Factional Fighting and the Future of the Iranian Presidency

The contemporary political landscape of Iran is characterised by a complex, even Byzantine, collection of intersecting factions and rivalries. There is a lack of formal political parties, as the term is understood in Western politics, largely because they have been banned. Instead shifting coalitions are focussed around the three main centres of power: the Ayatollah, the President and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, leaving the political landscape littered with factions and rivalries. As Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency draws toward its conclusion in June 2013, bitter feelings between the President and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are on display for the general public. The two men are in disagreement over the role of the President and the future of the Iranian state itself, and their dispute has now turned largely toward determining who will replace Ahmadinejad, who is not legally allowed to run for a third term in office. Since his re-election in 2009 Ahmadinejad has subtly questioned Khamenei’s spiritual and moral authority, whilst the Ayatollah has been forced to become personally involved in unseemly political scraps. These actions are unprecedented in Iranian politics, and the coming presidential elections will be significant both for the future of Iran1 and for the continuing separation of power between the Presidency and the Ayatollah. Whatever the outcome may be for Ahmadinejad and his allies, it is clear that the Ayatollah himself has been weakened by the ongoing altercation.

The Iranian political system is a complex hybrid of elected and unelected legislators, which attempts to fuse together man-made and theocratic law. Iranians hold separate elections in consecutive years to select both a president and a 290 seat parliament, or Majles. However, all legislation is subject to veto by the Guardian Council, an appointed body of jurists and clerics who are required to ensure that all bills are in accordance with both the Iranian constitution and Islamic law. Crucially, the Council is also responsible for determining who can run for the presidency. Members are chosen by the Supreme Leader himself, the head of state who must formally confirm the presidential elections. He is also in charge of the armed forces, appoints senior military and judicial positions, and has the power to dismiss the president if he is found to be in violation of the constitution, or has received a vote of impeachment from the Majles. This bifurcated system was designed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and put in place following the 1979 Revolution. It was intended to make Islamic governance the primary determining force in all aspects of political life. However, it has also created an uneasy relationship between elected and non-elected officials as they attempt to negotiate the allocation of power. Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards who are fiercely loyal towards him, are confronting the non-elected, clerical establishment, who receive a great deal of support from the merchant class and other members of the elite. In part, therefore, this particularly Iranian power struggle is a classic case of populism versus entrenched interests.

Given the complexities of the Iranian system, which lacks the formal distinctions between the parties of government and opposition which are common elsewhere, the feud between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei has often been fought through surrogates or protégés. Most notable is the very public incident involving the dismissal and reinstatement of intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi. In the spring of 2011, Moslehi, a cleric and staunch ally of the Ayatollah, either resigned from his position, or was asked to do so by Ahmadinejad, for reasons which are unknown. The Ayatollah responded by immediately restoring Moslehi to his post, one of the most important cabinet positions in Iran, as he is entitled to do under the Constitution which grants the Supreme Leader the authority to appoint ministers; although parliament is required to formally approve these appointments. In response to this direct challenge to his authority, Ahmadinejad then refused to attend cabinet sessions or meet privately with the Ayatollah for eleven days. Such a public dispute is extremely rare in contemporary Iran, and generated a great deal of attention within the country, prompting the head of the judiciary to publicly remark that “All of the officials of the country, from the highest level downwards should understand that their religious legitimacy and their political legitimacy depend on their obedience to the Leader”.2 Eventually, Ahmadinejad returned to work, and attended cabinet sessions with the newly reinstated Moslehi.

Taken at face value, the incident appears to be disagreement between the head of state and the head of government concerning the staffing of a senior cabinet position. One is reminded, for example, of the gruelling cabinet confirmation sessions in the United States, which often saw lawmakers take issue with the President’s proposed nominees. In Iran, however, the dispute between Ahmadinejad and Khamanei speaks to the future of the Islamic Republic itself. Shortly after Ahmadinejad backed down on the dismissal of Moslehi, reports surfaced that the Ayatollah had mused before an academic conference about abolishing the presidency altogether, in favour of a parliamentary system.3 Such a move is not unprecedented – the Islamic Republic had both a prime minister and a president during the 1980s – but it would significantly increase the power of the Supreme Leader and further reduce the limited role of the Iranian people in choosing their leaders. Indeed, the role of prime minister was abolished in favour of a strengthened presidency in large part to avoid such a concentration of power in the Supreme Leader, who is appointed for life. To date, there has been no further action taken to remove the Iranian president, and elections are expected to take place in June of 2013. It is likely, however, that Khamenei fears a return to the violent protests that marked the 2009 elections, and is looking to take whatever actions he can to ensure that the outcome of this year’s campaign cannot be disputed.

