Iranian Politics and the variable ‘factionalism’
Mahmood Ahmadinejad, during the course of these last months, has assumed an unexpected role and popularity in the larger part of the Middle-East, progressively being transformed into an icon of anti-Western sentiments in the entire region and, ironically, more in the Arab context than in that of his country. The Iranian nuclear programme has been artificially transformed into the most important point on the agenda of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, while Lebanon has demonstrated the ability of Tehran in knowing how to exploit a crisis outside of its borders, and in the development of always stronger ties with the Shiite world community. Today, however, the attention of the principle international actors is attracted, to a large extent, by that which, with every probability, could be judged as a false objective or, at least, a secondary element: the Iranian nuclear programme. On the contrary, however, the real reason for the always more intense Iranian activism is due, in great part, to the growing and always more evident factionalism at the elite summit of the Islamic Republic, and not in an improbable re-proposal of the original – on the contrary, accentuated – inspirational concept of the Islamic revolution. To understand the real roots of this internal transformation process and the objectives of the various factions represents the only way to draw up an effective plan of action to diminish the negative influence of the so-called “Iranian factor”. It is right to hold that through a more targeted inquiry into the dynamics of the problem, instead of excessive attention and involvement in the nuclear question, the solution to the crisis can be favoured: facilitating, at the same time, the natural evolution to that which seems to be the eve of an important transformation in the political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The factions and politics in Iran
Today, with the victory of the so-called conservative forces, between 2004 and 2005, Iran is considered, by a number of experts, to be dominated by a relatively strong and compact group of exponents from the radical and conservative wing, which is leading Iran towards an obscure form of neo-Khomeinism.
This simple – yet, also partially erroneous – interpretation risks that the most important instability of Iranian politics today, escapes attention: i.e. the factionalism.
In fact, an intense and growing situation of conflict is clearly evident between the two principal groups of the Iranian political system, also with the addition of a non-marginal role on the part of the minor, but no less influential, forces.
On the one side, we can identify the “traditional” power group, essentially constituted by a large portion of those who, at the time of the revolution, were defined as “the religious fighters”. Today, they are no longer dominated by the sole figure of the “Guide”, as in the Khomeini epoch, but, on the contrary, are self-regulated by a collegiate structure of power, which includes formal and informal elements of the complex Iranian institutional system. At the top of which, we can still identify the “Guide” (the Rahbar), the Ayatollah Khamenei, and a small number of elders – and largely discredited in the public eye – exponents of the clergy who came to power during the period of the revolution.
On the other side, instead, the new generation of power is emerging. It is not the youth which supported the reformist movement of President Khatami, but the generation of the political and military power –composed principally of laity – originating and strongly rooted within the Islamic Republic institutions.
This group is essentially governed through a compromise of power adopted by a small number of important and influential representatives of the clergy, such as the Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, together with some of the principal – and experienced – representatives of what can be defined as the “Universe of the Pasdaran”. These forces are engaged in a constant political action, pushing from below with the vigour of the force of a new generation, and on many fundamental questions, are in total disagreement with the traditional conception of power as it is expressed by the velayat-e faqih.
There are, therefore, two distinct and conflicting programmes behind these two principal forces of the Iranian political panorama. The traditional power group, the circle of the “religious combatants”, is essentially interested in the continuity of the system and pursues this objective through partial isolation, without any wish to provoke radical changes within the Country and the institutions, benefiting – when possible – from foreign political errors committed by the United States and, more in general, by the Western Countries.
For this group, the nuclear programme could become a resource to use in terms of regional influence. According to these forces, the nuclear programme should continue to be developed in an inconspicuous way, without publicity of any kind, making results known only when the bombs are actually available. All this while keeping the Country in its state of partial isolation and protecting the real wealth of the Iranian elite i.e. control of the administrative and economic system of the country. In synthesis, the preservation of the prerogatives of a political system, dominated by no more than 35-40 influential exponents of the establishment, each one of which with his own individual system of power and re-distribution of wealth.
On the opposite front, instead, a new amalgamation of laity, military and religious “purists” can be identified, widely supported by a young generation of technocratic and military personnel, largely composed of militants of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, better known as the Pasdaran Corps. The raison d'Ítre of these forces is principally tied to two precise objectives: the first, to accede to power, favouring a gradual substitution of the old generation of religious leaders who, no longer esteemed by the public opinion, are considered incapable of supplying suitable answers to the real needs of the country, (this means the whole establishment will be substituted by an entire generation, provoked from below, and openly oriented in function of the change in the traditional centres of power);
The second, although never explicitly declared, favours the elimination of what can be considered the real obstacle to reaching the first objective: the gradual transformation and the subsequent amendment of the power structure outlined by the velayat-e faqih, favouring the transition from theocracy to a traditional Islamic presidential system.
What we have been able to observe during the first year of the Presidency of Ahmadinejad, is a constant increase of conflict between the two principal power blocks, after a brief marriage of interests following the last phase of the Khatami presidential mandate.
The political strategy of Ahmadinejad is, to a great extent, based on populism, through taking to extremes the founding concepts of the Islamic Republic and with a substantial increase in the adoption of an aggressive rhetoric towards what can be perceived – mainly outside of the Iranian borders – as the “mother of all problems”: Israel, or the “Zionist entity” as it is called in the official slang of the Iranian politics. In synthesis, it is more a revitalization of the concepts expressed by Fardid (famous political philosopher, one of the inspirers of the revolutionary rationale, according to whom violence is a fundamental and necessary instrument for the process of change) rather than a new political frontier, with the addition of a strong Mahdist influence, essentially oriented towards the pressing need of a diffused and qualified hostility to the role and the figure of the Guide.
Among the most important expressions of his “populism”, Ahmadinejad, has given new life to the debate on the nuclear programme, transforming it into an icon of national pride and Iranian dignity.
From the scarce and fragmentary information on the Iranian nuclear development programme which was available in the 90’s, we have passed to the complete and detailed availability of information on the development of the programme and on the related infrastructures. This new trend is not due to an increase in the SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) activities or as a consequence of the clandestine activities of MEK (Mujahedin-e Kalq), but thanks to the role of the same emerging forces of the conservative wing, which has widely favoured the diffusion of everything which was once considered sensitive and secret in the interests of the nation.
For these emerging conservative forces, to fight against the traditional power structure means to attack the system by pushing the politics and the rhetoric to the maximum level. By so doing, the dogmatic essence of the revolutionary and Islamic rhetoric is not only protected, but is also transformed into an instrument which is hostile to the interests of the traditional conservative forces. Therefore, the change is pursued through the exacerbation of the same rhetoric of the “religious combatants”.
Therefore, this clash can also be seen as a concrete attempt to introduce the basic concepts necessary for a radical change of ideas regarding the institutional structure of the Iranian power, decidedly pointing towards an amendment of the nature and of the scope of the functions established by the velayat-e faqih and, at the same time, promoting a generation change within the rigid theocratic structure.
As it was in 1980, therefore, the only valid solution to favour the change seems to be that of isolation. Consequently, the emerging Iranian Establishment has so little fear of a confrontation or even a clash with the West and the United States, to the point that it even tries to provoke it: underestimating, however, two important factors: the unpredictability of the United States foreign policy and its potential capacity to unleash a new military operation in the region.
The definition of the Iranian foreign policy and
the Strategic Council for the Foreign Policy
The growing role of the factions, and the deriving confrontation between the different power centres, becomes particularly evident in whatever contributes to the formation and activation of the Iranian foreign policy.
Historically, this is the result of a political and institutional mediation which, at each level, tends to involve a large number of institutions and apparatus within the complex power system of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In reality, there is not, and never has been, a clear-cut process for the definition and management of the foreign policy. Even the Constitution does not furnish clarifying elements on the subject. On the contrary, it underlines the collective character for the evaluation and the management of same, in accordance with the interests of the nation.
In the past, the Iranians have always tried to establish the overall strategies for the pursuit of the objectives of the foreign Policy through reaching an informal consensus among the principal representatives of the national political power. Not, therefore, through the emanation of decrees or the promulgation of official Acts, but through the tacit or clear approval of a defined and collegially supported general line of direction.
