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Farideh Farhi's Blog

Three Revelations from the Non-Aligned Summit

Farideh Farhi
            The Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran highlighted three aspects about Iran’s foreign relations and domestic politics.

            First, given Iran’s geographic location and resources, many countries in the neighborhood believe it is simply not good business to isolate Iran. For some, Western sanctions are even being perceived as an opportunity, illustrated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Tehran. Before his four-day visit, India made clear that bilateral economic relations were a top priority. The same was true for Iran. Singh’s large delegation was met at the airport by Iranian Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini.

            Iran and India currently do about $15 billion in trade. But the balance is heavily in favor of Iran, to the tune of more than 4 to 1, which has turned into a real issue because of U.S. and European sanctions on financial transactions between the two countries. For Iran, getting paid in rupees for 45 percent of its exports to India has been a partial solution, but India is hoping to increase its export of agricultural goods as well as machinery as another alternative.

            Both countries continue to work hard to find ways to get around sanctions because it’s worth it. This does not mean that sanctions are not constraining Iran’s optimal use of its resources. The opportunity costs of sanctions are huge. But Iran’s location and resources cannot be ignored. Furthermore, there are quite a few countries that see the sanctions regime as an opportunity. This dynamic will likely continue to inspire U.S. efforts to openly attempt to impose new ways of restricting Iran’s international trade while other countries openly collude with Iran to find ways to get around those attempts.

            Second, the presence of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi reflected the benefit of engaging Iran directly. Their words created a conversation in Tehran, partly because Iran did not want to appear to be isolated.  Ban Ki-moon’s focus was on the basic contradiction in Iranian foreign policy — seeking to be a respected member of the international community while also loudly challenging international codes of conduct.
            In no uncertain terms, the U.N. leader said his purpose was “to highlight the cost of Iran’s current trajectory, both at home and in the international arena…Any country at odds with the international community,” he said,” is one that denies itself much-needed investment and finds itself isolated from the thrust of common progress.”
            Third, the NAM summit revealed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sees himself in charge of implementing Iran’s foreign policy—not just setting the general direction of the country and then letting the president execute his directives.

            Khamenei entered the summit followed by former president and current Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also an unelected official. They were followed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was mostly treated as a non-person by the Iranian media. It was a telling contrast to the last major international meeting in Iran during the 1997 Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit. Fresh off his election, new President Mohammad Khatami took charge of the meeting—while Khamenei had almost no presence.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
She is also a frequent contributor to Lobelog. Click here for her piece, "Beyond the Post-NAM Spin."
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Iran’s deepening internal battle

