The Real Threat to Iran’s Clerics


iranian divide2.jpg
Afshin Molavi astutely noted yesterday in New America’s debate on the Iranian election aftermath that some of the most important events took place prior to the election – that is, during the electoral debates where Ahmadinejad took on the clerical establishment accusing them, with Rafsanjani as the symbol, of a self-interested betrayal of the revolution.
Stratfor’s George Friedman appears to concur arguing the real divide now is not between the reformers and revolutionaries but between the old guard clergy and Ahmadinejad’s new guard including major security services (but also backed by some hardline clergy like Ayatollah Yazdi), while the twittering classes are a much smaller faction and pawn in the bigger battle of elites. Friedman writes:

The clerics are divided among themselves, but many wanted to see Ahmadinejad lose to protect their own interests. Khamenei, the supreme leader, faced a difficult choice last Friday. He could demand a major recount or even new elections, or he could validate what happened. Khamenei speaks for a sizable chunk of the ruling elite, but also has had to rule by consensus among both clerical and non-clerical forces. Many powerful clerics like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wanted Khamenei to reverse the election, and we suspect Khamenei wished he could have found a way to do it. But as the defender of the regime, he was afraid to. Mousavi supporters’ demonstrations would have been nothing compared to the firestorm among Ahmadinejad supporters — both voters and the security forces — had their candidate been denied. Khamenei wasn’t going to flirt with disaster, so he endorsed the outcome.

I find this a bit curious as the IRGC and Basij are often depicted as loyal to and under the command of the Supreme Leader. But this account suggests that Khamenei must vie for their support and be concerned about their defection, adding another layer of palace intrigue. During the 1979 revolution, the IRGC was set up by the insurgent clerics as a parallel security force, ostensibly to safeguard them and the revolution, in part from the untrustworthy Iranian military that retained loyalties to the Shah. Now it seems the force they created has the potential to turn on them.
What’s puzzling to me then is why the clerical elites, in theory sitting atop the theocratic hierarchy, cannot rhetorically outflank and denounce Ahmadinejad and his ilk as the real threat to the Islamic republic and the revolution. Perhaps he has more artfully and successfully appropriated the mantle of the revolution or perhaps – what I think Friedman is suggesting — because they clerics are worried Ahmadinejad actually commands the backing of a committed, pious, and possibly armed plurality of Iranians. After all the IRGC is at least one-tenth the strength of the Iranian military, though with a larger share of resources, and the Basij loyalists (if not actual trained reservists) compose 20% of the Iranian population.
— Sameer Lalwani


9 comments on “The Real Threat to Iran’s Clerics

  1. David says:

    “History matters to the muslims. we have surrendered the moral high ground a long time ago.” sb (hope you don’t mind the abbreviation), this is the heart of the matter, and I think why Obama acknowledged the role of the US in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh, which acknowledgement has opened the door for discussion of the actual history of US-Iranian relations. I am beginning to see it discussed, and treated as the fact that it is.
    Whether or not we can atone for what we did I do not know, especially given the more recent branding of Iran as a member of Bush’s infamous “axis of evil” and congressional funding for efforts at regime change in Iran. Obama was pretty definite today that it is up to the Iranians to decide what government they will have. Who knows if that is for show or his actual intent?
    Time will tell, but I would not be surprised if he pulls back on congressionally sanctioned meddling in Iranian affairs. He has described himself as persistent, and I do not think the Republicans will succeed in getting him to abandon diplomacy as his primary tool in relations with Iran.
    Next thing he has to do, and pretty quickly, is get US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan right, which currently it is not. Occupation ain’t gonna work, embassies as secular political/military Vaticans are not a good idea, and drones or other agents of death of innocents just cannot continue (never should have happened in the first place). You cannot be a friend of a nation and kill its innocent civilians, period. Nor can you claim any sort of moral high ground.
    Same thing goes for “depleted” uranium (depleted, my ass) toxification. Unjust and immoral do not suddenly become just and moral because you claim those are your motivations. John Kerry learned that lesson in Viet Nam. I’m not sure what John McCain learned, if anything, besides how horrible torture can be, a lesson he and his buddy Lindsey Graham seem to have forgotten.


  2. Peter Principle says:

    My own experience has been that Friedman rarely knows what’s going — he’s the king of cut-rate intel, and intel, like advice, is usually worth pretty much what you pay for it.
    But the scenario that Khamenei felt himself caught between a rock and a hard place, and lined up with the faction he felt posed the most dire threat to him and the stability of the system if their aims were thwarted, is not implausible. Although at the moment, Khamenei may be signaling that he’s worried he chose poorly:
    According to sources monitoring Iranian state television, Ayatollah Khamenei has agreed to stretch the assessment period for election-related complaints by five days. Typically, the Guardian Council has ten days — and ten days only — to judge the validity of fraud charges, meaning that the investigations would’ve ended tomorrow (the complaints were officially submitted last Monday). But Council officials asked for more time to eliminate any ambiguity — and Khamanei acquiesced.
    Of cours, this could just be a stall to delay final certification of the results until the street protestors have been fully beaten into submission.
    But the back and forth — first the Guardian Council cites fraud in at least 52 cities, then turns around and says no way no how to annulling the election, then asks for and gets an unprecedented (and probably unconstitutional) five extra days to certify the results — suggests the outcome may still be in doubt. Rafsanjani may not have played all his cards yet, and Khamenei may know it.