At least four of the main institutional agencies of the Country are involved in the decision- making process: the Guide, the President, the Government, and the Supreme Council for the National Security. And it is this last, in reality, which has been historically entrusted with the function of directing and programming foreign politics. The Council appears to be a representative collegial body of the principal power prerogatives within the Iranian institutional matrix.
However, this system entered into crisis during the course of the double presidential mandate of Khatami, showing the formation of two opposing groups and, more specifically, of a double and concurrent line of foreign policy. The one expressed by the Government and the recognized Presidential power, and the other, in the more general area, - but certainly more powerful from an executive point of view – of the system of control of the Guide, the Council of Discernment and the Council of Guardians.
It has been observed, since the end of the 90’s, that the management of the Iranian foreign policy has been based on a strong and evident contrast between the institutional centres of the Country: frequently resulting in the occurrence of clearly contrasting judgements and decisions. In fact, it has not been uncommon that government decisions have been taken and publicly announced, only to be openly denied and subsequently cancelled by institutional bodies functionally subordinate to the Guide. Consequently, a clear understanding of the unanimous orientation of the Iranian foreign policy is rendered impossible for the outsider.
Although apparently changed after the election of President Ahmadinejad, the definition and the present-day management of the Iranian foreign policy continues to represent an ‘unknown quantity’, given the contrast – more or less, evident – between the office of the President and that of the Guide.
The foreign policy of the new President has immediately been characterized by decision of direction, hard tones and clarity of objectives. The traditional ambiguity of Iranian politics has been supplanted by a decisive and vehement action of foreign policy intended to clarify, in very certain terms, the prevalence of the Presidential and governmental choices with respect to any other institutional body of the country, revealing the ever-increasing crisis between the Guide and the bodies which are functional to same.
However, with respect to the past, the new element has been the adoption of even more rigid conservative general lines than those traditionally adopted in the past by the so-called conservative wing.
In this way, President Ahmadinejad has been able to dictate the programmatic lines of the government direction, without allowing operative space to the Guide or power groups directly or indirectly connected to it. By defining a “hard and pure” political line of a clear neo-Khomeini matrix, the President has rendered innocuous any hostile or opposing action to his own political line. Indeed, even exposing to blame those who had not intended to support it.
This unexpected extraordinarily effective expedient had less impact on foreign observers than it had on the actual Iranian political scene. Therefore, since June 2005, the foreign policy of the Country has been completely redefined both in terms of direction and management, with the adoption of what appeared to be the imposition of an unreasonable policy of confrontation, together with a particularly aggressive and hostile dialectic towards the outside.
In reality, Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy totally reflects the necessities of the internal politics of the Country and the complex and critical course of the relations between the main centres of power within the Islamic Republic. Therefore, on the one side, there has been an effort to reach the result of international isolation, mainly through a renewed rhetoric of confrontation with the United States and Israel, which has been exceptionally well aided by the expressions concerning the general modality of management of the Iranian nuclear programme; on the other side, an ever-increasing deep rift within the Country has become evident, while the portion of the Establishment traditionally tied to the Guide and to the command group of the first generation of the clergy, has seen the progressive and clever erosion of wide spaces in the definition of the overall strategies of direction.
"Atomic power plant of Bushehr" (photo ansa)
It is in this context that the Strategic Council for Foreign Policy was constituted on the 25th of June, 2006; a new body established to define and evaluate the general strategies of the Iranian foreign policy, directly subordinate, hierarchically, to the Office of the Guide.
The new institutional body (the Persian name of which is Shora-yi Rahbordi-yi Ravabet-i Khareji) was instituted through a decree issued by direct order of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in function of the necessary priorities in the direction of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In fact, the role of the Council should be of ample scope and intended to fix not only the general lines of the national foreign policy, but above all, to favour a new general approach to the dynamics of foreign relations and a more profitable and strategic use of experts on the subject, in the universities and Iranian ministries.
