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

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy