November 26, 2010
Number 11/10 #05
It was reported earlier this week that the Iranian parliament or Majlis, started to move to impeach hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, until he was rescued from the move by the intervention of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This Update looks at what is going on in Iranian internal politics in the context of this news.
First up is Reza Aslan, an analyst and author specialising in Iran, who argues that Ahmadinejad’s days look effectively numbered. Beyond the recent impeachment attempt, he points to Iranians bracing for the end of massive food and fuel subsidies, and the autocratic way Ahmadinejad has handled the process, plus the increasing sanctions on top of last year’s stolen election, as all contributing to a tidal wave of unpopularity. He says while Ahmadinejad still enjoys the support of the Supreme Leader, his growing unpopularity is likely to see Khamenei eventually cut him loose as the swell of opposition mounts. For this complete analysis, CLICK HERE.
Another top Iran expert, Prof. Jamsheed K. Choksy, also sees Ahmadinejad in very deep trouble, as part of a growing power struggle in the country. He examines some of the ideological and religious claims being made, and says they are essentially a sideshow to a debate which is primarily about power and pragmatic policies. Like Aslan, he agrees that Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad should not be seen as necessarily permanent, and points to divisions in the Revolutionary Guard and also sees Khamenei as weakened since last year. He has other interesting insights into Iranian political complexities, and to read them all, CLICK HERE. One issue raised by Choksy is Ahmadinejad’s increasing invocation of Persian nationalism at the expense of Shi’ite Islamic unity – more on this comes from the Washington Institute’s Mehdi Khalaj.
Finally, top Israeli scholar and strategic expert Boaz Ganor looks in detail at the strategic consequences of a nuclear Iran. He points out particularly clearly that it is not a “worst-case scenario”, but a completely reasonable estimate to predict that Iran will successfully seek to gain control over all the oilfields of the Persian Gulf, spark a huge regional nuclear arms race, attempt to overthrow many Muslim-majority regimes, and indulge in massive terrorism through its proxies with impunity. While it is clear he favours preventing this outcome, he says if military force to stop the Iranian bomb is impossible, the only possible way to deter Iran is to create what he calls a “second-strike nuclear alliance”, a nuclear umbrella of all states threatened by Iran which would guarantee an overwhelming nuclear response to any Iranian use of nuclear weapons. For this important article in full, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Michael SIngh of the Washington Institute reports on the significance of new Iranian efforts to use African countries to smuggle arms while pretending to reach out to Africa. His colleague, military expert Michael Eisenstadt, looks at Iran’s likely response to the NATO decision to back missile defence.
- UN reports reveal more nuclear stonewalling from Syria, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- A report on Israel’s fears that Hezbollah may be poised to take over Lebanon on behalf of Iran if a UN tribunal indicts Hezbollah members for murdering former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri. More on this from frequent journalistic traveller to Lebanon Michael Totten. The evidence for Hezbollah involvement in killing Hariri is summarised by Canada’s CBC.
- Jonathan Tobin on the logical absurdity of the attacks on the bill recently passed in Israel to require a Knesset supermajority or else a referendum to cede territory which Israel has annexed, such a East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a new poll shows that while most Palestinians back a two-state resolution, they hope that they can subsequently achieve their ultimate goal of Israel’s destruction.
- Some useful background and knowledgeable opinion on the frightening Korean situation, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.
by Reza Aslan
The Daily Beast, November 23, 2010 | 10:43pm
Iranian lawmakers—including former supporters—have moved to impeach President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for law violations that could land him in prison. Reza Aslan reports on the bombastic leader’s flagrant missteps.
There is a joke one hears a lot in Iran these days. A foreign journalist hops into a cab. As the car careens through Tehran’s streets, they come to a clogged intersection where a brand new highway is being built. The journalist asks the driver, “What is the name of this new highway?” The cab driver proudly responds, “This is Shaheed Ahmadinejad highway,” meaning literally, “Ahmadinejad the Martyr” highway.
