COMMENTARY | Usually when Iran is portrayed in political cartoons, there is a man with a beard and black turban. It gives the false impression that (a) Iran is ruled by one man, (b) the man is a religious leader, and (c) the country is no different from any other monolithic dictator. Perhaps that’s why we frequently misread Iran’s domestic politics and their foreign policy actions.
The latest article on the subject, by Marcus George of Reuters, titled “Analysis: Khamenei mobilizes loyalists to swing Iran’s election,” helps debunk the myths. George notes a fissure emerging among Iranian hardliners, especially between outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One may assume that one hardliner is no different from the others, and it is always hardliners versus wily moderates like former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, or against liberals like those who tried to stand up the conservatives in the election. But there are key differences.
First, Ahmadinejad was not a religious leader, but a populist who sought to challenge the clerics by appealing to the masses on economics, instead of spirituality.
Second, Iran may be an autocracy, but they have a series of checks and balances, well-documented by the BBC, that seem to surpass even ours. As a result, there’s always a fight for power, even among hardliners.
Third, the term-limited Ahmadinejad is trying to use his ex-chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, to win another term for his policies. Liberals remain under arrest, while moderates seem similarly sidelined.
According to George, Khamenei is trying to settle upon a single candidate who can oppose Ahmadinejad’s faction. The danger is that unless he and his allies can pick one, the unified hardline populists can unite behind Mashaie to hold the presidency.
Several years ago, I published an article titled “Rattling the Hesam: International Distractions from Internal Problems in Iran,” in the Policy Studies Organization journal Asian Politics and Policy. In it, I used the diversionary theory of conflict to explain President Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric.
But in the process, I found the real conflict to be between Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, where the latter was hoping to unite the country behind him by calling for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth, outflanking the cleric with the hardliners. It seems that several years later, these two are still going at it, even as one soon departs the national stage in Iran.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.