In the most recent example of factionalism in Iranian politics, Khamenei and his backers have enacted broad changes to the criteria governing who is eligible to run for the presidency. The Constitution is very vague on the qualifications needed for a presidential bid, requiring simply that the candidate be an Iranian of Iranian parents, “be wise and able, of good reputation and background, and a true believer in the official religion of the country and the founding pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran”4, although all candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council. At face value, reforming the criteria seems reasonable, as thousands of candidates enter each year, only to be summarily rejected in favour of those chosen by the establishment. The changes, however, have been carefully worded to all but guarantee that Khamanei’s assumed candidate, Speaker of the Majlis Ali Larijani, will qualify. In an example of the closed inner circle of Iranian political life, the changes are supported by the twelve member Guardian Council, six of whom are appointed by the Ayatollah and six by the head of the judiciary, Larijani’s brother. For his part, Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that “they could just put the name of the person they want to be the president next year and be done with it”5, and used the floor of the Majles to play a videotape which he claims implicates Speaker Larijani in corruption. Meanwhile, Khamenei denounced the president’s actions as “inappropriate” and “illegal”, offering only mild rebuke to Larijani for showing “extravagance in defending himself”.6

As always the case with Iran, the political struggle between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei appears murky to outside viewers, particularly Western audiences who are used to clearly demarcated party lines. In contrast, the Iranian system is designed to balance the powers of government, under the president, with spiritual and moral authority under the Supreme Leader, and then places both layers under the rubric of Islamic law. Until the latter portion of the Ahmadinejad’s second term, Iranian presidents had largely respected their subordinate position to the Supreme Leader, however, his public intransigence and his strong support for the non-clerical (although still Islamic) establishment threatens the hold on power of the Ayatollah and his backers. It appears likely that Khamenei is orchestrating changes that will ensure that the next president is a strong supporter and biddable ally in the Majles, whilst Ahmadinejad is trying to prevent his power base from evaporating as soon as he relinquishes the Presidency. Already, there are concerns that Ahmadinejad or his close advisers, could face jail time on a number of charges, many having to do with allegations of corruption. In order to protect himself, the president is said to have “a thousand” documents in his possession, which could damage his political opponents, a strategy known in Persian as begam begam, meaning “I’ll tell, I’ll tell”.7

Ahmadinejad is barred from running again for the presidency. However, there is no stipulation against him continuing to wield power from behind the scenes, in a manner similar to that seen during the term of Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, where his predecessor Vladimir Putin was widely believed to be acting as a de-facto leader. Ahmadinejad is still quite young, and likely to maintain a political presence for some time to come. A potential candidate to play Medvedev in this scenario is former chief-of-staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose daughter is also married to Ahmadinejad’s eldest son. Mashaei, like Ahmadinejad himself, is a fervent believer in the imminent return of the Mahdi, or hidden imam, a messianic belief that downplays the role of the Shi’a clergy. The clerics themselves have called his beliefs “erroneous and inappropriate”8 In 2009 Mashaei was proposed by Ahmadinejad as one of Iran’s several vice-presidents, and his nomination was overruled by the Ayatollah in the first of several struggles with the president over key positions. He has not officially ruled out a bid for the presidency, and in February of 2013 he and Ahmadinejad were greeted in Tehran with supporters bearing placards reading “Viva Spring“, believed to be in reference to a Mashaei quote that “we have one spring. That is the Mahdi, who will come soon“, and interpreted as a political message to his supporters.9 Analyst Kourosh Rahimkhani argues that this increasing focus on apocalyptic and mystical themes represent a concerted effort “to build a new constituency among the young and the poor…[which] differs from popular Shia mythology and diminishes the role of Shia clerics10. Such a strategy can do nothing but widen the rift between the clerical and non-clerical establishment within the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad was able to get elected to the Presidency due in large part to the Ayatollah’s support. He was seen as his protégé and received Khamenei’s full support during the post-election disputes in 2009. His loyalty was not repaid in kind. Since the election Ahmadinejad has continued to challenge the authority in subtle ways, even going as far as suggesting that the Supreme Leader is not the only individual in ‘contact’ with the Twelfth Imam. Ahmadinejad has been quoted as saying:
Hazrat-e Agha [His Excellency] is a good man and leader, but there are other people who are in constant and direct contact with Emam-e Zaman [Imam Mahdi].11 Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies programme at Stanford University argues that “To openly challenge Khamenei publicly is unprecedented. It will have long-term repercussions. It shows that Khamenei does not have the authority he once did“.12