Of course, the bombastic president of Iran is still very much alive. But from the moment in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn into office last year, Iranians have been placing bets on just how long into his second term he will last.
It is not just a matter of the stolen election that returned Ahmadinejad to power, or the massive, months-long demonstration that followed. It is a sense among most Iranians—even among Ahmadinejad’s allies—that with the protests having died down and the “Green Movement” having been (for the moment) contained, the alliance of convenience that had formed among Iran’s feuding conservative factions would fracture, taking Ahmadinejad down with it.
I reported on this very possibility last month, noting that a number of high-profile members of Iran’s parliament—many of them Ahmadinejad’s former supporters—have threatened the president with impeachment.
Now comes word from Iran that the country’s right-leaning parliament did in fact attempt to impeach Ahmadinejad on 14 counts of violating the law, including illegally trading 76.5 million barrels of oil valued at approximately $9 billion and withdrawing nearly $600 million from Iran’s foreign reserve fund without parliamentary approval. These are serious charges that would lead not only to impeachment but, possibly, to arrest and imprisonment. However, according to reports from a number of conservative newspapers in Iran, lawmakers were kept from bringing the impeachment charges to a floor vote through direct interference by none other than the supreme leader himself, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The latest row between the president and the parliament comes at a time in which Iran’s economy, already reeling from the steady success of President Obama’s targeted sanctions policy, is bracing for what many predict will be catastrophic consequences of Ahmadinejad’s plan to end government subsidies for fuel, food, energy, and basic goods like milk, cooking oil, and flour. For decades, Iran’s presidents—from Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Mohammad Khatami—have tried to amend the subsidies system, valued at about $100 billion a year. But they were repeatedly deterred by the threat of massive protests. After all, in a country that has been isolated from the outside world for three decades, government subsidies are the sole means of survival for millions of poor and middle-class Iranians. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, a typical Iranian household making about $3,600 a year receives an average of $4,000 a year in subsidies.
Although the subsidies program has yet to be fully terminated, the cost of basic goods and services in Iran already has skyrocketed. According to the Los Angeles Times, the price of a kilo of ground beef has jumped from $6, when Ahmadinejad began his first term as president, to $14.50 today. Meanwhile, as I reported last month, the cost of electricity has soared by as much as 1,000 percent for some Iranian households.
The irony is that Ahmadinejad is unquestionably doing the sensible thing in pushing ahead with the removal of government subsidies. Subsidies account for approximately 30 percent of Iran’s entire annual budget. That is simply untenable for an economy that just last month saw the value of its currency drop by a staggering 13 percent against the dollar. Iran’s oil industry, its most lucrative source of revenue, is in shambles after the recent departure of four oil companies— Shell, Total, ENI, and Statoil. The carpet industry, once valued at $500 million, has disintegrated thanks to increased sanctions. The government claims that 22 percent of Iranians are unemployed (experts say the number is closer to 40 percent), three-quarters of them under the age of 30. Some 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Inflation is officially at 10 percent, though many economists believe it to be more like 24 percent. With the price of oil remaining stable and Iran’s international isolation increasing, the government simply cannot afford to keep paying out nearly a third of its entire budget in subsidies.
But while what Ahmadinejad is doing may be the right thing for the country, it is the way he is doing it—by virtual fiat—that has parliament up in arms. In order to alleviate some of the economic hardships that Iranians will no doubt face, Ahmadinejad is personally doling out millions of dollars to families in need. According to the Iranian newspaper Payvand, some 60 million people (out of a population of 75 million) will receive about $40 a month to offset the inevitable rise in prices.
