Monday, June 27, 2005

Forging A Puritanical Alliance

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
Zaminlarzeh! The word, which means earthquake in Farsi, is on every tongue in Iran as the nation tries to absorb the shock of last Friday's election that catapulted a little-known figure into the position of President of the Islamic Republic.

That figure is one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who became mayor of Tehran less than two years ago.

He won the presidency with a landslide, crushing the mullah-cum-business tycoon Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the regime since its inception in 1979.

Who is this Ahmadinejad?

Rafsanjani and his allies have described Ahmadinejad as "a know-nothing" and "a street lout".

The 49-year-old Ahmadinejad, however, is neither. READ MORE

Ahmadinejad, who holds a PhD in engineering from Iran's most prestigious university, is far better educated than all his five predecessors as president, some of whom, like Rafsanjani, had little formal education. Nor is Ahmadinejad someone who just walked through the door.

He has held senior positions in several government departments and served as governor in three provinces, including Tehran, being named "Governor of the Year" on all three occasions.

Ahmadinejad, who teaches at two universities in Tehran and has authored several textbooks, is also the only one of the presidents of the Islamic Republic to have academic credentials.

A reservist colonel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ahmadinejad is the first president of the Islamic Republic with a military background.

The son of a blacksmith, he is the first president of the Islamic Republic to come from a poor family and one of few senior figures in the regime not to have amassed a personal fortune in recent years.

But Ahmadinejad's chief asset, and the main if not sole reason for his victory, is his relationship with and fierce loyalty to the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, the true and almost absolute ruler of the country.

The two met in 1979 when Khamenei served as deputy defence minister and have been close ever since.

Some analysts have dismissed Ahmadinejad's emergence as a front-line player in Iranian politics as irrelevant because the electoral process that produced his victory was manifestly flawed.

Nevertheless, his election is an important development.

This is the first time in the 26-year history of the Islamic Republic that a mullah is beaten by a non-mullah in a high profile electoral contest.

Ahmadinejad's victory is all the more significant because his rival was not only Iran's richest man but also the best-known figure of the Khomeinist regime.

Rafsanjani was regarded as the man who engineered the emergence of Khamenei as "Supreme Guide" after Khomeini's death in 1989.

Ahmadinejad's victory marks the end of the Khamenei-Rafsanjani tandem that had been based on 30 years of personal friendship and political partnership.

Khamenei's friends say the "Supreme Guide" decided to humiliate his old friend because the latter had abused his various positions within the regime to build a business empire for his family.

"After Khomeini's death, Khamenei went in pursuit of power while Rafsanjani went in pursuit of money," says a Tehran businessman who has known the two for decades.

"Khamenei has remained an idealist while Rafsanjani became a cynic. The relationship could not have endured."

Radical faction

What does Ahmadinejad's election mean for Iran and for the outside world?

Inside Iran, the victory means that Khamenei, who has established himself as head of the most radical faction within the Khomeinist establishment, now controls all levers of power for the first time.

His supporters hold a two-third majority in the Islamic Consultative Majlis (parliament), presided over by his son-in-law Ghulam-Ali Haddad Adel.

Khamenei also controls the all-powerful Council of the Custodians of the Constitution, a 12-mullah organ that can veto parliamentary decisions.

By capturing the presidency, Khamenei will now be able to put his own men in charge of all key government departments.

Ahmadinejad's victory also signals Khamenei's decision to abandon any idea of Western-style reforms to please the restive middle classes.

Confident that the divided middle classes are unable to forge a coherent opposition to the regime, Khamenei no longer feels any need for diversionary tactics such as the one he played when he arranged for Mohammad Khatami to win the presidency.

Khamenei has decided to mobilise the regime's real base, that is to say the Revolutionary Guard and its reservists, the so-called Baseej or "mobilisation of the dispossessed" movement, the various organisations of families of "martyrs", the occult Hezbollah (Party of God) networks and, in broader terms, the masses of the poor.

Unable to provide them with the long-promised better material life, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad under him, will try to sooth them with a crackdown on the "rich and corrupt Westernised classes".

Inciting class hatred and using envy as a political weapon has long been a speciality of the Khomeinist movement.

The concentration of power in the hands of the radical faction will end more than two decades of divided government that has put many aspects of policy on autopilot as it were.

Two years ago when King Abdullah II of Jordan telephoned Khatami to complain about Iran's setting up terrorist cells in Amman, the Iranian president was able to claim that he knew nothing of it because he did not control all organs of government.

The Europeans, who have been negotiating with Tehran over the nuclear issue, have also heard similar claims from Iranian counterparts.

With Ahmadinejad in charge, however, such claims would no longer be credible because the camarilla headed by Khamenei is now in complete control.

Rafsanjani had promised the "Chinese model", meaning the combination of a despotic political regime with capitalist economic policies. Ahmadinejad promises a "North Korean model" that is to say a totalitarian system and a command economy.

Ahmadinejad's election shows that the Khomeinist regime cannot be reformed from within. It also shows that there still is a strong constituency in Iran for the populist message of the late ayatollah.

It is certain that far fewer people actually voted than the regime claims. But there is no doubt that those who did vote preferred Ahmadinejad's "pure Islam" to Rafsanjani's attempt at perpetuating the myth that Iran today was, in the words of the former US President Bill Clinton, "a progressist democracy".

Ahmadinejad describes himself as a "fundamentalist" (usuli), has no qualms about asserting that there can be no democracy in Islam, rejects free-market economics and insists on "religious duties" rather than human rights.

This clarity will, in the medium-term, help the people of Iran understand the choices involved. They will learn that they cannot have an Islamist system together with the goodies that the modern world offers in both material and spiritual terms.

Ahmadinejad says: "We do not want Friday night Muslims. We want round-the clock, seven days and nights a week Muslims."

Unlike Khatami who was trying to hoodwink the Europeans over the Iranian nuclear project, Ahmadinejad openly says Iran does have such a programme, is proud of it and that no one has the right to question Iran's right to develop whatever weapons it wants.

Should the outside world be frightened?

Not necessarily. Paradoxically, the clarity created by this election may prove useful.

Khatami went around the world speaking about Hegel and Nietzsche to ruling elites and creating the illusion that the Islamic Republic was part of the global system symbolised by the World Trade Organisation, the Davos forum and the Western non-governmental organisations of do-gooders.

Ahmadinejad's victory reveals the true face of the Islamic Republic as a major regional power with its own world vision that challenges the so-called "global consensus".

It reminds the world that the mini-cold war that started between the Islamic Republic and the West, notably the United States, is far from over.

Iranian author Amir Taheri was the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, the most important Iranian daily under the Shah. He is a member of Benador Associates.
Another Must Read!