Farideh Farhi

  • Two years after his controversial re-election, President Ahmadinejad faces mounting pressure from the supreme leader, parliament and the Guardian Council on several issues. Is his presidency really in jeopardy?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may or may not survive his second term. His political fate will depend on whether he continues to try to shift political power towards his office and coterie of loyalists in ways that challenge both the supreme leader and the predominantly conservative parliament.
Tensions became public when Ahmadinejad fired the intelligence minister in April, only to have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reinstate him. During the crisis, Ahmadinejad did not show up for work or key cabinet meetings for 11 days. Khamenei refused to coax or woo the president to return to office. Indeed, he even initially signaled his willingness to let Ahmadinejad resign for refusing his dictates, despite the potential political costs to the regime.
The same tensions are likely to play out for the remainder of Ahmadinejad's term. Khamenei apparently now wants the embattled president to serve out the final two years of his term, according to parliament's deputy speaker Mohammad-Reza Bahonar. Ahmadinejad also will no longer have the supreme leader’s protection in political showdowns with the judiciary, parliament or Guardian Council. As a result, all three institutions have more aggressively challenged the president’s recent actions, including cabinet appointments, merging ministries or disbursement of state funds. Ahmadinejad’s future will depend on whether he persists in doing political battle or  agrees to serve as a weakened lame-duck.
  • Supreme Leader Khamenei staked his own leadership on support for Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Has Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad changed—and if so, how much and to what end?
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s union has always been a temporary marriage. For several reasons, Khamenei believed that an Ahmadinejad loss in the 2009 election would be construed at home and abroad as a setback for the supreme leader’s office.  Khamenei had long been concerned about “dual governance,” or the rivalry between the presidency and supreme leader in defining the national agenda. It was a particularly sensitive issue in 2009, when Iran was preparing for talks with a new U.S. administration.  Like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei stands for an aggressive foreign policy in contrast to former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who flirted with rapprochement to reduce tensions with the outside world.
But Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad’s re-election backfired. When millions took to the streets to protest alleged election fraud, the focus was as much on the supreme leader as the president. Khamenei also took much of the blame for the repression that followed. Ahmadinejad and his inner circle used the crackdown to try to expand their hold over government—always assuming that the supreme leader would have to side with them.  But they miscalculated.
Ahmadinejad’s decision not to show up for work particularly crossed a red line. Khamenei’s then signaled that Ahmadinejad was dispensable, which was sufficient to undercut the president’s support among many of the regime’s true believers.
  • What are the risks or benefits for either Khamenei or the regime in challenging Ahmadinejad ?
Ahmadeinjad was perceived as challenging Khamenei and not the other way around. The leader’s occasional intervention in government affairs is routine. So Khamenei’s reinstatement of Minister of Intelligence Heidar Moslehi was never questioned by regime loyalists. It was Ahmadinejad’s refusal to go to work that was perceived as a challenge to Khamenei’s authority. Khamenei made clear that the move was unacceptable and that he was willing to accept the cost of political turmoil resulting from Ahmadinejad’s resignation. This was the game changer.
  • On May 25, 2011, parliament voted to investigate the Ahmadinejad government’s alleged vote-buying—reportedly $80 each for 9 million people—during the 2009 election. The opposition Green Movement made similar allegations after the election but was ignored. Why is parliament acting now—and to what end?
The move is as much to preempt future corruption as to deal with past fraud. Parliamentary elections are due in March 2012. Ahmadinejad’s conservative opponents have expressed concern that Ahmadinejad and his allies will use state resources to buy votes. So the parliamentary investigation is a threat. It is still unclear whether the final report will be read in parliament or will lead to further action, such as calls for Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. As of now, it appears largely an attempt to further clip Ahmadinejad’s wings.
Parliament has been complaining about Ahmadinejad's general financial mismanagement for years. Its auditing branch has detailed lists of missing funds or funds used without parliamentary authorization. But there was little follow-up, Khamenei often stepped in and told the parliament not to create too many obstacles for the executive branch.