However, quite a few people have understood from the creation of this new body, the will of the Guide to progressively limit the power of the President, whose inexperience on the subject of foreign policy has been widely debated in Parliament and within the major institutional bodies of the Country. Therefore, it would seem possible to perceive a strategy to gradually deprive the President and the government of the authority on the definition and management of the international relations, having the Guide take the task upon himself and through the means of his organizational apparatus, coordinate the management of foreign policy.
The institution of the new body affected, above all, the list of the experts to be nominated to the leadership of the body itself. From Kamal Kharrazi, former-Foreign Minister with President Khatami, to Ali Akbar Velayati, predecessor of Kharrazi with the President Rafsanjani, and today, close co-operator of Ali Larijani, already head of the Supreme Council for National Security. Not the least among the appointed is also Admiral Ali Shamkhani, former high officer of the Navy of the Revolution Guardians and Minister of Defence with President Khatami. They are all men decidedly unconnected to the Ahmadinejad power group and, furthermore, all potentially very hostile to the foreign policy trend of the President.
Only one member of the new body would appear to be close to the ideas of the President. He is Mohammad Taremi-Rad, the only member nominated from the clergy, who, in the past, held the positions of Director of the Iranian Centre for the Historical Studies, Ambassador in China and Saudi Arabia and, above all, belonged to the Haqqani Seminary, the traditional centre of power of the Hojjati. An evaluation of the effective function of this new council is very complex. At first glance, a new body would appear unnecessary for the assignments of tasks already accomplished by the mediation between the power groups and through the role of the Supreme Council for the National Security. On the contrary, it would seem to further complicate the already cumbersome and complex decision-making mechanisms of the Iranian foreign policy.
In reality, the new body could serve to counter-balance the role of the President; to represent a parallel channel of dialogue with the outside or, alternatively, to act as an umpteenth institutional body to complicate and obscure to the outside world, the framework of relations and decisional capacity in terms of foreign policy. This last function is certainly not new or original in the complex institutional panorama of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Lebanon: has Hezbollah won the war?
Or is Iran the winner?
Therefore, also the recent Lebanese crisis can be understood as an effect of the Iranian factionalism, other than a practical expression of the renewed strategy regional security of Teheran.
The result of the war between Israel and Hezbollah is still highly uncertain. As certain analysts have correctly pointed out, the victory of Hezbollah is, today, more the fruit of a western interpretation of the facts, rather than a concrete and real victory on a strategic and military level.
Historically, Hezbollah has acquired a relevant role in Lebanon more through the offer of infrastructures and services than for its military and political activity. Having provoked – because the local public opinion is convinced that the conflict was clearly and openly provoked by Hezbollah – the destruction of a large portion of what had been painstakingly rebuilt after years of civil war, the event was certainly not acclaimed as a victory by many Lebanese people.
The image of a festive people hailing the victory against the hated “Zionist Entity” was, in many cases, a masterpiece of theatre organized and served up for the use of the western media, particularly in Europe. Many people, in Lebanon and abroad, wonder who will pay the bill for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed during the short, but intense war. Most people agree that it will be Iran, the principal actor of this construction plan.
This does not necessarily mean that only Iran is interested in the reconstruction of Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and many foundations or Islamic groups are certainly ready to participate in this project, but Iran will try to monopolize the reconstruction programme, capitalizing on its influence on the Hezbollah and seeking to be, as far as possible, the only interlocutor. By diminishing the role and the importance of the Saudi efforts and influence, as well as that of the great network of Islamic financiers and donors – to a great extent unknown – will provoke an irreversible growth of Iran’s influence on Hezbollah, but it will also provoke a growing fear at every level of the Lebanese political and social life of the risk of an excessive subjection to the Shiite Party in internal politics. In other words, at the present time, it seems clear that the clash between Israel and Hezbollah has generated - although momentarily – only one winner: the Islamic Republic of Iran.
With the sharpening of the crisis, Iran has been able to promote its proud rhetoric on the nuclear question without allowing any possibility to the West and even humiliating the mission of the UNO Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in Teheran; at the same time removing the spectre of an escalation in the Gulf Region.
