What’s Going On Behind the Scenes in Tehran

Trying to make sense of Iran’s internal power struggles is reminiscent of Cold War-era Kremlinology.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, August 16
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, August 16 (The Office of the Supreme Leader)

Trying to make sense of Iranian power struggles from afar is rather akin to Cold War Kremlinology. In a closed power system as Iran’s, it is extremely difficult to tell who’s at odds with whom at a given time. Foreign analysts look for hints in the slightest gestures and sometimes frame otherwise perfectly meaningful quotes from officials as part of a comprehensive drama. Much is probably exaggerated in the process but still, we try.

Thus beware, we may be misreading the signals but with some expertise and even more common sense, we may be able to put together a picture of what’s going on behind the scenes in Tehran that approximates reality.

There is little doubt that, Iranian grandstanding aside, international sanctions against the regime have hurt. President Barack Obama said in August of last year that his administration had picked up “rumblings that there is disquiet about the impact” of the sanctions. The Iranian economy certainly isn’t growing at a more impressive rate that the decadent and decaying West. Rather it’s in shambles with high unemployment and inflation soaring to such an extent that Iranians are reportedly stockpiling dollars and gold.

The Iranian navy’s recent announcement that it could “easily” shut the Strait of Hormuz from international oil trade and would test its ability to do just that seems to confirm that the regime is feeling squeezed from all sides. With its sole regional ally Syria in turmoil and Russia suspending weapons sales, Tehran is isolated indeed and perhaps afraid that Israel and the United States will launch military strikes against its uranium enrichment program.

In America, Republican opposition candidates for the presidency have quite outspokenly endorsed an attack against Iran while defense secretary Leon Panetta last week said that he couldn’t let the Iranians develop a nuclear weapon which he expected they would be able to within a year.

“If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” Panetta told CBS News.

Little wonder that the Iranians seek a nuclear weapons capacity. They know that once they have an atomic bomb, they’ll be better able to deter Western interventionism. Support for Iran’s nuclear program transcends partisan divides therefore. Even former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main challenger for the highest office in the disputed elections of 2009, supported the enrichment program.

It’s unclear whether Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei see eye to eye. Events earlier this year suggested a split when the president fired his intelligence minister and was quickly forced to rehire him by Khamenei. What is clear is that Ahmadinejad and his allies have targeted conservative clergymen and parliamentarians have called for his impeachment. Supporters of the president’s have suggested that “Iran needs to remove the mullahs from power once for all and return to a great civilization without the Arab style clerics who have tainted and destroyed the country for the past 31 years.”

Clerics and parliamentarians from the older generation, who were part of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, seem to fear that Ahmadinejad and his allies are squandering religious principles in favor of a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy and the need to respect the “people’s will,” as the late Ayatollah Khomeini put it. They would rather do away with elections and take their guidance only from the divine in the form of a powerful spiritual leader.

Opposed are conservative Islamists who have coalesced around former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who resigned as chairman of the Assembly of Experts in March of this year. The body is charged with electing, monitoring and, if necessary, dismissing the supreme leader. Rafsanjani clings to power as head of a committee that settles disputes between the legislature and the Guardian Council which acts as a combination of senate and supreme court.

This group of conservatives, which includes Mousavi and should not be considered particularly moderate, favors privatization of state-owned enterprises and stable relations with the West. They have a reputation for corruption and their influence is probably declining relative to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps which seems largely allied to Ahmadinejad.

Second only to the clerics, the Revolutionary Guards could very well emerge as the most powerful faction in Iran as the country’s religious leaders are aging and divided on the future composition of the republic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned last year that Iran was sliding into a military dictatorship. The guards, she said, were gaining influence “across all areas of Iranian security policy, and certainly nuclear policy is at the core of it.”

There is discord among the guards as well with senior commanders and former guardsmen, including the incumbent speaker of the Iranian parliament, reportedly urging the Ayatollah Khamenei to change his way and muzzle his fiery acolyte, Ahmadinejad.

The supreme leader’s allegiances are ambiguous however. He probably has the backing of radical mullahs as well as guardsmen and intelligence officers who maybe weren’t part of the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution but did cut their teeth in Iran’s bloody eight year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Ahmadinejad’s problems with conservatives pose a dilemma to Khamenei. If he intervenes to rein in the opposition, he will be more closely identified with the president and may lose support from leaders in the Revolutionary Guards who fear that a confrontational foreign policy will lead to war. If he doesn’t, the regime’s internal divisions will deepen ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

The main challenge to Ahmadinejad’s administration is the deplorable state of Iran’s economy. It is estimated that one out of five Iranians is jobless. Inflation could be as high as 30 percent but the government insists it’s under 9 percent — a rate that would still be considered Weimaresque in Europe today.

Prices have doubled on average during the last four to five years but forced to cut spending, Adhmadinejad plans to reduce food and fuel subsidies and replace them with a complicated and unpopular scheme of price compensation for the nation’s poor.

If European countries were to multilaterally cut off their remaining oil ties with Iran, that would send the economy into recession overnight. Oil production provides some 85 percent of government revenue but is far below capacity. Whereas Iran produced six million barrels per day in 1978, before the overthrow of the shah, today, production is roughly half that number while global oil demand has only increased and prices with it.

Petroleum and petrochemicals also account for 85 percent of Iranian exports. China and India are Iran’s main costumers and take a 16 and 13 percent share respectively. Japan and South Korea also import oil from Iran but have been under pressure from the United States to suspend their trade.

For all the political and theological disputes that are now raging, or at least shimmering in Tehran, it’s the economy that could prove Ahmadinejad’s undoing. If his popular support continues to erode, the supreme leader may have little other choice but to force him to resign. Once Ahmadinejad and his allies are removed from office, either the guards could take over with maybe a figurehead president or the conservatives could stage a coup and try to return Rafsanjani to the highest office.

Khamenei, in any event, will persevere. He is the only person whose legitimacy isn’t questioned by any political faction in Iran that’s able to exert influence.


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