousavi. Rafsanjani protested, demanded the right to reply on television, and also criticized Khamenei for allowing such an attack on the clergy. Khamenei remained silent and did not allow Rafsanjani to appear on television. Rafsanjani has not been seen since the election, meaning he refuses to show his support for Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. He was conspicuously absent from last Friday's sermon, at which Khamenei spoke, and there have been rumors that he is trying to mobilize support against Ahmadinejad. Khamenei has made a gesture in Rafsanjani's favor, saying he should not have been attacked - he is trying to appease him, but not too much. Rafsanjani's apparent support for Mousavi is significant because he is still a very powerful politician, and because this shows a rift within the clerical elite. There is discontent among clerics about Ahmadinejad, and the fact that the Revolutionary Guards are taking over and eclipsing the clergy. Such rifts are important because they weaken government, causing significant consequences in the long run. It can be argued that if this process continues and the role of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij continues to grow, the legitimacy of the regime will suffer a blow, because it is a clerical regime. If its ideological foundation is shaken, and clerics are replaced by officers, the legitimacy of the regime erodes. Dr. Meir Litvak is a senior lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, and a senior researcher at the university's Center for Iranian Studies.