Iran: OK, The Cabinet’s In, Has Ahmadinejad “Won”?

Prof. Scott Lucas


Today, on Iran’s “weekend”, should be a political catch-your-breath day after the culmination of Parliament’s approval of 18 of 21 proposed Ministers for the Ahmadinejad Cabinet. News slowed to a standstill last night, and there is almost nothing of significance this morning. There are Friday prayers in Tehran, but no sign that they will produce the headline statements of the last three months, from the Supreme Leader’s 19 June drawing of the post-election line to Hashemi Rafsanjani’s 14 July intervention to President Ahmadinejad’s hard-line anti-opposition pitch last week.


The President’s immediate victory, with one unexpected minor setback (the loss of his proposed Minister of Energy), does not mean that the battle is over. Far from it. However, to appreciate the tensions, contests, and manoeuvres, you have to read far beyond “mainstream” coverage, especially outside Iran.


Most of the Western press have pretty much lost the plot. That’s why, to our obvious frustration, almost all (with the notable exception of The New York Times) offered simple and misleading reviews of the final Parliament act yesterday. For some, the vote was the signal to move the focus to Iran’s nuclear programme. For some, it was the quick grab headline of the Islamic Republic’s first woman minister or Mr Most Wanted (Ahmad Vahidi, for a 1994 bombing in Argentina) becoming the Minister of Defense. For others, it was a “white flag” moment for the opposition, as Iran’s “hardliners” had united behind the President. Game over.


Wrong. To be honest, I found yesterday’s discussion by readers on our updates far more fascinating and useful than the press summaries. (Thanks, by the way, to all who have contributed.) Have a look, because it is here that the next steps of Hashemi Rafsanjani — who dropped out of the non-Iranian narrative of events — are considered. It is here that the important matter of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and its relationship with the President and the Supreme Leader, is in play.


And it is here that attention is paid to those conservative and principlist elements who continue to dislike and even move against Ahmadinejad, even if they did not make their stand yesterday. What now for the Larijanis — Ali still as Speaker of the Parliament, Sadegh as head of judiciary — and their allies? What now for high-profile MPs like Ali Motahari and Ahmad Tavakoli, who have bitterly challenged the President and his inner circle since mid-July? What now for those who saw the in-fighting at Ministries like Intelligence as an attempt by Ahmadinejad (and the IRGC) to expand their control and who didn’t take too kindly to it?


(And, lest we forget, our question from last week is not resolved, despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s open intervention to assist with confirmation of the Cabinet, “What now for the Supreme Leader?”)


For us, the post-election crisis has never been a matter of a single, dramatic showdown between the regime and its opponents but a series of waves, inside and outside the Government. There was the immediate wave of mass demonstrations (which were renewed at points throughout July), the wave of resistance to Ahmadinejad’s inauguration, the wave of response to the detentions and trials, fed both by Mehdi Karroubi’s initiatives and by conservative/principlist disquiet, and the wave that led up to yesterday’s vote.


Clearly, the wave of resistance to an Ahmadinejad Cabinet is now dissipated. Indeed, I think it is now fair to drop the label “post-election crisis”. Despite all those who will never believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the 12 June vote, he has now gone through all the bureaucratic motions of re-assuming office. However, there is still a “legitimacy crisis”. Just because you’re President doesn’t mean that folks accept your authority.


In part, that “legitimacy crisis” may not be as prominent because the Green wave is in a bit of a lull. Ramadan plays its part here, as well as battle fatigue and the disruption of the opposition’s organisation. The leadership of Mir Hossein Mousavi in particular is now primarily on Facebook pages, given the shutdown of his websites, the detentions of some of his top advisors, and restrictions on his movements.


But, whether as an outcome of these difficulties or as a measured strategy, the Green movement has now set out its next resurgence. On 18 September, Qods (Jerusalem) Day, the plan is to assemble as Hashemi Rafsanjani speaks at Friday prayers in Tehran.


OK, but that’s two weeks away, and there’s no guarantee that the movement will produce a mass show of resistance (or even that Rafsanjani, given his withdrawal from prayers in mid-August, will appear), right? Of course, but that scepticism in turn discounts that tensions continue within the regime.


At the risk of repeating our “Iranians love chess” cliche too often, one strong move does not mean checkmate. And the President and his allies still have a glaring weakness in their defences. Look at the list of waves above. The one that has always been crashing ashore since mid-July has been the criticism of the post-election crackdown through detentions, beatings and abuses, confessions, and trials. And that wave was not put out to sea with the Parliament vote.


It is possible that Ahmadinejad has come through the worst of this. There was a signal this week that the post-election criticism of Mohsen Rezaei, despite the death of his campaign advisor’s son in detention, may be muted by putting Rezaei at the head of State broadcasting. The Supreme Leader may be satisfied that he made his point when he “closed” Kahrizak prison. Sadegh Larijani may be content to take his place at judiciary and not challenge the continuing trials; alternatively, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC may accept that they should now curb the crackdown and let proceedings take a lower profile, with releases of some prisoners and “moderate” sentences for others. Ayatollah Khamenei may even announce an end-of-Ramadan “amnesty” for iconic detainees such as Saeed Hajjarian and Mohammad Ali Abtahi.


But, as of now, we don’t know. And there’s a twist in the tale.


Actually, it’s not a twist. It’s a storyline that has been here all the time. As EA’s Chris Emery and our sharp-eyed/sharp-minded readers have noted, post-election events have added to the strains on the Iranian economy. The post-election crisis brought Government to a standstill and exposed problems in Iran’s infrastructure. Of course, Ahmadinejad and his new Cabinet may try to stabilise or even jump-start the economy, but the President’s record in this area hasn’t been too good.


And that is where “post-election crisis” turns into “legitimacy crisis”. It’s one thing for an activist to get angry over a stolen vote; another for a “non-activist” to get angry because transport doesn’t work, food is more expensive, housing isn’t assured, and the lights go out.


If that is the case, if there is a wave of resentment over the economy that happens to arise at the same time as the ongoing waves over the political authority of the President and his allies (and I write that in full cognizance of the opinion of EA colleagues and some of our readers that the Revolutionary Guard has shown its muscle in recent weeks)…..


Welcome back to the storm.

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