May 15th 2011

Iranian 'feud': Much ado about nothing?

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

A public spat between Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the country's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made the international headlines last week. Politics is rarely ever a harmonious business in any country, so why the brouhaha over this particular stand-off?

To be sure, the disagreement itself was an unusual occurrence. Khamenei's very public reinstatement of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi - citing Maslehat or the "greater good of the nation", no less - shortly after Ahmadinejad removed him, could only be viewed as a tough dressing down. And then Ahmadinejad unexpectedly raised the stakes further by boycotting cabinet meetings for eleven days.

The whole point of a Supreme Leader - or Velayat-e-Faghih - as conceived by the Islamic Revolution's founders, is that he is the ultimate arbiter over both state and religious affairs.

Ahmadinejad's defiant snit was a direct challenge to the authority of the Supreme Leader. It served to catapult the affair into the political stratosphere, and he was eventually forced to back down.

The regional dimension

But there's more to this. Tehran sits at the epicentre of a geopolitical struggle between two battling regional worldviews. One "bloc" is comfortable with the existing US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East and consists of many of the autocratic leaders now being swept away in the Arab Spring. The other is the Iran-led "Resistance Bloc" that seeks to end this foreign hegemony and embrace regional and national self-determination.

As such, every twitch out of Iran is being pounced on by the pro-US bloc, now openly gunning for the Islamic Republic to experience its own domestic revolt, and doing everything it can to facilitate it.

The anti-Iran brigade also extends its aversions to Tehran's closest allies in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas - while keeping a tight lid on other regional players prone to take independent stances such as Iraq, Qatar, Oman, and now even Egypt and Lebanon.

A key reason for the escalation of activities against the Islamic Republic is the emergence of the Arab Spring in Persian Gulf nations such as Bahrain and Yemen, where a wave of reform could 1) threaten the dominance of Iran's biggest regional foe, and close US ally, Saudi Arabia, and 2) fundamentally shift the regional balance of power toward the "resistance" bloc.

The wholly domestic dispute between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad thus serves as an opportunity to highlight and exacerbate divisions within Iran's body politic - hence the intense media scrutiny.

What these regional players fail to recognise is that during thirty-two years, Iran has demonstrated that national security interests trump domestic politics every single time.

Iran has endured four rounds of economic sanctions by the UN Security Council and continues to feel under siege by the West and Israel. Recent developments in the regional neighbourhood, where Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen have pulled out the "Iran bogeyman" card to justify violent actions against their own populations make Iran nervous and ultra-cautious. Any high profile is currently undesirable - and the Iranian government will do its utmost to close ranks, put rumours of strife to rest, and promote an image of domestic stability and unity. Anything else would be detrimental to the country's national security imperatives - which rule the day and are a unifying subject across both domestic camps.

Domestic repercussions nonetheless

From a domestic political standpoint, the internal divisions remain firmer than ever. In the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian presidential election barely two years ago, Khamenei was viewed as a staunch Ahmadinejad ally.

But Iran's first non-clerical president has ambitions that are perceived to threaten the rule of the clergy and elevate his allies to positions of power.

Conservative politicians faithful to the ideals of the Revolution have kept up a drumbeat of criticism that has served to keep the lid on Ahmadinejad's machinations. The president has fired ministers outside his sphere of influence before - most recently Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki - but this recent dismissal was viewed as too politically motivated to escape notice.

Many believe Ahmadinejad badly miscalculated this time around - the net result being that the domestic balance of power has now decidedly shifted to the Conservative camp. And the president is not out of the woods yet. His challenge to Khamenei's authority is being exploited by foes to target Ahmadinejad's controversial Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who is seen as promoting "Iranian" nationalism, undermining the clergy and actively promoting liberal ideas regarding the hijab, music, satellite TV availability, youth, etc.

Mashai, who Ahmadinejad has defended vigorously in the past and is allegedly being groomed to succeed his boss, may have to be the sacrificial lamb if Ahmadinejad wants to regain some authority and not end his term as a lame-duck president. Something has to give, because conservatives are still beating those drums and several dozen people close to the president and his chief of staff have now been arrested. Though Ahmadinejad has clearly lost this round, his presidency could altogether still be at stake unless he makes further concessions.

On the other hand - calls for impeachment notwithstanding - it is unlikely that the conservative establishment or Khamenei would actively seek to remove the president from office, because this would suggest a serious lack of confidence at the highest levels of the Islamic Republic, and resuscitate the international ruckus over his election two years ago.

This may be a defining moment in Iranian domestic politics, or just another political row, not unlike in other nations where political stakes are high. Keep in mind that Iran's complex political system is as dynamic, diverse and decentralised as can be found anywhere in the Middle East, and rows - public and private - are par for the course.

In the final analysis, the Iranian establishment is unlikely to allow this to spin out of control. They received more international attention than they can stand and they will close ranks and speak with one voice in the coming weeks and months. Certainly, national security priorities - where both camps share similar principles - can serve to dissipate even the most threatening divisions.

With external political pressures mounting against Iran - both regionally and beyond - we can expect the tensions between the camps to result in further crackdowns and political manoeuvring. Just never so much as to allow external players to participate and exploit vulnerabilities.

So although the heated domestic debate continues, this "feud" is, from a geopolitical standpoint, much ado about nothing - at least until the regional landscape fundamentally shifts in favour of Iran's worldview. Then all bets are off.

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