Ahmadinejad’s fall from grace has given his conservative competitors room to maneuver. They are talking about organizing a supervisory committee to prevent fraud in the upcoming elections, although they face obstacles. In any oil-rich state, the executive branch has discretionary funds to play with during elections, particularly in the provinces where governor-generals and governors are appointed by the president. Many of Ahmadinejad’s conservative competitors also do not have sufficient support or funding to challenge government-supported candidates.
  • On May 20, the 12-man Guardian Council ruled that Ahmadinejad could not take over the oil ministry. On June 1, parliament voted overwhelmingly —165 of the 198 members present—to refer Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for illegally attempting to take over the oil ministry. What are the potential consequences of these two actions?
Again this was a threat, and on the surface it worked. Ahmadinejad responded by appointing a caretaker for the Petroleum Ministry. Yet the appointment exemplified how the president is countering pressures on what he considers executive power. He named Mohammad Ali-Abadi, a former vice-president and head of Olympics Committee of Iran. A civil engineer, he has no experience in the oil industry. Parliament had earlier rejected him for the smaller Energy Ministry.
Ali-Abadi, an Ahmadinejad loyalist, is likely to continue the management changes in ministry that expand the president’s control over the National Iranian Oil Company, the real cash cow in Iran. The caretaker appointment mollified the legal challenge but Ahmadinejad demonstrated his disdain for parliament even as he responded to its pressure.
And the current battle is just the beginning of the conflict. Ali-abadi is unlikely to be approved as petroleum minister after his three months as caretaker is up. Ahmadinejad’s government has also approved the merger of the energy and petroleum ministries. Parliament may well try to block the unpopular merger. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to follow parliamentary mandates could create a legal basis for another parliamentary referral to the judiciary.
Parliament’s committee on Article 90, which deals with violations by any government branch, has also referred Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for three other violations: his refusal to establish a sports and youth ministry as mandated by legislation; his refusal to disburse money for the metro system; and the government’s failure to produce an article of association for the Petroleum Ministry. In theory, any of these violations could become the basis for questioning in parliament and even impeachment.
  • How is Ahmadinejad responding to the mounting pressure?
As the Ali-Abadi example shows, Ahmadinejad is not a man who gives up easily. As president, he still has many resources at his disposal. He also believes he has a strong base of popular support, which is increasingly doubtful. He was publicly booed at his speech on the June 4 anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah's Khomeini’s death.
Still Ahmadinejad is known to be a shrewd political tactician, and few politicians in the governing circle are thinking beyond short-term political goals. If he is going to be pushed around, he is likely to try to make everyone else suffer as well.
  • What is Khamenei’s situation?
The supreme leader still has the most control over Iran’s political future and direction.  Yet his plan in 2009 to engineer an election in which Ahmadinejad would legitimately win a popular election backfired. He had explicitly asked former President Khatami not to run out of concern about his popularity. He also signaled that former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi should be allowed to run, calculating that an uncharismatic and long-forgotten former prime minister would not be a real challenge. Irrespective of who really won the election, Mousavi and his popular wife generated far more support than the supreme leader counted on.
The post-election protests also affected the internal balance of power. Various security forces were emboldened. And every-day running the country grew more complicated, especially with a highly polarizing president unable to work with other branches of government.  In just one example, the fate of eight ministries--out of a total of 21--is in doubt because of uncertainty about whether they will be (or even already have been) merged and who will lead them. Parliament, which insists it controls government restructuring, has in turn come up with unusual mergers of its own—including merge of the ministries of roads and transportation, housing, and communications and information technology. 
Given the administrative chaos, Khamenei and his office are now increasingly involved in day-to-day government administration. With parliamentary elections due in 2012 and a presidential election due in 2013, the supreme leader apparently hopes to orchestrate polls that produce less combative figures to take the government’s helm. But the circle of true loyalists has shrunk considerably since the 2009 vote, the subsequent purge of reformists, and now the pressure on Ahmadinejad and his allies. Managing both the country and upcoming elections in a highly polarized political environment is a daunting challenge.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Rafsanjani Dislodged From a Top Job

