Khamenei’s Gamble

Guest post by James Devine:

In a sense, the decision to reject the candidacies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s protégée, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was a safe choice. With them out of the way, the regime will be spared an inflammatory campaign, and none of the remaining candidates poses a threat to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, it was a risky decision. Both candidates represent large and potentially powerful constituencies. In the face of economic sanctions, international isolation, and the Arab Spring, this might not seem like a good time to be alienating large parts of the population. It is likely though, that Ali Khamenei and his conservative followers thought out their moves quite carefully. In the short-term, their gamble is likely to payoff. The long-term however, may be a different story.

With Rafsanjani disallowed, the Green Party and Reform Movement are likely going to be in disarray. Rafsanjani was too much of a political insider to be their inspirational or intellectual leader. However, he had earned some respect by publically challenging the election results in 2009. He also gave them someone to rally around in this year’s election. With him gone, they may look to Hassan Rouhani as an alternative. However, he is probably too much of an establishment figure to inspire them. With the election route closed-off, the Greens and Reformers could take to the streets as they did in 2009. However they are nowhere near as organized as they were then.

Moreover, the regime has been remarkably effective at containing them since 2009. It has kept their leadership isolated, and journalists and activists have been arrested and intimidated. Indeed, as the elections have approached; the regime has acted preemptively, closing down newspapers and detaining activists. It is betting that without an election campaign to rile them up, and without leaders to call them out to battle, the Greens and Reformers will simply stay home. If there is any trouble, it will be isolated and manageable.

In the short-term, the regime may be right on this score. However, Rafsanjani was the last link the regime had to a large part of the population. Many of the Greens and Reformers have given up on the political system, but some still believe the Islamic Republic can be fixed. In the long-term, the regime may need these supporters. It is also possible that given time, they will get themselves sufficiently organized to be a real threat. The regime’s biggest advantage so far has been that the liberal opposition is too divided to act effectively. Some want to fix the system, some want to overthrow it and many are in between. The Council of Guardians may have finally given them common cause. The message they have just sent is that there will be no change, incremental or otherwise.

Ahmadinejad and his Islamic “neo-conservatives” are likely to be more of an immediate problem. In his eight years, Ahmadinejad has aggressively promoted his supporters, particularly in the security services and the interior ministry. He is therefore in a good position to be disruptive and he has never been one to shy away from a fight. Indeed, he has already challenged the decision to reject Mashaie’s candidacy.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad’s followers are all supporters of the Islamic Republic. They have internalized the ideology of the revolution and their political futures are tied to the continuation of the system. They are therefore unlikely to ally themselves with the Greens, or in any way try to overthrow the government. In the short-term, Khamenei is likely gambling that they will make some trouble, but that the regime will be able to ride it out. They will co-opt a few key members, arrest a few for corruption, and ignore the rest.

In the long-term though, this is a dangerous strategy, perhaps even more dangerous than alienating the Greens and Reformers. Ahmadinejad was the first real leader to emerge from outside the revolution’s original inner circle, and his followers are the Islamic Republic’s second generation of elite. Ahmadinejad also remains popular with the rural and urban poor, who make up the bedrock of the regime’s support. If the regime is not able to renew its elite, and if it alienates what’s left of its popular support, it risks the same fate as the ossified Arab Republics in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. They could only rule by inertia and coercion for long.

Of course, the future is always uncertain, and Khamenei faces serious problems right now. In the short term, he is likely content to have the election fought over the economy. The candidates can debate which is more to blame: American sanctions or Ahmadinejad’s incompetence. As for the long-term consequences, people have been predicting the collapse of the Islamic Republic since 1980. They were wrong then; no doubt Khamenei is betting they will be wrong again.