A window opened on Iran's normally murky political process when the country's foremost pragmatist politician, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, issued a scathing attack against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration. Rafsanjani's remarks, including a warning that Ahmadinejad's policies were sending Iran into an economic tailspin, confirmed what many observers had started to suspect that a climactic power struggle between pragmatists and hardliners is looming.
Rafsanjani launched his verbal broadside at Ahmadinejad during a November 15 meeting of Muslim clerics. Rafsanjani -- who served two terms as Iran's president and currently heads the Expediency Council, one of Iran's most important religious bodies singled out Ahmadinejad's personnel policy for special criticism. Since the June presidential election, Ahmadinejad and his team have carried out sweeping changes in Iran's diplomatic corps, bureaucracy, and the state-run business and banking sectors. Long-serving diplomats, bureaucrats and managers have been replaced by administration loyalists. Many of the new appointees have experience in Iran's security establishment, in particular the Revolutionary Guard, while possessing little diplomatic or technocratic expertise.
Rafsanjani said members of the Ahmadinejad administration were acting like "termites" by pursuing personnel changes that were "gnawing at our system."
"Those responsible for this need to be confronted. I can't explicitly mention their names but if our unity and solidarity takes a beating, it is extremely dangerous," Rafsanjani added.
Ahmadinejad and his political allies have carried out the personnel changes in the name of fighting corruption. Rafsanjani, however, suggested that the anti-corruption explanation was being used as a cover by hardliners to pursue their own political aims. "They soil the reputation of our political and economic managers with abandon in the name of fighting corruption. Restoring their names is no easy matter," Rafsanjani said. "This is a gross injustice to the system and the [Islamic] revolution."
The personnel changes, along with an underlying sense of uncertainty, have wrought economic havoc in Iran. The stock market has lost roughly 30 percent of its value since Ahmadinejad took office, and manufacturing activity has dropped approximately 35 percent over the same period. Some economic observers add that the volume of capital flight has grown significantly in recent months. Those mid- and high-level bureaucrats who have survived the purge to date are now reluctant to undertake new projects, or consider policy initiatives, out of fear of attracting unwanted scrutiny. As a result, the state's bureaucratic machinery has reached a state of near-paralysis as the country confronts an imploding economy.
On top of the domestic repercussions, Iran finds itself increasingly isolated on the world stage. In the last three months, Iran has been on the receiving end of two strongly-worded statements one from the UN Security Council and one from the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors increasing the odds that Tehran may be referred to the Security Council over its nuclear research. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Immediately after his election win, Ahmadinejad appeared to be politically unassailable, as his conservative backers held all three branches of government, and controlled many important religious posts. A series of serious political missteps, however, helped to create the opening for Rafsanjani's riposte. In his highest profile gaffe, Ahmadinejad provoked global outrage for saying in a public speech that Israel should be "wiped off the map." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Rafsanjani enjoys a reputation of being Iran's cagiest politician, and political analysts believe he launched his public attack on Ahmadinejad only after lining up behind-the-scenes support from Iran's clerical hierarchy, as well as from key political and economic leaders. Some analysts believe that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has become a tacit supporter of Rafsanjani.
Ahmadinejad has given every indication that he will meet Rafsanjani's challenge head-on. Rafsanjani's comments at the November 15 meeting of clerics prompted the president to make an unscheduled appearance at the same gathering. The presidential press service did not make available the full text of Ahmadinejad's comments, issuing only a general news release the following day. But eyewitnesses said both the tone and the content of Ahmadinejad's speech were confrontational. He hinted several times that he would not hesitate to use the Revolutionary Guard and the hardliner-controlled Basij Militia to enforce the administration's efforts to punish those who had "stolen the people's wealth." He also reportedly warned his detractors to cease their public criticisms, or face harsh consequences.
"Don't force me to make things harder for you," Ahmadinejad supposedly said, referring to his critics. "My patience has limits."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.