June 26, 2009

Third Force in Iran Power Struggle

26 Jun 2009

While it’s too early to predict the outcome of the current struggle for power in Iran, the battle is clearly one of seismic proportions and the emergence of a Third Force is stirring things up, Kamal Nazer Yasin writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Kamal Nazer Yasin in Tehran for ISN Security Watch

As expected, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vow to violently crush Iran’s nascent democratic movement has been successful so far. On 20 June, the full panoply of repressive forces at the disposal of the Iranian state - other than the military, that is - were deployed against the fewer than 3,000 demonstrators congregated in downtown Tehran. The outcome seemed pre-ordained.

These forces consisted of contingents from the Basij militia, Revolutionary Guards (RGCI), regular police, anti-riot units, the Ministry of Intelligence and armed vigilantes, around half of whom were brought in from other regions.

As ISN Security Watch reported earlier, the RGCI is now in charge of the overall security for Greater Tehran, which means it is the first time since the early 1980s that the RGCI has been deployed in urban areas.

The “soft coup" reported by the ISN Security Watch is in full swing. There is an effective late-night curfew in huge swaths of Tehran; internet and mobile phone service work intermittently or not at all; and there is 100 percent censorship on the press and the web services.

Predictably, the massive display of force has snuffed out the public protests for now. But, unbeknownst to the world, a second conflict, no less intense, is now raging behind the scenes, one for which, Khamenei’s iron fist is of little use.

Here, Iran’s main factions and power centers are furiously lobbying, jockeying and regrouping for a battle royale. Although pervasive censorship makes it impossible to analyze the more subtle developments underway, three main force constellations seem to have emerged so far whose machinations and maneuverings will alter the future face of the Islamic Republic. (The reformists, though enormously popular are not a party to this struggle).

Power centers

The first power center is that of Khamenei and his allies in the security establishment, state and para-statal institutions, and the clergy.

The second power center is that of Hashemi Rafsanjani. He has top-level supporters interspersed in several important institutions and organs. Admittedly, these are currently a rather diffuse and unorganized entity, but due to Rafsanjani’s remarkable acumen and his unmatched leadership skills, he should be considered a major force unto himself.

Third, a new force constellation has emerged in the last few days, one navigating between the two other poles, which may end up playing a decisive role in the coming battles. They consist of independent or rightist politicians opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, influential figures in the economy, the polity and the armed forces, and the so-called traditionalist clergy. The latter should be seen as the real power base of this group as well as its main source of legitimacy. For instance, as of this date, none of the major Grand Ayatollahs of the holy city of Qum has congratulated Ahmadinejad for his electoral victory, effectively not recognizing the outcome of the election as legitimate.

It is not clear what coherent strategy, structural form, or platforms this pole would end up adopting, but an evident need to save the Islamic state from destruction and the desire to distinguish themselves from the other poles is bringing these disparate forces and individuals together.

The Larijani clan

According to a well-connected cleric who spoke to ISN Security Watch on the condition of anonymity, the individuals most prominent within this grouping are from the Larijani clan. They are scions of prominent clerical families that constitute today’s clerical aristocracy.

Former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani is the present speaker of the parliament. His brother, Mohammad Javad, is a major rightist strategist. Their other brother, Sadegh, who is a cleric, is one of the 12 jurists on the powerful Council of Guardians (before the recent events, he was touted as the most likely candidate to take the place of the outgoing Judiciary Chief Mahmoud Shahroodi). Ahmad Tavakoli, a major star in the Iranian firmament, is a cousin of the Larijanis. Ali Motahari, the son of the venerable slain ideologue of the Iranian revolution and a major rightist thinker, is an in-law (their kids have married) of Ali Larijani.

Together, these men are the political center of this emerging force with one foot supported by the traditionalist clerical circles and another reinforced by moderate conservative elements. For example, before joining the parliament last fall, Ali Larijani ran from Qum, where he had secured the endorsement of the high clergy.

Mohsen Rezai, one of the three presidential candidates who has run against Ahmadinejad is politically very close to Larijani. Last May, Ali Motahari, the son of the late Ayatollah Mortega Motahari, shocked the hard-liners by breaking with Ahmadinejad and officially endorsing Rezai’s candidacy. Motahari had long been assumed to be an Ahmadinejad loyalist. He had been a major player in the right-wing circles for as long as anyone could remember. He was even a regular visitor to Khamenei’s house in downtown Tehran.

Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf is yet another major figure in this force field. Ghalibaf’s presidential ambitions are well-known. He even had put together an embryo of an electoral political machine before being told about Khamenei’s preferences.

At present, the Third Force is bolstering itself by making concerted attacks on the positions of both Mousavi and Khamenei camps (it is not clear how it is undermining Rafsanjani’s). For instance, Larijani has made several trenchant criticisms of the Khamenei-allied agencies like the Interior Ministry and the national broadcasting company; he has visited some of the injured in the hospital; and formed a parliamentary commission that took the Khamenei-allied vigilante groups to task for attacking student dormitories a few days ago. These moves by Larijani have raised the ire of the hardliners.

On 24 June, hard-line deputies announced a plan to impeach Larijani in the parliament; an effort that would only increase his popularity.

The cleric speaking to ISN Security Watch is of the opinion that Sadegh Larijani is probably behind the reporting by the Guardian Council of some of the election-related discrepancies that have clearly embarrassed the Supreme Leader. Among these is the fact that in over 50 cities, there were participation rates of over 100 percent reported; or that a large part of the 3 million votes examined may have been tinkered with. Khamenei has so far on two separate occasions - on 24 June and 19 June -effectively ruled out large-scale rigging.

Mortal danger to regime

While the Third Force’s criticisms of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are generally restrained and subtle, their attacks on presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi are direct and unapologetic. That is because, Mousavi’s Green Wave movement, if unchecked, poses a mortal danger to the undemocratic nature of the Islamic regime from which all the Third Force activities have hailed.

For instance, it is inconceivable that any of the present MPs, including Larijani, could have been elected in an open, democratic contest.

Aside from this, taking on Khamenei explicitly is not easy and has its own pitfalls. After all, he is still a spiritual leader to millions of Iranians.

These days, the press and national broadcasting are filled with one-sided attacks on Mousavi and his supporters. He is routinely accused of anything from betraying the values of the Islamic Republic, to undermining national security to consorting with the enemy. This doesn’t displease the Third Force leaders.

On 22 June, Mohammad Javad Larijani appeared on TV in person and used the entire one-hour airtime to level vicious attacks on Mousavi. Moreover, all the leaders of the Third Force daily call Mousavi’s tactics illegal and outside the pale, his supports rioters and arsonists.

While it is too early at this stage to foresee with any certainty the outcome of the present struggle, or to pass judgment on the future of the Green Wave, there is no doubt that the events of the last three weeks have created a seismic shift in Iranian politics.

Kamal Nazer Yasin is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist reporting for ISN Security Watch from Tehran.

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