Friday, June 16, 2006

Pushing for Armageddon: Inside Iran's New Power Struggle

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
WHILE the crisis over Iran's nuclear program dominates the head lines, the stage is set for an even bigger internal crisis that could affect the Islamic Republic's behavior for some time to come.

The burgeoning crisis is, in fact, the latest episode in a bitter struggle that started more than four years ago when a new elite of younger, mostly non-clerical, revolutionaries made its bid for power against the older elite of ruling mullahs and their business associates.

The emerging elite first succeeded by winning control of a majority of municipal councils, which it used as a base for winning the Islamic Consultative Assembly, the regime's unicameral parliament. Then, a year ago, that enlarged base allowed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the candidate of the new elite, to defeat Hashemi Rafsanjani, the standard-bearer of the old guard, in the presidential election. READ MORE

Many in Iran see the new elite's relentless bid for power as a "creeping coup d'etat." If so, the creeping is not over yet. The new elite have two other citadels of power to conquer before firmly claiming control.

The first is the Assembly of Experts, a 90-man body tasked with electing and, when necessary, dismissing the "Supreme Guide." Right now, the old elite controls the assembly, with Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Meshkini as speaker and Rafsanjani, the defeated presidential candidate, as one of his deputies. But the assembly comes up for re-election in November, and the new elite appears determined to win. Its candidate for speaker is Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, a radical mullah with close ties to Ahmadinejad.

If the assembly falls, the new elite will likely try to capture the position of "Supreme Guide," held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death in 1989. Even if this proves harder than the "new men" presume, an assembly in their control would look like a sword of Damocles hanging above Khamenei's head.

The new elite's candidate for "Supreme Guide" is Ayatollah Muhammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a dour-faced theologian in Qom known for his radical interpretation of the doctrine of the "Hidden Imam." But especially significant here is his belief that the mullahs should not directly intervene in government - a contrast with both Khomeini's and Khamenei's view, which rejects the slightest demarcation between religion and politics.

The old elite is determined not to lose control of the Assembly of Experts. Many mullahs have set aside past personal rivalries to unite in what could be called an "Anyone But Mesbah-Yazdi" coalition. Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a former speaker of the Islamic Majlis (parliament), has joined such longtime rivals as Rafsanjani and former President Muhammad Khatami.

So far, however, the trio of mullahs has encountered little more than hostility from the public. Last week, Rafsanjani had to flee for his life when a crowd of angry pro-Ahmadinejad youths attacked a meeting he was supposed to address in Qom. Nateq-Nuri has become the target of an orchestrated campaign focused on his business interests at home and abroad. And Khatami has been forced to cancel his campaign commitments in five provinces after police warned that he risked being beaten up by angry mobs.

For his part, Khamenei has maintained an uneasy distance from both camps while his son discusses a compromise with the "new men."

Much of this power struggle is fueled by personal rivalries and mundane political differences, but its theological theme bears mention, too. This centers on a dispute that has marked duodecimo (Twelver) Shi'ism for over 1,000 years.

The duodecimo Shi'ites believe that Allah created the world for the family of Muhammad and bestowed all power on 12 descendants of his favorite daughter Fatimah. The last of the 12, one Muhammad bin Hassan, known as the Mahdi (The Guide), disappeared in 940 AD, ushering in a period of "ghaybat al-kubra" (Long Absence) during which no government anywhere in the world has legitimacy. The return of the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi, will mark the end of the world as we know it and the start of a new and perfect one.

The theological division among Shi'ites concerns a simple question: What should believers do while the Imam is absent? One doctrine, known as Intizar (waiting) maintains that the best that believers can do is to be patient and wait until the Imam decides to return. Followers of that doctrine are known as Muntazeris (Those Who Wait).

That doctrine is opposed by another known as Ta'ajil (To hasten). Its adepts believe that believers should act to hasten the coming of the Mahdi. The Ta'ajilis (Hasteners) insist that believers should seek to unite the entire Islamic ummah and lead it into battle against the "Infidel," with the view of provoking a final showdown for global domination in the hope that, when the crunch comes, the Hidden Imam will return to ensure the victory of the Only Truth.

Throughout history, the overwhelming majority of Shi'ites in Iran have subscribed to the doctrine of Patient Waiting. The new elite, however, is decidedly seduced by the doctrine of Hastening the Return. President Ahmadinejad openly claims that the aim of his government's actions is to hasten the coming of the Mahdi.

The Hasteners have put together a powerful coalition backed by large segments of the military and security services. This includes the Fedayeen (self-sacrificers) of Islam, the Coalition of Islamic Associations, the Hezbollah (Party of Allah) and the United Front of the Followers of the Imam.

Against that background, the current showdown between the Islamic Republic and the United Nations over the nuclear issue assumes special significance. If the major powers are perceived to be backing down, the Hasteners would be able to claim victory and use it as a springboard for winning the Assembly of Experts and, later, evicting Khamenei. If, on the other hand, Ahmadinejad is forced to eat his words and agree to stop uranium enrichment, the Patient Awaiters could expose him as a bluffer pushing the nation towards war.

The major powers have no easy options here. But that has been the case in Iran since the mullahs swept to power in 1979.

Amir Taheri, former executive editor of the most important Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, is a member of Benador Associates.
A must read.