by Eric Martin
George Friedman of Stratfor offers useful correctives to some of the narratives about the Iranian election that, due to the fact that they resonated with Western audiences, found fertile soil for propagation (that the conflict was one based on liberal reform vs. clerical rule, pro-Western/US factions vs. anti-Western/US factions, pro-domestic nuclear program vs. anti-domestic nuclear program, etc). This was the case despite the fact that those Western-oriented storylines only described a small portion of the overall picture - indeed, they served to conceal the larger tectonic clashes underneath:
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran his re-election campaign against the old clerical elite, charging them with corruption, luxurious living and running the state for their own benefit rather than that of the people. He particularly targeted Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an extremely senior leader, and his family. Indeed, during the demonstrations, Rafsanjani’s daughter and four other relatives were arrested, held and then released a day later.
Rafsanjani represents the class of clergy that came to power in 1979. He served as president from 1989-1997, but Ahmadinejad defeated him in 2005. Rafsanjani carries enormous clout within the system as head of the regime’s two most powerful institutions — the Expediency Council, which arbitrates between the Guardian Council and parliament, and the Assembly of Experts, whose powers include oversight of the supreme leader. Forbes has called him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Rafsanjani, in other words, remains at the heart of the post-1979 Iranian establishment.
Ahmadinejad expressly ran his recent presidential campaign against Rafsanjani, using the latter’s family’s vast wealth to discredit Rafsanjani along with many of the senior clerics who dominate the Iranian political scene. It was not the regime as such that he opposed, but the individuals who currently dominate it. Ahmadinejad wants to retain the regime, but he wants to repopulate the leadership councils with clerics who share his populist values and want to revive the ascetic foundations of the regime. The Iranian president constantly contrasts his own modest lifestyle with the opulence of the current religious leadership. [...]
When Ahmadinejad defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi on the night of the election, the clerical elite saw themselves in serious danger. The margin of victory Ahmadinejad claimed might have given him the political clout to challenge their position. Mousavi immediately claimed fraud, and Rafsanjani backed him up. Whatever the motives of those in the streets, the real action was a knife fight between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. By the end of the week, Khamenei decided to end the situation. In essence, he tried to hold things together by ordering the demonstrations to halt while throwing a bone to Rafsanjani and Mousavi by extending a probe into the election irregularities and postponing a partial recount by five days. [...]
The key to understanding the situation in Iran is realizing that the past weeks have seen not an uprising against the regime, but a struggle within the regime. Ahmadinejad is not part of the establishment, but rather has been struggling against it, accusing it of having betrayed the principles of the Islamic Revolution. The post-election unrest in Iran therefore was not a matter of a repressive regime suppressing liberals (as in Prague in 1989), but a struggle between two Islamist factions that are each committed to the regime, but opposed to each other.
The demonstrators certainly included Western-style liberalizing elements, but they also included adherents of senior clerics who wanted to block Ahmadinejad’s re-election. And while Ahmadinejad undoubtedly committed electoral fraud to bulk up his numbers, his ability to commit unlimited fraud was blocked, because very powerful people looking for a chance to bring him down were arrayed against him.
The situation is even more complex because it is not simply a fight between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, but also a fight among the clerical elite regarding perks and privileges — and Ahmadinejad is himself being used within this infighting. The Iranian president’s populism suits the interests of clerics who oppose Rafsanjani; Ahmadinejad is their battering ram. But as Ahmadinejad increases his power, he could turn on his patrons very quickly. In short, the political situation in Iran is extremely volatile, just not for the reason that the media portrayed.
The main take away is that those suggesting that the election-related power struggle is evidence that the Iranian regime is, in fact,"irrational," or that the crackdown on protesters was so odious as to preclude negotiations, or that the parties that would have been willing to negotiate with the US government have been purged, should rethink those assumptions.
There was nothing irrational about this power struggle. It was basic jockeying for political spoils pursued by rational actors, with a regime that sought to manage the process, and whose overriding goal was pure rationality: self-preservation. The crackdown on protesters, while unquestionably brutal and horrific to behold, was, sadly, the type of illiberal action that many of our strongest allies in the region engage in regularly, and the violence (tragic as it was) pales in comparison to the actions of other regimes that we have seen fit to negotiate with in the past and present.
Finally, the Mousavi/Rafsanjani faction was no more willing to cut a deal with the US government absent security guarantees and other concessions than the Ahmadinejad faction. Regardless of which side came out on top, the contours of the deal remain the same - as do our interests in pursuing that deal, and Iran's interests in the same: