Monday, September 24, 2007

Some clarity on the structures of power in Iran

Michael Slackman, in the NYTimes [“U.S. Focus on Ahmadinejad Puzzles Iranians”] points out that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has less control of affairs in Iran than Americans think he has. The focus on Ahmadinejad, as with Mohammad Khattami, conceals the real structures of power in the system. Ayatollah Khamenei is in fact the "real power" in this system, but even he has to be responsive to another "real force" in the system, the powerful wealthy elite that is benefiting from the present system. It turns out that money, as elsewhere, has a grip on a state that claims to be essentially driven by ideological concerns. Here are some choice quotes from Slackman.

. . . Unlike in the United States, in Iran the president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this president’s power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up. … in Iran, what matters is ideology — Islamic revolutionary ideology, according to politicians and political analysts here. Nearly 30 years after the shah fell in a popular revolt, Iran’s supreme leader also holds title of guardian of the revolution. . . . Mr. Ahmadinejad’s power stems not from his office per se, but from the refusal of his patron, Ayatollah Khamenei, and some hard-line leaders, to move beyond Iran’s revolutionary identity, which makes full relations with the West impossible. There are plenty of conservatives and hard-liners who take a more pragmatic view, wanting to retain “revolutionary values” while integrating Iran with the world, at least economically. But they are not driving the agenda these days, and while that could change, it will not be the president who makes that call. … “Iran has never been interested in reaching an accommodation with the United States,” the Iranian political scientist said. “It cannot reach an accommodation as long as it retains the current structure.” … while ideology defines the state, the revolution has allowed a particular class to grow wealthy and powerful. … His talk of economic justice and a redistribution of wealth, for example, ran into a wall of existing vested interests, including powerful clergy members and military leaders. . . . In the long run, political analysts here say, a desire to preserve those vested interests will drive Iran’s agenda. That means that the allegiance of the political elite is to the system, not a particular president. If this president were ever perceived as outlasting his usefulness, he would probably take his place in history beside other presidents who failed to change the orientation of the system. . . . . Iranians will go to the polls in less than two years to select a president. There are so many pressures on the electoral system here, few people expect an honest race. The Guardian Council, for example, controlled by hard-liners, must approve all candidates. . . . “The situation will get worse and worse,” said Saeed Leylaz, an economist and former government official. “We are moving to a point where no internal force can change things.”

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