Although the international sanctions imposed upon Iran this summer have hardly been as “crippling” as intended, internal concern about the country not heading in the right direction is mounting. In Tehran, the very clerical class that brought Iran’s thirty-year old revolutionary order to power worries about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s saber rattling and his apparent unwillingness to compromise in the face of worldwide opposition. Even President Barack Obama said in August that his administration had picked up “rumblings that there is disquiet about the impact” of the latest round of sanctions in Iran.
Iran is gradually deteriorating into a military dictatorship. Having successfully suppressed the widespread opposition that ensued from last year’s disputed presidential election, Ahmadinejad and his allies in the Revolutionary Guard are now set to oust the conservative elements from the regime which have accused him of pursuing an “extremist” agenda. As the president distances himself from the theocratic roots of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the mullahs who once gave it legitimacy are increasingly sidelined.
Clerics and parliamentarians from the older generation, who were part of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, fear that Ahmadinejad is squandering religious principles in favor of a messianic cult that rejects the intermediary role of the clergy. Ahmadinejad has referred to the divide among conservatives, warning that “the regime has only one party” while his supporters refer to the opposition in parliament as a “conspiracy” — the same rhetoric as was deployed during last year’s protests.
The latest attack was launched via the website Mashanews which is run by Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. “Iran needs to remove the mullahs from power once for all,” the site proclaimed, “and return to a great civilization without the Arab style clerics who have tainted and destroyed the country for the past 31 years.”
The president’s office now claims to favor a separation of Church and State, or one between dīn and dowla. The executive, according to Ahmadinejad, “is the most important branch of government,” a statement that would seem to challenge the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council which he elects. The president’s his allies are also stressing Iran’s unique Persian and Shiite character compared to the Arab Sunnism of its neighbors, attempting to frame Ahmadinejad as something of a benign, secular leader.
Neither faction is likely to attract the sympathy of last year’s protesters however whose calls for democracy and human rights may have gone underground but can impossibly be rooted out. Rather a power struggle among conservatives could only strengthen them in their resolve.