Not only has Ahmadinejad’s decision to pass out cash to Iranians further hindered economic growth (the IMF estimates that the Iranian economy will grow by a mere 1.8 percent this year), his insistence on doing so unilaterally and without any guidance or oversight from parliament has created a sense of panic among Iran’s merchant class. That’s because no one trusts the president on economic matters any longer, not after his constant and deliberate misrepresentations of the country’s economic situation. Responding to the rosy government statistic about the health of the economy that Ahmadinejad continually touts as proof of his economic stewardship, the Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi spoke for most Iranians when he said the government figures “contradict what people see with their own eyes.” Last September, Rafsanjani publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad for continuing to treat the sanctions that are devastating Iran’s economy as, in his words, “a joke.”
All of this has many Iranians wondering how much longer Shaheed Ahmadinejad will be with us. And while it seems that, for the moment, the president can rely on the supreme leader for protection, his enemies in parliament are feeling increasingly emboldened by Ahmadinejad’s fading popularity. Indeed, on Monday, lawmakers started circulating a petition to begin openly debating his impeachment. They need 74 signatures to proceed. Thus far, they have received 40, and counting.
Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book is Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Beset by sanctions and isolated internationally, Iran decides to test its system of checks and balances
BY JAMSHEED K. CHOKSY
Foreign Policy, NOVEMBER 24, 2010
Casual Iran observers tend to portray the country’s most prominent political division as that between fundamentalist hard-liners and secular moderates. In reality, however, the struggle for Iran’s future is a three-way fight waged by the different branches of conservatives that control the parliament, the presidency, and the theocracy. The Green Movement may have stalled, but the parliamentary opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has only grown stronger and more assertive over the past year — culminating in a recent push to charge the president with abuses of power warranting impeachment. Those efforts are coming to a halt under orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fears that the parliament’s attempt to assert itself against the president will also be at the expense of his own power base, the country’s conservative mullahs.
In fact, this isn’t the first round of infighting among Iran’s leaders. In July 2009, legislators warned Ahmadinejad that they would seek to oust him as the chief executive if he continued acting in an autocratic manner. Ahmadinejad responded by claiming the executive branch is the most important one of the government.
Ahmadinejad has also clashed with parliamentarians over his prerogative to influence the activities of the Central Bank. As financial hardships mount on common Iranians, in part due to mismanagement and in part from international sanctions, their elected representatives are blaming the president and his bureaucrats for the economy’s woes.
It’s a naked power struggle that has cloaked itself in ideology. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the executive branch of Iran’s government increasingly reference secular Iranian nationalism. They recently celebrated an exhibition honoring Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago; they have also been known to castigate influential mullahs for diminishing Iran’s greatness, going so far as to encourage the separation of religion from the government. Meanwhile parliament speaker Ali Larijani and his legislative supporters present themselves as adherents to the fundamentalist traditions of Shiite Islam and as true believers in the velayat-e faqih, Iran’s system of governance by Muslim jurists.
But at its root, the infighting is motivated by differences over pragmatic political strategy. At a time of economic stagnation and international isolation, Iran’s power players are all competing to put their stamp on national crisis management.
Ahmadinejad has generally held the best cards in this high-stakes game. The president, together with has chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have built up a formidable power base within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary, and the civilian bureaucracy, with which they have deep links through service, appointees, and millions of dollars in economic patronage. The power-broking clerics, including Khamenei and the hard-line ayatollahs on the Guardian Council — the panel of Shiite scholars who vet all electoral candidates and legislation for adherence to the principles of the Islamic Revolution — now need Ahmadinejad’s support more than he needs theirs. Those mullahs handpicked Ahmadinejad to become president in 2005, re-endorsed him as “God’s miracle” during the hotly contested June 2009 presidential elections, and so have associated their own legitimacy with his continued success. The president is also emboldened by the knowledge that this will be his last term, as Iran’s Constitution allows only two consecutive presidential terms. Ahmadinejad no longer has to keep an eye on the opinion polls.
