Clerics Take Exception to Regime Consolidation of Power

Elite maneuvering sparked by the Iranian electoral dispute continues to intensify. The regime is not backing down, but opposition to the regime’s hardline stance of depicting dissent as sedition appears to be coalescing and deepening.

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran and former IRGC general and fierce critic of Khatami, called for revision of the electoral law on June 24. Today, Interim Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, urged the Majlis to take action. Given the insistence of Ahmadijad, Khomenei, and other regime spokesmen that nothing was wrong, this implicitly undermines, at least somewhat, the legitimacy of the whole regime and strengthens the argument of the protestors. The Fars News Agency report omitted reference to his call but noted that he said “All the four presidential candidates also shared the very same spirit (of honoring Iran),” further undermining calls for trial of Mousavi and Khatami. The Fars report also curiously noted that Ahmedinejad’s electoral victory “could” secure him a second term…so this is now suddenly a question to be decided by…whom?

So far, the IRGC appears to be united. The comments of ex-general Qalibaf and the initial protest by ex-commander Rezaei suggest the possibility that some IRGC reservations may exist about the course of its rapid politicization.

In a significant display of media freedom, Iran’s Press TV displayed the thoughtful faces of Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi side-by-side in an article noting their strong call for the release of those arrested for protesting and the return of the country to a normal security situation.

Rafsanjani, head of the Council of Experts and the Expediency Council, leads a key faction independent from both Ahmadinejad and the opposition and has been taking a cautious public position, though it is rumored that he has been actively trying to support the protestors behind the scenes. On July 5, the same day that the military leaders said no middle ground existed, he said:

I do not believe that any alert conscience could be content about the circumstances that have unfolded.

This statement leave him wiggle room but appears likely to be read as an implicit attack on the regime’s post-election behavior. He also insisted that no power struggle was occurring, which undermines regime efforts to portray Mousavi as a traitor.

A number of factors may explain the intensifying elite conflict. First, the harsh and uncompromising attitude of regime figures puts the lives of all current and potential opponents on the line in a country where the execution of political opponents is common. Second, while all members of the elite may not be focused on power, from power flows money, and the traditional clerical elite, which comes from a rich landowner background, may see the rise of a military kleptocracy as a direct threat to its own privileges. Finally, the tradition of a clerical right to admonish political leaders is an honored and heroic one going back at least a century in Iran, but recent comments by IRGC leaders could be interpreted as challenging the right of anyone to talk back to the IRGC, and some in the clergy may find this going a step too far.

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See also this interesting article arguing that Iran’s clerical establishment has been coopted by the regime and presents little threat.

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