The President has deliberately provoked this rift between himself and the Ayatollah. As the election approaches, he is increasingly concerned with his post-presidential role, and does not want to see his powerful allies on the political sidelines. By orchestrating a stand off with the Ayatollah and his allies, Ahmadinejad is communicating that if pressured he will not go quietly. Ahmadinejad is working on the assumption that he is protected if the regime believes that he will expose damaging material, likely on a much grander scale than that seen in the Larijani case. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution notes that Ahmadinejad “knows where all the bodies are buried, and is eager to talk. That makes him the most dangerous man in the Islamic Republic13 The fundamental outcome of this manufactured rivalry between two formerly close allies is a weakening of the Ayatollah. Ahmadinejad’s inner circle views the Supreme Leader as their superior in law only, not as their spiritual or moral superior. This view is shared by other conservative factions and by elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp14. If this view grows among groups and factions in Iranian politics it could see a dramatic re-shaping of the regime.

The situation that Ahmadinejad has engineered benefits him in two ways15. First, it pressures the Ayatollah to force him out. Since Ahmadinejad was the Ayatollah’s own choice for President in 2005 this would be seen as an admission of poor judgement. This admission would be especially damaging given the Ayatollah is supposed to be of semi-divine stature. Actually ousting Ahmadinejad or publicly condemning him undermines his spiritual authority. Secondly, since explicit opposition to his former protégé is politically damaging it forces the Ayatollah to grit his teeth and bear Ahmadinejad’s needling. This also elevates the president, increases his political capital and insulates him once he leaves office. In the view of Muhammad Sahimi, a journalist at the Tehran bureau:

Regardless of the outcome, and no matter what happens to Ahmadinejad, Khamenei will be the major loser. The political wounds that Khamenei has taken are too numerous to count. Most crucially, the taboo of a president standing up to the Supreme Leader has been broken.16

1 Dehghanpisheh, Babak “Ahmadinejad Vs. Ayatollah Khamenei: Iran’s President, Supreme Leader Clash Over Political Authority” Reuters, 8.2.13, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/08/ahmadinejad-vs-ayatollah-khamenei_n_2647337.html?, retrieved 9 Mar 2013. return to main text
2 Erdbrink, Thomas “Iran’s Ahmadinejad affirms Khamenei decision, tensions remain” Washington Post 8 May 2011 Online. Retrieved 27 February 2013. return to main text
3 Deghan, Saeed Kamali “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: the Last Presient of Iran?” The Guardian Online 4 November 2011. Retrieved 12 March 2013. return to main text
4 “Defining Democracy Down: Iran’s New Presidential Election Law” Tehran Bureau PBS Online. 10 December 2012 Retrieved 18 February 2013. return to main text
5 Ibid. return to main text
6 Theodoulou, Micheal. “In Iran Politics, Ahmadinejad Does Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” The National Online 21 Feb 2013. Retrieved 12 March 2013. return to main text
7 Dehghanpisheh, Babak. return to main text
8 Rahimkhani, Kourosh “Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei: Iran’s Next President?” Tehran Bureau PBS Online. 31 March 2011. Retrieved 12 March 2013. return to main text
9 Esfandiari, Golnaz “Ahmadinejad Isn’t Going Quietly” The Atlantic Online. 13 February 2013. Retrieved 11 March 2013. return to main text
10 Rahmikhani, Kourosh. return to main text
11 Sahimi, Muhammad “Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens into Abyss” PBS Tehran Bureau, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/05/opinion-ahmadinejad-khamenei-rift-deepens-to-an-abyss.html, retrieved 8 Mar 2013. return to main text
12 Milani, Abbas quoted in “Iran’s president defies supreme leader to safeguard his future” by Dehghanpisheh, Babak, 8 Feb 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/08/us-iran-politics-idUSBRE9170U820130208, retrieved 8 Mar 2013. return to main text
13 Theodoulou, Michael. return to main text
14 Afshari, Ali “The Khamenei-Ahmadinejad Puzzle” 4 Mar 2013, http://www.roozonline.com/english/opinion/opinion-article/archive/2013/march/04/article/the-khamenei-ahmadinejad-puzzle.html, retrieved 8 Mar 2013. return to main text
15 Murphy, Brian, “Iran’s leader steps deeper into the political fray”, 17 Feb 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/irans-leader-steps-deeper-political-fray, retrieved 8 Mar 2013. return to main text
16 Sahimi, Mohammed. return to main text


In this Aug. 29, 2010 file photo released by an official website of the Iranian supreme leader’s office, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, talk, during a meeting of cabinet and supreme leader, in Tehran, Iran.

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