Khamenei, whose main concerns are to safeguard Iran’s novel system of velayat-e faqih and his own role as its head, likely views both the president and parliament with suspicion. He knows that Ahmadinejad is cultivating support, on the basis of secular nationalism, from among the materialistic military and civil services. On the other hand, Khamenei knows that Larijani — whose brother heads the judicial branch of Iran’s government and whose family is of high ecclesiastic descent — has enough clout among religious conservatives to make a seductive case for vesting popular sovereignty in the parliament rather than in the clerical hierarchy or the presidency.
All this is why too much shouldn’t be read into Khamenei’s support for the president in the face of impeachment — this is a tactical, not a permanent, alliance. If the president continues to undermine velayat-e faqih, the supreme leader won’t hesitate to back Ahmadinejad’s rivals. And there are even more basic reasons for Khamenei to avoid a showdown with the president. Both the parliament and the supreme leader may lack the means to enforce Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. When President Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached in 1981, it was only the authority of the IRGC that made his ouster possible. Now, however, the IRGC and its Basij paramilitary are divided in their loyalties between the supreme leader and the president. It would be risky to assume they would side with the mullahs. In fact, Khamenei’s personal authority has been so eroded since the public protests of late 2009, as evidenced by other prominent ayatollahs openly challenging both his qualifications to hold the position of supreme leader and his insistence that religion should play a central role in politics, that it’s not entirely clear whether the parliament will actually acquiesce to his calls for a show of political and ideological unity. Khamenei’s best hope may be that the struggle between the parliament and president will critically weaken both.
These intraregime clashes have serious foreign-policy ramifications. Ahmadinejad’s attempt to strike up a nuclear deal with the West failed in 2009 when the ayatollahs sided with naysayers in the parliament. Once again, and this time under much greater economic strain, Iran’s government has another chance of negotiating accommodations that would mitigate and perhaps even lift sanctions. But Iran’s ruling factions may again prove unable to unite behind a deal that will benefit their country. Parliamentarians and mullahs may balk at enabling a triumph for Ahmadinejad and his allies.
Ordinary Iranians have been the inadvertent beneficiaries of all this political gridlock. Ahmadinejad has used social liberalization as a way to shore up his support over the past year — by encouraging women’s involvement in politics, demanding that youth be free to date and wear clothing of their choice, and similar actions, much to the chagrin of theocrats and parliamentarians. The public has enjoyed greater personal freedoms as a result. Of course, that may only be a temporary reprieve. Domestic unrest over the economy is growing. Whatever their differences, it’s easy to imagine Iran’s warring factions agreeing to put them aside and focus on the real long-term threat to their power: the Iranian people themselves.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian and international studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University.
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By BOAZ GANOR
Jerusalem Post, 11/23/2010 22:42
Only the fear of instant annihilation might dissuade a nuclear Iran from pursuing its expansionist goals.
The Obama administration seems intent on going down in history as the American administration under which Iran attained nuclear military capability.
Looking at the existing constellation of realities – the fact that the regime is led by a spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, who was appointed by and receives his instructions directly from Allah; the fact that its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is of arguable sanity, systematically abuses the rights of minority groups, denies that the Holocaust took place, and calls for the destruction of Israel; and the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran, from its very establishment in 1979, took up Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s decree to “export the Islamic revolution” as the heart of its worldview – all these facts spell danger for the Middle East and Central Asia.
Once this malevolent regime harnesses its resources in a race to become a nuclear power, the safety of the entire world will be at risk.
When the sun rises the day following Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb, the world will awaken to a highly combustive reality: The US, the dominant nuclear superpower, will instantly lose its international hegemony, as we will witness the emergence of a radical Islamic nuclear superpower. Many Middle Eastern and Asian states will race toward nuclear proliferation.
But the most immediately threatened and first to capitulate will be the oil emirates of the Gulf and Arab states, like Iraq and perhaps even Saudi Arabia, whose oil reserves will be swiftly conquered by Iranian forces.
Who would dare block the “messenger of Allah,” armed with a nuclear bomb, from attaining regional hegemony from Lebanon to Oman? To be sure, we will see an outpouring of protests and condemnations, but the world will likely sit back as Iran marches toward realizing its strategy of enslaving the oil-dependent West.
