Iran’s internal disputes bubble just below the surface

Iran’s internal disputes bubble just below the surface

Iran’s internal disputes bubble just below the surface
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receives his seal of office as President of Iran from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran, August 3, 2009. (Reuters)
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Ruthless political disputes occasionally flare up in Iran, indicating not just a lack of consensus over vital issues affecting the country’s internal and external policies, but also the means of ending such disagreements, which are often brutal and biased. While Iran’s totalitarian political system and culture does not openly and candidly discuss the frequency and intensity of divisions in the highest echelons of government, analysts can chart a road map that can explain them and predict their nature, scope and methods.
At present, there are reports of disagreements between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Another conflict is brewing over the political prospects of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, as many hard-liners resent his prominence, especially with the outside world. He is also perceived as too ambitious and someone who could strike a deal with the West over Iran’s nuclear program that might be harmful to those who are passionate about possessing a nuclear weapon.
There are many features that show how political antagonism plays out among Iran’s ruling circles. First, partisan attitudes are sharpened toward the critical issues that impact Iran’s realities. A previous example is how Khamenei and Ahmadinejad feuded over the independent bureaucratic status of the Ministry of Security and Intelligence, with the-then president trying to secure his bureaucratic turf by insisting on keeping it under his remit, while the supreme leader preferred to turn it into an independent apparatus to enhance his authority over it. Another clash can be seen in the sensitive topic of who controls Iran’s nuclear program, with the tentative conclusion of foreign intelligence sources being that the upper hand belongs to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ahead of the Ministry of Defense.
Second, Iranians are unable to comprehend or discuss these political hostilities, since they can be arrested if they talk about them freely.
Third, there is no longer an outside power to blame for instigating these power struggles. Previously, politicians accused of resisting certain government policies were labeled as spies of the shah, the US or Israel. The Trump administration was often accused of spurring friction inside Iran’s body politic by having agents sabotage the 1979 revolution.
Fourth, the frequency of these internal power struggles could signal the instability of the political order inside Iran, since they reveal the inability of the country’s political dynamics to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Fifth, the outcome of these power realignments can differ from a total purge of the opposition to a degree of toleration of its existence on the condition that it remains subdued, at least in the short term.
Finally, it is doubtless that political conflicts will always happen in Iran, since they are judged to be natural and inevitable.
There are rumors that need verification, including that of a political quarrel between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad over the latter’s criticism of how the Iranian government has handled the popular protests of the past few years. For now, both sides are showing restraint in terms of directly confronting the other, fearing that a public display of this political fracas could boost the trend toward more denunciation of the government by angry Iranians.
The other current dispute is the attitude of Zarif toward negotiations with the US. In a recent interview with an Iranian newspaper, the foreign minister stated that there is a split inside Iran’s ruling elite over how to negotiate with the West over its nuclear program.

There are many features that show how political antagonism plays out among Iran’s ruling circles.

Maria Maalouf

He described how a number of Iranian leaders see these negotiations as being all risk, while others see them as an opportunity. He suggested that the best way to deal with America would be to negotiate. However, he acknowledged that the Biden administration has not yet made up its mind on how to deal with Iran’s policy of enriching uranium.
Zarif is minimizing Iran’s internal disputes, but not disregarding them. This might turn out to be an early indication of the very likely internal political battle that will occur in the highest ranks of Iran’s leadership in the weeks and months to come: That is how to maximize Tehran’s advantages over a new American administration that is eager to return to the 2015 nuclear accord.

  • Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher, and writer. She holds an MA in Political Sociology from the University of Lyon. Twitter: @bilarakib
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