  3. Franklin says:

    Strange analysis by Friedman.
    #1. In his description of the crowds he says that the events didn’t get larger, but rather smaller.
    Yet, from press accounts there were perhaps 1 mill. on Monday; a few hundred thousand the next protest — which happened under government threats; and then a 3rd protest which topped the Monday protest. And on what basis was Friedman able to determine that a large number of protesters spoke English and had smartphones? The observation is absurd on its face.
    What’s more he ignores the fact that the protests were not isolated in JUST Tehran, but that there were reports and even video of simultaneous protests in other cities throughout the country throughout much of last week (albeit at higher risk to the participants).
    #2. Friedman’s assumption that the rural population was in Ahmadinejad’s back pocket is belied by the evidence from the 2005 election. Ahmadinejad’s power base seems to come largely from poor and lower-middle class city and ex-urban city dwellers. Opposition candidates seems to come from middle class voters, ethnic minority groups, and from rural areas. The exception being Rezai’s base, which likely came from the elements of the conservative political establishment — including Larijani.
    #3. Friedman says that Khamenei “really” wanted to reverse the outcome, but couldn’t. Where is the evidence for this assertion? Khamenei jumped custom and declared a winner before the typical three day counting and certification period — he backed Ahmadinejad during the election. Maybe Khamenei is afraid of Ahamdinejad; or perhaps he’s being played by Ahmadinejad — but it’s not clear that he wanted an outcome different than that played out on election eve (aside from the protests that the bungled election fraud generated).
    #4. The idea that there is a high-level conflict between the clerics and elements of the security services makes sense (e.g. “there is a crisis that has nothing to do with liberalization, but rather with power and prerogatives among the elite”). Clearly there are rifts within the society as well, which could have consequences for the political leadership in ways that aren’t apparent yet.
    Milani’s reading makes more sense to me:
    e.g. “It is difficult to imagine the IRGC quelling the current protests and then simply turning power over to the clergy. If a political compromise cannot be reached between the regime and the opposition, and the IRGC is used in suppressing the protests, its commanders would likely expect a bigger role in the government. It is even conceivable that faced with irresolution among the clergy, they will act on their own, and establish a military dictatorship that uses Islam as its ideological veneer–similar to Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
    Khamenei thus finds himself in a difficult situation as a result of his incautious gambit with Ahmadinejad. Whether he gives more power to the IRGC or to the opposition, there is little chance that he will emerge from the current crisis with his supremacy intact.”


  4. Dan Kervick says:

    I don’t think Friedman is right. Khamenei’s speech was too defiant and undiplomatic – even unstatesmanlike. It’s hard to believe that he really wished he could reverse the election.


  5. samuelburke says:

    If we here in the u.s can not see the forest because of the trees, then what does it matter if a tree falls in the woods and whether it makes a noise or not. we are irrelevant to them because of history.
    History matters to the muslims. we have surrendered the moral high ground a long time ago.
    the time for preaching to the muslim nations is over, realism is imposing its ugly head all over the muslim world and all we can say is that they are not behaving like mommy and daddy want them to behave. recognition is an important first step…ask any addict.
    How will americans react?
    will israeli interests continnue to trump american interests in the region or will the military industrial complex, if there is such a beast, succeed in conflating our interests with israels? terrorism terrorism terrorism.
    who are the terrorist?
    will imperialist dna trump common sense in americas goverment circles forever?
    i hope not.
    chris Hedges posted this lucid analysis over at
    “The fundamental problem in the Middle East is not a degenerate and corrupt Islam. The fundamental problem is a degenerate and corrupt Christendom. We have not brought freedom and democracy and enlightenment to the Muslim world. We have brought the opposite. We have used the iron fist of the American military to implant our oil companies in Iraq, occupy Afghanistan and ensure that the region is submissive and cowed. We have supported a government in Israel that has carried out egregious war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza and is daily stealing ever greater portions of Palestinian land. We have established a network of military bases, some the size of small cities, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait, and we have secured basing rights in the Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. We have expanded our military operations to Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Egypt, Algeria and Yemen. And no one naively believes, except perhaps us, that we have any intention of leaving.
    We are the biggest problem in the Middle East. We have through our cruelty and violence created and legitimized the Mahmoud Ahmadinejads and the Osama bin Ladens. The longer we lurch around the region dropping iron fragmentation bombs and seizing Muslim land the more these monsters, reflections of our own distorted image, will proliferate. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy.” But our hypocrisy no longer fools anyone but ourselves. It will ensure our imperial and economic collapse.”


  6. douglass truth says:

    Friedman’s first response to all this was to say that Ahmadinejad had won the election “in a landslide.” While smiling. He didn’t even consider that there might have been serious election fraud. Don’t know how much weight I’d give to his analysis any more.


  7. Sand says:

    I never thought Ahmadinejad was a nitwit — I always thought him a ‘shrewd manipulator’
    The guy knows how to push the buttons when it comes to his low-information base — like the time he was calling “…himself ‘seyed’ (bloodline of prophet mohammad) & wearing a green shawl on state TV…”


  8. Gene Ha says:

    The parallels with the first Roman emperors and their elite troops, the Praetorian Guard, is obvious. The Praets watched over the Emperor and his family while he slept. This soon turned them into king-makers. They were everywhere they needed to be to pull a coup. At one point, they actually auctioned off rule of the empire.
    Hitler, facing a similar situation with his Brownshirt SA street thugs, had to surprise purge them in his Night of the Long Knives. Otherwise, the SA could have deposed both Hitler and the military. Sound familiar?
    Ayatollah Khamenei is a minor cleric. He never had much religious or moral authority, only political power. Now that he’s openly sided with Ahmadinejad he’s lost his moral legitimacy as a “neutral” referee. The RG is all he has left shielding him from prison and complete exposure of his corrupt lifestyle.
    The question is whether the RG will make a deal and toss Khamenei and Ahmadinejad overboard.
    Less likely, they might overplay their hand so badly that high religious authorities, and then the military and the people turn on them. This threat will limit how bloodily they can attack the crowds.


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