Besides, no-one in the West seems able to interpret and understand the intricate weavings of the logic of confrontation of the Iranian political system. Therefore, this gives Iran the possibility of pursuing its obscure objectives, i.e. isolating the Country to favour the determination of a new internal order and a new strategy of regional security. And the outcome of this complex Lebanese crisis has demonstrated that the Iranian security strategy is effective and successful. By mobilizing an underground flow of support through the various Shiite communities in the Middle East, it is possible to seriously threaten the entire region.
The nuclear programme: a true or false objective?
A risk for Europe and for the United States
Without entering into discussion concerning the nature and potential of the Iranian nuclear programme, either from the peaceful or military development aspects, but by exclusively considering how the programme has been and is being managed by the Iranian Establishment, it is necessary to closely evaluate certain facts.
The nuclear question has been and still is, today, the adhesive element of the society and the flag of the Iranian foreign politics at all levels and in every context. It has been gradually transformed into the sole question of debate with Iran: maximizing the effect of its potential and real structure, it has become the most publicized and publicly discussed matter of all Iranian questions. And this is not only due to foreign intelligence, or to the revelations of the opposition forces of the Teheran government, but due to the great quantity of data and information openly transmitted by local sources to a thirsty press and international public opinion.
The way in which Iran has conducted the discussions on the nuclear question at an international level, both with individual states and with the United Nations, has clearly demonstrated only one factor: there are no openings on this matter on the part of Iran or, at least, none that could be of interest to Teheran.
Therefore, the nuclear question has been, without any doubt, a clever and successful system on which to hinge the entire matter of international relations, and has left practically no space for any other subject of discussion. In synthesis, a system in which the nuclear question has been used as a pretext, rather than a real national objective.
The “nuclear factor” has thus performed – and still performs - its role, both inside and outside of the Country. From an internal viewpoint, the level of support for the nuclear programme from local public opinion has already assumed gigantic proportions, and consensus for access of the Country to the specific technologies has become a question of national pride to which no-one – not even the most bitter opponent of the Government and the Islamic Republic – seems disposed to relinquish.
From the point of view of international relations, on the contrary, the development of the atomic project has represented the best and more effective system to start a mechanism of haphazard relations and, above all, to trigger a purposely desired ambiguous and contradictory process with Europe.
Aware of the European, Russian and Chinese unwillingness to discuss with the United States the touchy subject of the exacerbation of sanctions, the Iranian leaders cleverly managed a wearing ‘no way out’ negotiation characterized by continual contradictions. In this way Iran obtained an advantage in terms of time and, above all, favoured the conditions for the determination of that international isolationism so much desired by some circles of the Iranian Establishment.
Therefore, today, the position of all nations engaged in negotiation processes with Iran is exceedingly complicated.
To attribute excessive weight to the nuclear question risks the triggering of not only an unproductive mechanism, but more important still, of reinforcing Iranian politics, with the extremely dangerous risk of provoking a political debacle over the European negotiation capacity and, even worse, feeding the debate, on the side of the United States, with the possibility of a hypothetical – however much luckless and ill-fated, in the situation – military solution to solve the problem.
To sit at a less constricted table of negotiations, with more breathing space and relieved of the shadow of the nuclear factor seems, however, to be a rather difficult objective to realize. In fact, to move the terms of negotiation with Iran onto a different plane seems to be perceived, both in Europe and the United States, as a diplomatic defeat; almost as if it could be interpreted as giving carte blanche to Iran to pursue its programme autonomously, without conditions and, practically admitting the incapacity to negotiate, which has been demonstrated during the course of the last two years.
It is, as we have previously mentioned, an extremely complicated problem, in which an ever-increasing difficulty of dialogue between Europe and the United States is present, and where the exclusion of this last, in the definition of regional politics, could provoke a further dangerous deviation with regard to the strategy to adopt for the solution of the problems with Iran.
Therefore, It is necessary that the European politics, through its official delegates and not through individuals here and there, as is habitual, try not only to define a common strategy, but above all, try to involve the United States in finding a solution which is bi-laterally considered suitable and jointly supported.
The next challenge of the Iranian politics
On the 15th of December 2006, the Iranian people will be called to the polls to elect the new Assembly of Experts. This collegial body, where the renewal of appointments, every eight years, is provided for through public election, is a fundamental stone in the institutional architecture planned by Ayatollah Khomeini through the velayat-e faqih.
Nature and functions of the Assembly of Experts
The Assembly of Experts, Majlis-e Kohbregan, is composed of 86 religious members selected from a group of candidates who are "virtuous ed well learned” in matters of religion, Islamic law and tradition. The Assembly remains in office for eight years and has a primarily political and institutional function: to elect the Guide (Rahbar) and periodically reconfirm the appointment, according to the merit and actions of same.
Notwithstanding the Assembly is publicly elected by the voters, according to Art. 99, of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the candidates must be – as in the case of the Parliament and of the President – previously approved by the Council of the Guardians. This implies, as usual, that access to the selection process is only for those of a predetermined group, who are qualified not only – and not so much – in competence in religious matters, but more for their loyalty and observance of the inspirational principles of the Islamic Republic.
The particularity of the Assembly of Experts lies in the peculiar and obscure system of organization and judgement of the body. Meetings are held rigorously ‘in camera’ and only rarely does information leak out concerning the contents of the debates.
In a purely theoretical way, subsequent to the election of the Guide, the Assembly should periodically meet to judge and evaluate the work and decisions of the Guide and, finally, reconfirm the appointment by ballot. However, since the regulations of the Assembly are secretly established, the internal process for the selection and confirmation is not known. Consequently, it is impossible to evaluate the real level of internal cohesion during such a choice.
What is known, however, albeit in a very vague way, is the time schedule of such judgement, which the Assembly must express and emit “continually”. Such a schedule, however, is not compatible with the legislative disposition, which imposes the Assembly to meet once annually, and it is not understood how a “continual” judgement and evaluation can be made when the Assembly meets only once in a year.
The seat of the Assembly is in Qom, where, by law, the periodic meeting should take place although, in reality, they are habitually held in Teheran and only the coordination of them by the secretary is done in the Holy City, Qom, south of the capital.
The fact of not complying with the meeting obligation to be held in Qom is, essentially due to two reasons. The first is a question of mere logistics opportunity of the power system, as it is certainly interested in maintaining in Teheran, any centre of strategic activity. The second is, instead, deriving from the awareness of many Assembly members that Qom, from many aspects, is a “hostile area”. Therefore, a place where many religious people, among whom are some of the principal exponents of the Shiite clergy, consider the Assembly and derivative juridical apparatus, a pure and simple heresy.
Therefore, to establish the Assembly’s annual meeting place in Qom could provoke the exacerbation of the already widely diffused criticism within the clergy structure and, above all, could provoke a hierarchical conflict without precedent and of an extremely difficult outcome if ever a real confrontation between the Assembly and the local clergy should occur.
There is absolutely no form of preclusion, for the members of the Assembly of Experts, in the matter of continuing to practice their own professions, whether strictly religious or institutional. As a consequence, a large majority of them hold other institutional or governmental appointments, which permit most of the members to frequently exchange opinions also outside of the Assembly and above all, to actively engage in the construction process of their own sphere of political influence: also, with the objective of exercising an always greater role within the Assembly itself.
The potential of the Assembly of the Experts
Being a body called upon to elect the Guide and then periodically evaluate and judge his work, it follows that the Assembly of the Experts must have a role of virtually unlimited power.
However, in practice, the Assembly has always acted as a body that “legalizes”, and as a Chamber of compensation of the system of Iranian political synergy, without ever representing a real and alternative centre of power.
Created by the express will of Ayatollah Khomeini to decide the original formula of the Iranian Constitutional Charter, and deliberately planned as a structure of small dimensions and agile operative capacity, in order to avoid the rising of a traditional constituent, the first Assembly of Experts was dissolved after the promulgation of the first version of the Iranian Constitution, to be reconstructed according to the present structure – rigorously and exclusively composed of religious members – only in 1982.
