Adrian Hamilton: High jinks and low politics in Tehran

International Studies

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.