An Establishment-based Opposition Movement in Iran

Reports have surfaced that the rift between conservatives in the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) and the ultraconservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is growing, with talks of a move to impeach Ahmadinejad for reasons including illegal handling of Iran’s natural resources and a lack of fiscal transparency in his administration.  It may not be the reformist Green movement of last summer’s disputed elections that finally brings down the president after all, but pragmatic conservatives who are opposed to the president’s excessive spending and embarrassing international antics.

The impeachment is unlikely to actually succeed because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has staked a great deal of his own credibility on his president as he has come under fire first from the reformists and now from other conservatives.  Any attempt to actually dismiss the president would have to be approved by the Supreme Leader.  However, the mere fact that an impeachment petition is even circulating is a sign of the degree of frustration with the president.  As the president’s current opponents hold far more power in the government than the reformists did during the 2009 protests, it will be impossible for Ahmadinejad and Khamanei to quash the opposition by force without alienating almost the entirety of their political support.  Though he has until now supported Ahmadinejad, Khamanei will eventually have to choose between propping up the increasingly unpopular president and his own political authority.

Until now, the revered Supreme Leader has been the only figure immune to criticism from both reformers and conservatives and thus all factions try to maneuver for his support.  But his authority is not infinite – Khamanei does not command the same reverence as his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  His power rests on having the political support of other powerful figures within the government, and he is certainly conscious that Ahmadinejad may be becoming a political liability.  Furthermore, the Supreme Leader can theoretically be removed by the Assembly of Experts, a group of Islamic clerics responsible for electing and overseeing the Leader.  Since half of the Assembly is selected by the Guardian Council, which is appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the other half is elected by the Majlis from a list of candidates approved by the Guardian Council, the Assembly has never actually put its oversight role into practice.  But the current head of the Assembly is former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful figures in Iranian politics and one of the chief rivals to President Ahmadinejad, who defeated Rafsanjani in the 2005 presidential elections.  Rafsanjani’s allies compose a majority of the current Assembly, and Rafsanjani himself spoke out against the repression of the Green movement in 2009, so he is a major political force of whom Khamanei and Ahmadinejad must remain wary.

The difference between the conservative and reformist opposition movements is that the conservatives are operating largely within the establishment rather than from outside of it.  Though many powerful figures from the early days of the revolution, including the late Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who lost the 2009 election to Ahmadinejad, later fell out of favor with the establishment, the current conservative opposition to Ahmadinejad is too large of a bloc for the ultraconservative core to alienate.  In the end, it may not be an appeal to human rights that brings down the regime, but a simple matter of economics and political stability.  In this regard, the reformists may find a powerful ally in their usual opponents, united around the same cause of reining in Ahmadinejad’s excesses.  Iran will not become a liberal democracy overnight, but it may become easier to deal with internationally if the pragmatists gain control.

Iran is a nation with an extremely complex political structure with various powerful factions vying for influence.  It is far from the monolithic dictatorship that many in the West perceived it to be after President Bush’s notorious “Axis of Evil” speech.  That Ahmadinejad was not able to steal the 2009 election without receiving serious internal opposition, that there even exists a reformist movement at all, that Rafsanjani, a vocal Ahmadinejad opponent, can remain one of the most powerful figures in the government – these are all hallmarks of a semi-democratic regime, not a full autocracy.  I do not mean to apologize for the human rights violations of the Iranian regime, but we cannot continue to view the countries of the world in a black-and-white manner.  Iran is most certainly a “grey” regime, not the land of pure evil that ignorance leads us to believe.  The world would certainly prefer a more pragmatic group of conservatives in power – ones who don’t deny the Holocaust, ones who aren’t quite so hostile to Israel, ones who would be more open to compromise, or at least more level-headed, on the nuclear issue.  Pretending that people like Ahmadinejad have total control over Iran is a costly mistake that blinds us to the many more options that reality presents us.[i][ii]


[i] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703904804575631093531990342.html

[ii] http://www.iranchamber.com/government/articles/structure_of_power.php

-An overview of Iran’s government

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