Under the influence of Khomeini, it was clearly impossible for the Assembly to express negative opinions about the behaviour or decisions of the Guide. Therefore, the body had a merely symbolic function. In synthesis; it became an instrument to further legitimize not so much the role, but rather, the figure of the Guide.
The subsequent system, after the death of Khomeini, was very different, when the entire power structure underwent a transformation, not so much in its architecture, but in its operational logic. In fact, the Guide lost the charismatic and dogmatic role possessed by the “the Father of the Revolution” and was transformed into the summit of a power system, managed collegially, from that time on, by a sort of religious synod.
Therefore, the Assembly of Experts became a kind of superior Parliament, where the strategies between the centres and groups of power were secretly negotiated and agreed upon and, where the discrepancies at the summit of the system were corrected without clamour or publicity.
From the viewpoint of evaluation of the Guide, up to date, the Assembly has played a purely fictitious role, but in terms of negotiations, it has been highly efficient with respect to continuity and, above all, acting as a pillar for the velayat-e faqih.
In conclusion, from a purely theoretical point of view, the Assembly has the power to disqualify the Guide – in this way, openly putting into question the very institutional foundations of the Iranian Republic – and even to remove it. Should this disqualification happen, the Constitution provides for an inter regnum, while awaiting the nomination of a new Guide by the Assembly, where the functions of the Guide are temporarily handed over to a Council composed of the President of the Republic, the Judicial power summit and an expert jurist (faqih) of the Council of the Guardians, this last chosen and nominated by the Council of Discernment (Majma-e Tashkhis-e Maslahate-e Nezam).
The elections of 2006
Already twice postponed with respect to the original date of October, the elections of the Assembly of Experts for 2006 are expected to be potentially decisive for the future order of the Country.
In the previous election sessions, in 1998, the flow to the ballots was particularly low, with the participation of only 46% of those having the right to vote. On this occasion, the voters openly demonstrated their opposition to the role and behaviour of the Assembly, largely deserting the polls and demonstrating, at the same time, the desire to strengthen the then President Khatami (at the Presidential 1997 elections, the flow to the ballots reached almost 80%).
It is difficult, today, to anticipate what the flow to the polls could be, but some indications make the 2006 elections particularly significant and, therefore, potentially attractive to the voters.
There are two main reasons of interest regarding the elections for the Assembly: its future composition (from which it will be seen with greater clarity, which of the political power centres of the Country will be, as of December, able to exercise the real control of power) and the Presidency of the Assembly (from which it will be possible to foresee - or hazard a guess – as to the general direction of the Assembly).
Therefore, the first basic evaluation regards the identity and the capacity to win seats of the various competing groups of power.
On the surface, the competition could seem to be limited to the figure, and to the sphere of influence, of the former President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and that of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, ultra-conservative religious figure, and of the most recognized of the Hojjatieh summit.
"Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani" (photo ansa)
Certainly, rivalry and strong competition between the two do exist. However to believe that the nature of the confrontation is essentially limited to these two figure is over-simplistic and erroneous.
After his defeat at the Presidential elections of 2005, Rafsanjani declared several times in public, his desire not to be involved in the conflict of political competition, even though he continues to remain one of the principal figures of the power system of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The usual criticism made by the major part of public opinion against Rafsanjani is that of his being a pivotal element on which is centred the present system – he is not an innovator and, even less, a reformer. A pragmatic man, then, mainly interested in his own political advantage – and not only – considered by many people as an instrument for the continuation of the Country along the guidelines dictated by the velayat-e faqih and by the traditional Establishment. Not last on Rafsanjani’s account weigh the more or less public and detailed accusations of corruption and power centralism. Mesbah Yazdi, instead, represents the incognita of the Iranian future.
Mesbah Yazdi is seen, by many, as an ultra-conservative and fundamentalist religious figure and, not of small importance, head of the dissolved - though no longer illegal – Hojjatieh society: an authentic sect which started in the first years of the 50’s against the Baha-i and was traditionally contrary to the velayat-e faqih. The accusations against Yazdi are essentially connected to his rigid religious vision and his supposed ability in lobbying through his influence on various exponents of the political system – not least, the President, Mahmood Ahmadinejad.
Nevertheless, the two religious people, in reality, are part of a more complex and articulated political clash within the Islamic Republic. A clash ensuing the victory of the conservative forces - between 2004 and 2005 with the Presidential political elections – and an expression of the fact that the synergy between such forces was made possible only in function of the electoral anti- reformist electoral commitment.
In fact, today, a deep split clearly emerges within the conservative framework with motives and reasons which have their roots deep in the very conception of the Islamic Republic and power.
After a first long military experience followed by a political one, today, the men of the post-revolutionary generation, both religious and secular, have arrived at the threshold of the Iranian political system. This generation has matured and moulded a heterogeneous system of interests and relations which is completely different from the one of the traditional circle of the “combatant clergy”, i.e. the creators of the Islamic Republic.
Today, the system and the institutional structure are always more divided and involved in the growing factionalism, which is openly pitting the generation in command against a part of the emerging one, and complications arise – at least, in appearance – the expedients to maintain the status quo. Especially, in the case when the balances of the historic power generation become so ambiguous, even to the eyes of the general public.
Most certainly, in spite of the artificial mediatic romance between the President and the Guide, today, there exist deep divergences in the conception of the State and of its political orientation and guidelines.
The President must respond, always more frequently, to the insidious traps put in his path by a circle which is openly hostile to his policies and, above all, a hostility which extends to the area of his personal, political and spiritual relations.
In this context, the figure of the Guide no longer appears to be a super-figure, but a pawn which is openly lined up to sustain a re-dimensioning of the politics and role of the President – through the adoption of direct or indirect provisions – destined to thwart the political action, by means of the constitution of political and administrative functions and, not less important, by means of the constitution of antagonistic line-ups and actions directly aimed to publicly discredit the prestige and reputation.
Therefore, in such a context, today, the Guide appears to be in solid command of an always more restricted framework which is threatened on two fronts: from below, by the emergence of a new generation of power supported by the more radical fringes of the clergy and on the horizontal front, by the line-up of the reformists and by the pragmatic Rafsanjani. With the addition of the traditional and historic opposition of the high ranking clergy, that which has always questioned the inspirational principle itself of the Islamic Republic is the imposition of a clerical summit in a system which as never had one.
To obviate such a complex and potentially dangerous condition, the Guide and the Establishment, of which the same is an integral part, have already adopted a strategy which is essentially oriented towards putting the two main pivots of the opposition into contrast. In this way the clash has taken on the aspect - particularly for the Western press – of a simple conflict between two contenders, neglecting the total dimensions of the problem, above all, the critical relations of the political and religious forces with the Establishment and the Guide.
Undoubtedly, the competition for the elections to the Assembly of Experts, in December, will be heated and not devoid of surprises. Today, the great majority of observers, both inside and outside of the Country, consider the victory of Mesbah Yazdi and his group in the Assembly hardly possible – if not impossible. Also the hostile scaling to the control of the Assembly is judged equally unlikely and, de facto, the installation of a system directly aimed to threaten the Guide, his actions and, hypothetically, his institutional role.
It is necessary to note, however, how Iran has accustomed us to unexpected surprises in the recent past, such as President Ahmadinejad’s victory and the apparent radical change of trend in the Iranian public opinion.
And it precisely this last factor which is the decisive variable of Iran’s future destiny.
The Islamic republic is profoundly changed with respect to its original nature. A new generation of technocrats is gradually gaining the principal positions of power – as a consequence of the slow and natural process of generation substitution within the institutions and the economic system.
Meanwhile, a vast new and young generation are pushing forward on the front of public opinion at the moment in which, once again – despite the conspicuous income earned from oil profits in the last two years - the structural problems of the economy and employment return to directly threaten the economic and infrastructural planning.
And, above all, public opinion appears to be always less disposed to cede time and space to the traditional rhetoric of the local politics, seeking, on the contrary, as in the case of the Ahmadinejad elections, the apparently more radical options, but which are certainly perceived as a real move towards change.