The Guardian: Ali Shah is the disrespectful nickname Iranians have in recent years bestowed on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme religious leader of the Islamic republic. It captures what they see as the monarchial aspirations and the clear limitations of the man who took over the function of “guiding” the republic from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 18 years ago and who now, after an election that has put his man in as president, controls all the major institutions of the Iranian state. The Guardian
The Khamenei regime’s consolidation of power in Iran has a last-ditch feel to it
Ali Shah is the disrespectful nickname Iranians have in recent years bestowed on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supreme religious leader of the Islamic republic. It captures what they see as the monarchial aspirations and the clear limitations of the man who took over the function of “guiding” the republic from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini 18 years ago and who now, after an election that has put his man in as president, controls all the major institutions of the Iranian state.
Those years have seen a slow draining away of legitimacy from the republic and its leaders, and in particular from Khamenei, who could never match the dominating presence of Khomeini and who could not stem the increasing hostility of most of the Iranian people to political religion, but who nevertheless has been determined, along with his satraps within the system, to maintain his grip on power.
The ultimate destination in a journey of this kind is an authoritarian state without authority, and that prospect seems much closer today in Iran. For years the men in charge of the key positions in Iran, including the Council of Guardians, the judiciary, the security ministries and the security forces, have periodically been able to recapture some popular support by allowing reformists a margin for manoeuvre in parliament and in the presidency, particularly under President Mohammad Khatami.
But, with the subversion of the 2004 parliamentary elections by the conservatives, who banned most liberal candidates and made the resources of the state available to the rightwingers, that era began to close. It is now definitively over, with the election to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran whose politics are fundamentalist to the point of simple-mindedness, marking the point at which the Khamenei regime has passed over into a fearful consolidation of power that has no room even for a loyal opposition.
Khomeini, whatever else may be said about him, was a man big enough in his achievements to spread his aura over the whole apparatus that the revolution created, even though he ejected the liberal partners, both secular and religious, who had helped make that revolution.
Khamenei and his fellow conservatives, by contrast, have increasingly come to depend only on the security state, and upon the physical coercion, or the threat of it, which that dependence implies. They have also begun, as it increases, to admit representatives of the security arms into the inner circle of power, hitherto confined to clerics and a few devout laymen. Ahmadinejad is himself a former Revolutionary Guard.
Certainly, the losing candidates in the presidential election charge that the assets of the security state were deployed on a large scale to ensure his victory. The meetings of liberal candidates were disrupted, mysterious bombs went off – presumably the contribution of the intelligence services – government money was said to have been made available in large quantities and the volunteer militia groups, which dot every community, were on hand as unpaid election workers and enforcers. In addition, there are so many of these people – 300,000 in the militia, police, and Revolutionary Guard, not counting the regular armed forces – that the impact of their votes, if directed toward a particular candidate, is bound to be significant.
Whether such support was as extensive as some of the losers claimed, it was not the only reason Ahmadinejad won. His diatribes against corruption and his pledge that oil wealth would be used to improve the lives of ordinary people had an impact. Yet this is precisely the field in which he cannot deliver.
The Islamic republic is both a corrupt regime and one where connections count for everything. All but an honourable handful of the clerico-political class have enriched themselves, some illegally and some by simply taking advantage of their positions. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s main opponent in the election, is one of the most prominent examples, and he suffered for it in the campaign. But among the men who helped get Ahmadinejad in are many who have profited as much or almost as much. Is Mr Clean going to go after them?
For western countries, the main problem represented by this victory is that it entrenches those least sympathetic to rapprochement with Europe and America and least likely, in particular, to give way on nuclear enrichment, which the Khamenei regime is trying to turn into a nationalist touchstone.
The regime’s dilemma – which is that it needs western investment and expertise if it is to provide the prosperity that will help it stay in power, but fears the corrosive political impact of dealings with western countries – will intensify. Its confrontation with the US will almost certainly sharpen, and the possibility of a US attack, if there is no concession on nuclear matters, while still not high, will increase.
What is both worrying and hopeful for Iranians is that this consolidation of power has a last-ditch aspect about it. Khamenei has increased control, but the regime has lost flexibility and much of whatever legitimacy remained.