Farideh Farhi

  • Iran’s Assembly of Experts voted March 8 to replace former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the chairmanship. What happened and why is the outcome significant?
On March 8, the Assembly of Experts, effectively pushed former President Rafsanjani from the leadership of a top clerical body and replaced him with an ailing and elderly conservative. This is the latest setback for a man long considered to be one of Iran’s most resilient politicians. He lost the 2005 presidential contest to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as the 2000 parliamentary (majlis) election. He and his family have also been under increasing pressure since unrest erupted after the disputed 2009 presidential vote because he did not take a clear stance against the opposition Green Movement.
The Assembly of Experts is a pivotal body with constitutional authority to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader, the most powerful position in Iran. Rafsanjani was first elected chairman in 2007 and reelected in 2009.
The election of conservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani returns the leadership of the Assembly to an elderly cleric without a political profile, the tradition before Rafsanjani’s election in 2007. But the leadership issue could soon rise again. Mahdavi Kani, 79, was reportedly brought into the chamber in a wheelchair.
Mahdavi Kani had not sought the chairmanship. He agreed to run only under tremendous pressure, which led Rafsanjani to withdraw his name as a candidate. In his speech to the Assembly, Rafsanjani said that he had asked Mahdavi Kani to run as chairman in 2009 and 2011 but the latter had refused due to illness and old age. In the end, Mahdavi Kani ran unopposed.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei clearly played a background role. Without his pressure, Mahdavi Kani would not have run.
  • Why did hardliners replace Rafsanjani, a pivotal political player since the 1979 Revolution? Had Rafsanjani’s chairmanship changed the Assembly of Experts?
Rafsanjani was elected chairman in 2007 after the death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, who had led the Assembly since its inception in 1983. Rafsanjani’s election was the result of the first real contest for the post. He beat hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council. The vote was close in 2007 but  hard-line clerics were unable to block Rafsanjani’s chairmanship and in 2009 he was reelected decisively.
The hardliners’ public push to replace Rafsanjani and support Mahdavi Kani reflects two things:
  • First, it relays the message that trying to stand in the middle of Iran’s polarized political environment to moderate political cleavages is no longer acceptable—and will lead to sidelining if not a complete purge. Rafsanjani had not taken a clear position on the 2009 unrest. While publicly asserting his loyalty to Khamenei, he nevertheless continued to stand by his call for a more open political system and the need to redress some of the issues that prompted post-election protests.
  • Second, hardliners were unable to win with a candidate of their own so they pressured a traditional conservative to head the body—at least temporarily. 
Some Iranians had hoped Rafsanjani’s leadership of the Assembly would make the body more powerful in overseeing the conduct of the Supreme Leader, but he was not able to alter its operations or tone. Nor was there much change in the assembly’s routine statements of support for the leader at biannual meetings.
Rafsanjani has been critical of the country’s direction since the 2009 election, but he also made clear that he speaks only for himself, something he will continue to do irrespective of his loss of the chairmanship. He remains chairman of the Expediency Council, a body that mediates between parliament and the Guardian Council. In his speech to the Assembly on March 8, he criticized those who “think that they can solve problems with words and titles”  and are also “trying to imprison the leader in one current.” Acknowledging that they “may benefit in the short run,” he nevertheless insisted that “by doing this they will harm the country, system, and even themselves in the long-run.”
  • What is the Assembly of Experts? How many members does it have and how are they chosen? How often do they meet?
The Assembly of Experts for the Leadership is currently a body of more than eighty scholars of Islamic Law; the number has diminished due to deaths after the last election in 2006.  Members are elected by direct public vote for eight-year terms from 30 electoral districts (provinces). Candidates do not need to be residents of or even to be born in the province from which they are elected. Although it did not begin this way, the Guardian Council must approve candidates’ eligibility through written and oral examinations if their religious credentials are “not evident” or “explicitly or implicitly approved by the Supreme Leader.”
Its bylaws require that the Assembly meet twice a year. Sessions are usually two days long but minutes of meetings are confidential. Assembly members are not restricted in their engagement with other occupations, such as membership in parliament or the judiciary. As a result, several members have also served in other branches of government.
Organizationally, the Assembly has a leadership and six committees. The leadership is elected by secret ballot for two years and consists of the Assembly’s chair, two vice-chairs, two secretaries, and two assistants.
  • Has the Assembly of Experts ever criticized or challenged the supreme leader for anything?
In the Constitution, the Assembly is tasked with two functions:
  • Selecting the leader
  • Dismissing him if he is unable to perform his constitutional duties or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the initial qualifications such as “social and political wisdom, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership.”
In its bylaws, the Assembly is tasked to supervise the leader’s capabilities to determine whether he is able to perform his duties. It also has a committee to oversee “the continuation of qualifications for the leader specified in the constitution.” But the bylaws also state that the Assembly does not see this supervision to be “in contradiction to absolute guardianship.” So legally, the mandate is ambiguous about how much the Assembly can challenge the leader about his actions or conduct if he does not show signs of incapacity or lacks qualifications. In practice, the Assembly has never challenged or criticized the leader, although individual members have expressed their concerns about the country’s direction. Given the Guardian Council’s vetting process since 1991, the majority of the Assembly’s members have effectively been vetted before they run to ensure they are committed followers of the leader and not interested in a more dynamic supervisory role.
  • What role does the Assembly of Experts play in Iranian politics today? How does its role compare to what was envisioned in the post-revolutionary constitution?
The Assembly of Experts was envisioned to be an elected clerical body that acts as a check on the leader in case of mental or physical incapacitation or deterioration. It is also tasked with the responsibility of choosing the leader in case of incapacitation or death. As such, it is designed to become a very important body during periods of transition as it did in 1989 when the then Hojattoleslam Ali Khamenei was quickly chosen as the leader after the sudden death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
After the June 2009 presidential election, some Iranians hoped that the Assembly would make an effort to question decisions made by Ayatollah Khamenei that have moved the country towards increased authoritarianism. But the body has never tried to check Khamenei’s decisions.
  • What are the political views of the Assembly of Experts’ members in the Islamic Republic?
The assembly was not designed to reflect political views, although members have different political tendencies. Because of the vetting process and written examinations, most high-ranking clerics from the reformist camp have either been disqualified or refused to take part in a vetting process. The Assembly is currently divided largely between traditional and hard-line conservatives, with traditional conservatives still in the majority. The internal balance of power is why only a senior conservative figure such as Mahdavi Kani could dislodge Rafsanjani at this time.
Mahdavi Kani heads the Combatant Clergy Association. He is also in the founder and current head of Imam Sadegh University in Tehran, a university specializing in humanities. It is also a training ground for many government officials. He also served as interim prime Minister in 1981.


Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.


Iran’s Troubled Five-Year Plan

Farideh Farhi

        After months of wrangling, Iran’s parliament finally approved the outline of a new five-year economic, cultural and social plan on Oct. 30. Yet the vote underscored the divide within Iran’s legislature. The plan is also both so overly ambitious and so vague that the government will probably end up ignoring most of its objectives.
        The plan offers insight into the tensions within Iran’s government.
        The five-year plan, which is designed to guide government policy between 2011 and 2016, clearly did not generate enthusiasm. More than 100 members of parliament—over one-third of the 290 seats—did not even bother to show up. The plan, which is the fifth since the 1979 revolution, won only 131 votes, with 44 members of parliament voting against it, and 17 abstaining.
        The next phase may be even tougher. Parliament must now deliberate the details, which could take up to six weeks. Given the acrimony so far, it may prove more of an exercise in venting frustration than a meaningful effort to shape the next five years.
         Deliberation of the plan was at least six months behind schedule. The government package was supposed to take effect on March 21, the beginning of current Iranian year, to succeed the fourth plan passed during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami. But it faced several problems.
         President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office was late in delivering its proposals to parliament. The consideration of the plan was then delayed in the light of  a separate political clash between the presidency and legislature over efforts to cut back on subsidies of fuel and basic foodstuffs. Critics also charged that the plan was more of an “essay” or “collection of wishes” lacking specific objectives and ways to reach them.
         When parliament created a special committee to effectively re-write the plan, Ahmadinejad threatened in September to withdraw it altogether. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei eventually intervened. The compromise prevented the plan from being withdrawn but also did not address the legislature’s concerns.
         Opponents of the plan say that it is not well structured and lacks both quantitative indices and transparency regarding sources of revenue. Some critics claim it conflicts with other legislation and even the constitution.
        Members of parliament have also complained that the president’s handling of the plan reflects its abuse of power—notably in treating the legislature more like a nuisance than an equal body engaged in policy formulation and oversight.
        The compromise text often uses language that “the government is permitted to” instead of “being obliged to” carry out the plan. Even more disconcerting for parliament is the lack of clarity about how parliament can exercise oversight.

Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

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