Iran will match its military conquests with intensified support of subversive activity in other states. A nuclear-armed Iran will reach out to local Islamic fundamentalist movements in Arab and Muslim countries and assist their takeover through either democratic elections or violence, and then will sign pacts with its new allies.
Iran will not hesitate to use vassal terror organizations – Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian arena, Shi’ite elements in Iraq and elsewhere – to promote its interests. Under the Iranian nuclear umbrella, these organizations will be immune to reprisal.
THIS IS not a worst-case scenario, but a completely reasonable estimate of what will happen from the moment Iran achieves nuclear capability. Efforts to persuade it to forgo its nuclear aspirations through negotiation or sanctions are doomed to fail. This is a regime which sent its own children to their deaths during the Iran-Iraq war. At that time, thousands of children were ordered to obey a “divine command” and march directly into Iraqi minefields, paving the way for Iranian troops with their young corpses. Such a regime would not even blink when it comes to jeopardizing its economy or sacrificing its international interests for the sake of its ultimate goals.
The only way to prevent this scenario is through a sweeping military operation. Only one country has the power to take on an operation of this scale; it is the country with the most at stake and the greatest interest in preventing this new world disorder. That country is the United States.
US motives for preventing a nuclear Iran are numerous, starting with the direct threat already posed by an Islamic fundamentalist state openly developing long-range missiles capable of reaching any target in the Western world. Add the fact that Hizbullah has already infiltrated American soil, cultivating sleeper terror cells.
Yet by far the greatest motive is that a nuclear Iran will signal the instant loss of support from its traditional Middle Eastern allies, beginning with Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. Iran’s intensive courtship of these countries has long been in full force, lobbying them to cut their American ties and transfer allegiance to the rising regional nuclear power. This trend will only intensify once Iran has the Bomb. Having felt that they have bet on the wrong horse by opting for a special relationship with the US, we will see one country after the other cash in its American chips to buy Iranian favor.
A parallel and no-less-dangerous process will be the wave of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East and central Asia. Iran’s traditional adversaries, fearful of an Iranian invasion, will do everything possible to acquire their own nuclear weapons. This process obviously flies in the face of the Obama administration’s openly declared objective to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Worse yet is the clear and present danger of Iranian Islamic radical terrorist affiliates, armed with a divine command, unleashing nuclear weapons far beyond Iran’s borders.
Should President Barack Obama refrain from taking proactive steps and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, every country in the world will be thrown into a new, much more complicated and dangerous Cold War-like situation, triggered by the multi-polar nuclear environment.
Next to the tough dilemmas this new state of affairs will pose, the Cuban missile crisis will seem like child’s play.
ONLY THE fear of instant annihilation might dissuade a nuclear Iran from pursuing its expansionist goals.
Western states pitted in conflict against a fundamentalist adversary that follows a divine authority will have a hard time predicting Iran’s next moves or creating deterrents. There is but one option in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat: a new American-led nuclear alliance.
The “second-strike nuclear alliance” would include Western states, pro-Western states and others who fear being targeted by an Iranian nuclear attack. Unlike NATO, the SSNA would not oblige members to supply mutual assistance in the event of a conventional war, but would provide vital strategic backup: the guaranteed destruction of any aggressive nuclear attacker of any of its members – the “second strike” capability. Making an SSNA nuclear umbrella available to members could even prevent a nuclear proliferation trend; it could neutralize Iran’s military advantage over its weaker neighbors, strengthen the West and like-minded countries, and might even deter Iran from threatening to put its nuclear capability to use.
The more determination we see on the part of the Obama administration to avoid military confrontation, the more it must establish doctrines for a new, multipolar Cold War, of which the SSNA would be a pillar.
These principles must become clearly articulated, and set into motion from the moment we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Iran has attained nuclear weapons.
The writer is deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government Diplomacy and Strategy and director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.