Adrian Hamilton: High jinks and low politics in Tehran

International Studies

Share
Related Topics

Fun and games in Tehran. While the rest of the Middle East is grappling with the "Arab Spring," Iran has been indulging in its own bitter battle for pre-eminence between the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The battle has been raging over the past three weeks after Mr Ahmadinejad's decision to fire the head of intelligence, Haidar Moslehi. Khamenei intervened to insist the man be reinstated and published the letter telling him to do so. Ahmadinejad then threw a hissy fit and refused to attend cabinet meetings for 11 days, until the stand-off was finally resolved on Sunday, when the sour-faced Ahmadinejad returned to cabinet, spoke in praise of the Supreme Leader but continued to fire off darts at those around him.

It's the kind of spat that the Iranians, indeed the whole Middle East, love to retail in the cafés and bazaars, tales of who's in and who's out, not very different from the days of the Shah. Compared to this, today's tensions between Nick Clegg and David Cameron are but child acting.

And before anyone gets too excited – as Washington is – about what the struggle will mean for the outside world, it is worth remembering that it is as much as anything a court struggle, a spat over precedence with few direct implications for any fundamental change in Iran.

This, is after all, a fight for power within the system. Ahmadinejad has offended not just Khamenei but parliament and conservatives by pursuing a policy of putting his own men in positions of power and promoting, in particular, the position of his chief of staff (rejected for ministerial position by Khamenei) Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Khamenei has responded by gathering clerics and conservatives alike to defend his constitutionally established position as final arbiter of affairs, civil as religious, in the country.

In terms of internal politics, Ahmadinejad's challenge to theocratic rule (the velyat) and his attempt to wrestle power away from the clerics to presidential government is not an inconsiderable one. In terms of the future of the country it doesn't really resolve much. President Ahmadinejad has clearly been weakened and may now end up as a lame-duck leader with two years to go before the presidential elections of 2013. But he still has a lot of energy and some support from his generation of war veterans. Khamenei has asserted his authority but may also have weakened it by having to demonstrate it so publicly and with such effort. The liberals, still cowed by determined oppression, have no say in the fight.

Does that mean an Iran stuck in a convoluted and fractious theocratic rut for the foreseeable future? Not necessarily. So far, it has managed to avoid getting sucked into the uprisings sweeping the rest of the Middle East, partly by acclaiming them as fulfilling its long-term calls for the overthrow of western-supported autocracies.

The uprisings in its ally Syria and its support for Assad rule there, has badly undermined its right to moral leadership in the Middle East (which matters to it) and threatened its most important ally in the Arab world as well as its avenue of influence in Palestine and Lebanon.

At the same time, in today's world of social networks and internet communication, it's difficult to believe that people in Iran, and especially the young, aren't influenced by what is happening elsewhere in the region. After all, the frustrations which have impelled so many to take to the streets elsewhere – corruption, political oppression and economic sclerosis – are mirrored in Iran too.

While the big beasts fight it out at the top in Iran, there are deeper social forces moving below.

It's too early to write off the revolutions

It was inevitable that people would start pointing out the frailties of the revolution that so quickly overturned the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt and threatened to upend so many others. And so they have. The latest outburst of sectarian killing between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt has set off a barrage of despairing predictions of what will come and could, it is claimed more insidiously, occur in Syria were the Assad rule to be ended. Even Tunisia, where it all started and the revolt triumphed so quickly, has been picked apart for signs of fractioning before the elections there in July.

That may be fair comment. But to criticise the uprisings for their amorphous nature is to denigrate them for the quality that makes them so important and so heartening. It is precisely because they are a movement of rejection of oppressive political and economic structures, a demand for freedom rather than a transfer of power to themselves, that the protests have managed to garner such wide report. And it is because they are so unformed that a power-vacuum has resulted.

It is a vacuum that is bound to attract the most aggressive elements in society and, over time, foreign meddling. In the case of Egypt, the violence against Christians seems to have been largely stirred up by extreme Salafi groups. Those within Egypt accuse them of being orchestrated by pro-Mubarak forces trying to stir up chaos. That may or may not be true although, given the past of attacks on Copts, it is not a necessary explanation.

The encouraging factor in Egypt is that almost every newspaper and public voice has condemned the violence absolutely. Before we write off the country's prospects, or overstate the risk of a fundamentalist challenge in Tunisia, let's trust their people to want the right thing and support them in gaining it.



a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The traditional Boxing Day hunt in Lacock  

For foxes' sake: Don't let the bloody tradition of the Boxing Day hunt return

Mimi Bekhechi
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all