Who hates who in Iran

A somewhat coherent outsider's guide into the labyrinthine world of Iranian politics

Published June 19, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Left: In this Friday, June  12, 2009, file photo, Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi waving to the media during a late night press conference after polls closed in Tehran. Center: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot for the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday June, 12, 2009. Right: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Left: In this Friday, June 12, 2009, file photo, Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi waving to the media during a late night press conference after polls closed in Tehran. Center: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballot for the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, Friday June, 12, 2009. Right: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Strange methods are required to figure out who's up and who's down in hermetically sealed foreign regimes. During the Cold War, Kremlinologists would guess at the state of Soviet politics by puzzling over the parade order of Communist Party officials or the arrangement of portraits on the wall.

Iran, however, is only partially closed off: It was, after all, a nationwide presidential election that triggered the current crisis, which itself involves millions of people out in the streets -- clearly a mass popular event. Trying to understand what in the hell is going on, then, means paying attention to a strange blend of elite and mass-level behavior. Calling Iranian politics "byzantine" doesn't quite do the trick, because all Byzantium really had going on was palace intrigue. Tehran is that, plus Twitter.

Based on what we can discern from afar, we've done our best to piece together rumor, gossip and expertise into something like a coherent picture of Iranian factional politics. Welcome to the labyrinth. We'll proceed approximately from right to left.

The conservatives

* President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The president is responsible for a good deal of Iran's present notoriety. Elected as a right-wing populist, Ahmadinejad's schtick essentially consists of veils on the women, welfare for the poor and belligerent foreign policy. A former member of the Revolutionary Guard with a reputation for living simply, his populism has taken him far with a population sick of mullahs perceived as corrupt and ineffectual.

* Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: It's more or less conventional wisdom that the present conflict pits democrats in the streets against clerics in the mosques. But to say that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei represent the interests of the clerics is akin to saying that President Obama represents the interests of politicians. The real question is, which ones?

In fact, Khamenei is hardly the icon among clerics that his legendary predecessor, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was. Khamenei wasn't even a full-ranking ayatollah when he was appointed to the top job 20 years ago. (This is a bit like a mere archbishop being elevated directly to pope, without a stop as a cardinal.) In order to shore up his own position and play himself off against a mainstream clerical class increasingly loathed by the public at large for corruption and ineffectuality, Khamenei forged an alliance with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Promoting Ahmadinejad's right-wing populism, the supreme leader implicitly endorsed Ahmadinejad for president, urging voters to elect a president who lives in "a simple and modest way" -- clear code for the incumbent.

* Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati: The chairman of the Guardian Council, Jannati is a staunch Ahmadinejad loyalist and enemy of Israel and the United States. The Guardian Council, a body of clerics and lawyers, is a kind of theocratic Supreme Court, empowered to strike down legislation and ban candidates from the ballot. Jannati has been eager to exercise the Guardian Council's power to keep reformist candidates off the ballot (the Council has showed strong support for IRGC candidates), so his promise to review the contested election may not be too reassuring.

* The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: Just weeks before last week's election, the IRGC warned of a possible "velvet revolution" and promised to crush it. As the custodians of the revolutionary legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, the IRGC isn't just a unit of the military. It plays a major role in domestic politics. The Ahmadinejad-Khamenei regime, some argue, is so reliant on the IRGC that it's closer to a populist military dictatorship than a true theocracy. Khamenei has increasingly leaned on the IRGC to fight his political battles for him. He's watched the bureaucracy fill up with IRGC loyalists -- including Ahmadinejad himself -- and he's cashed in the favor when necessary, using the corps to crush dissent and sway elections. Abbas Milani writes in the New Republic that Khamenei urged IRGC members to turn out for Ahmadinejad in his 2005 race against longtime Khamenei rival Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. (More on him in a bit.)

* The Basij militias: If the IRGC is a crack military outfit dedicated to upholding the political order, the Basij are its street-gang offspring. Most famous for their "human wave" attacks during the Iran-Iraq War, these thugs are recruited in mosques and schools and possibly number in the millions. Basij paramilitaries, supervised by the IRGC, have been the main skull-crackers in the streets this week.

* Mohsen Rezaei: A former commander in the IRGC, Rezaei ran for president this year as a conservative alternative to Ahmadinejad. Thoroughly trounced in Friday's official results, he has voiced suspicion about the election and thrown his lot in with the dissidents.

The centrists

* Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: Rafsanjani is the Zelig of Iranian politics. He's been president, he's been speaker of the Parliament, he's been chairman of the Expediency Council and he's currently chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Oh, and he's the richest man in the country. Rafsanjani, a longstanding rival of Khamenei, ran for another term as president in 2005, and Khamenei pulled out all the stops to help Ahmadinejad beat him.

Since then, Rafsanjani has used his pull to try to bring down Ahmadinejad, and possibly Khamenei. Khamenei supposedly authorized the famously ascetic Ahmadinejad to use Rafsanjani as a bogeyman in the campaign, to try to tar the whole reformist movement as corrupt and decadent. This charge hasn't adhered to Ahmadinejad rival Mousavi, but it does cling to Rafsanjani and some of the clerical mainstream. As chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful group of Islamic scholars, Rafsanjani is a major clerical leader, and, as a billionaire, he doesn't look squeaky-clean.

Rumor has it that Rafsanjani is now working to overthrow Khamenei. Rafsanjani's daughter was spotted at a pro-Mousavi demonstration, and the government arrested her and her brother as they tried to leave the country today. Supposedly, Rafsanjani has gone to the holy city of Qom to convene the Assembly of Experts, the only body with the power to topple the Supreme Leader. (Nobody seems to be quite sure if he has gone to Qom or if he would even have the votes on the 86-member assembly to do so.)

* The gaggle of ayatollahs: If Khamenei is insecure about his status as a legitimate theocratic authority and Islamic scholar, this one's got to hurt. Respected ayatollahs such as Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, Mohammad Mousavi Khoiniha and Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (as well as Rafsanjani) have criticized the apparent theft of the election as a sin against the Islamic Republic.

The liberals

* Mir Hossein Mousavi: Like every other major Iranian political figure, Mousavi was a confidant and protégé of Ruhollah Khomeini. An advocate of disbanding the morality police and expanding civil rights, Mousavi has proved, a week after he "lost" the election, to be the savviest liberal leader modern Iran has had, managing to sustain the protests without letting them devolve into catastrophic violence.

* Former President Mohammed Khatami: Credited with bringing the reformist movement into the center of Iranian politics, Khatami captured the presidency in 1997 with 70 percent of the vote. He declined to run again in 2009, deferring to Mousavi, and Khatami's circle currently constitutes much of the Mousavi brain trust.

* Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri: The intellectual godfather of the reformist movement, having knocked himself out of the favor of then-Supreme Leader Khomeini by denouncing his record on human rights and torture of dissidents. Montazeri, a figure widely respected among the Iranian people, was demoted as heir-apparent to Khomeini, and placed under house arrest. Now-chief Khamenei was elevated, seemingly from nowhere, to replace him -- hence, presumably, some of his concern about his status in the clergy, and his heavy reliance on military support. Speaking of which, Montazeri has urged the army and police not to "sell their religion" by shooting at protesters.

* Mehdi Karroubi: A former speaker of Parliament, Karroubi is a two-time presidential candidate and a fierce critic of the Guardian Council. In 2005 he accused Khamenei and Ahmadinejad of using the IRGC and Basij militias to tilt the election unfairly. His second run, in 2009, ended much the same way, though he now backs Mousavi.

The question marks

* The army and the police: It's been widely observed that, lacking any weapons and on their own, the Mousavi protesters may not be able to bring down a deeply repressive regime committed to holding on to power. Some of the security forces would have to change sides for protests to become revolution. The IRGC has gained so much from the current regime -- indeed, some would say, it is the current regime -- that it seems an unlikely candidate. This is, in fact, why repressive states create parallel armies like the IRGC in the first place. Remember, the Revolutionary Guards are not the Iranian army, nor are they the Iranian police. Twitter-based rumors suggest that the conventional security forces may not be pleased with apparent theft of the election and subsequent crackdown, and presumably, they're less loyal to the supreme leader than the IRGC. Nazi Germany had the SS to keep the army in check. Iran has the IRGC.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are hoping that if they wait long enough, the protests will dissipate on their own. The protesters, on the other hand, seem to have no clear road to victory. So long as the Guardian Council can't be relied on for a fair recount -- and presumably, it can't -- then there is no apparent legal, procedural avenue for Mousavi to become president. It's now pretty hard to imagine a scenario in which Khamenei backs down, inaugurates Mousavi as president, and everything goes back to normal.

This means that either Ahmadinejad will probably remain in power, or he'll probably fall from power in an extralegal, nonprocedural fashion. That is, the people with the guns stick with Ahmadinejad, or enough of them desert him to give Mousavi a literal fighting chance. And if Iran is looking at a fight between a loyalist IRGC and a dissident army, that sounds like civil war, and the furthest thing from normal.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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