As Iran’s new President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad prepares to mark his first 100 days in office his friends and foes are debating his performance so far and, as might be expected, reaching different conclusions.
His political foes within the Khomeinist system, especially the mullahs he defeated in last June’s elections, have conducted a massive campaign of character assassination against him. This has come in the form of leaks, sound bites, and outright attacks in the media and pubic gatherings.
Two mullahs, both former presidents, are leading the campaign against Ahamdinejad. One, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has not yet recovered from the shock of losing to Ahmadinejad whom he had once dismissed as “lightweight” and “an upstart”. The other Muhammad Khatami is sore because Ahmadinejad cut the budget of the so-called “ dialogue of civilisations” that the former president had created to hoodwink the Western powers and the Arabs into believing that the regime was burying its Khomeinist ideology for good.
Both mullahs are also worried about the audit that Ahmadinejad has ordered to find out how public finances were administered in the past 16 years, that is to say during the successive presidencies of Rafsanjani and Khatami. An initial report claims that some $120 billion out of a total of $600 billion in Iran’s oil income since 1979 is not “ properly accounted for”.
The Khatami-Rafsanjani faction is also sore at the fact that many of its members have lost the plum jobs they had secured over the past 16 years. Many provincial officials have been dismissed and some 30 ambassadors are to be replaced. The purge started by Ahmadinejad has also spread to major public corporations that have been used as milking cows in a complex system of distributing favours.
If the current trend continues it could pull the carpet from under the feet of the new elite of rich mullahs and their hangers on formed over the past quarter of a century. Some of the new rich produced by the Islamic revolution have already fled the country and are beginning to settle in various Western countries. Others are selling their assets, hence the collapse of the Tehran Stock Exchange, in a “ take the money and run” scenario.
But class warfare is not the only reason why rich mullahs hate Ahmadinejad. They also hate him because he is reviving the original revolutionary discourse of Khomeinism without any “ taqiyah” (dissimulation).
The concepts and ideas that Rafsanjani and Khatami treated as mere metaphors are being redefined as literal truths under Ahmadinejad.
One key concept is that of the Hidden Imam, the awaited Mahdi of the Twelver Shi’ites. To Rafsanjani and Khatami this is no more than an escathalogical idea with little immediate relevance to the actual life of society. Ahmadinejad, however, has restored the concept of the Hidden Imam as the central truth of Iran’s political, cultural, economic and social life. He has written and signed a pact with the Hidden Imam and has asked all officials to do so, a move that, taken to its logical conclusion, dispenses with the need for any mullahs including the“ Supreme Guide”. Thus the government of the Islamic Republic becomes answerable to the Hidden Imam and not to the “ Supreme Guide” or the Iranian electorate.
This reinterpretation of Twelver Shi’ism excludes not only any form of rule by the mullahs but also any form of electoral democracy. In this way Ahmadinejad hopes to outflank the two principal political forces that have been fighting for power in Iran since the middle of the 19 th century. His message is: neither mullahrchy, nor democracy.
Ahmadinejad has also changed the Islamic Republic’s international profile. Unlike Rafsanjani and Khatami who spoke one way inside Iran and another way outside, Ahmadinejad uses the same discourse everywhere. He addressed the United Nations’ General Assembly in the same way he addresses a gathering of Jihadists in a suicide-bomber training camp in Tehran. Unlike Rafsanjani who talked of business and trade, Ahmadinejad speaks of struggle and sacrifice. Unlike Khatami who spoke of Descartes and Hegel to impress the West, Ahmadinejad speaks of the revolutionaries of classical Islam such as Abazar al-Ghaffari and, of course, Imam Hussein.
Unlike Rafsanjani and Khatami who tried to redefine Islam in a way as to please the modern world, a world that is shaped and dominated by Western ideas, Ahmadinejad is trying to revive the purest definition of the faith and asserts that Islam is an alternative to the current global system and not a candidate for becoming a small part of it.
Ahmadinejad’s radical discourse has also confused the fake Islamists who send their children to study at Western universities but who insist that the children of the poor should attend Koranic schools only. Those who have tried to build a life on the basis of a little bit of Islam and a little bit of Western modernism are made uncomfortable by Ahmadinejad who is forcing everyone to take sides. What Ahmadinejad is saying is simple: one cannot be half pregnant, either you are or you are not.
Seen in that context Ahmadinejad’s pledge to wipe Israel off the map like “a stain of shame”, is an attempt at forcing everyone to take sides on what has been the longest running conflict in modern Middle East. Ahmadinejad is asking everyone to decide the nature of the Israel- Palestine conflict. Is it a conflict only about statehood, borders, security, sharing of water, settlements and diplomatic relations? If the answer is yes, the conflict cannot, indeed should not be treated, as a religious one pitting Muslim against Jew. It would be a political conflict, one of countless such conflicts throughout history. And, if it is a political conflict, then all the religious energy injected into it over the past half a century must be regarded as misplaced.
If, on the other hand, we are facing something other than a political conflict, there could be no question of ever accepting the existence of Israel as a state within any frontiers. The peace treaties that Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have signed with Israel become documents not of political expediency but of apostasy.
In less than 100 days Ahmadinejad has shaken many mullahs on their pulpits and more monkeys up their trees. The reason is that he is asking everyone to be honest with themselves. He believes that the world is heading for a clash of civilisations in which Islam is the only credible alternative to Western domination. And he is convinced that Islam can and will win.
It is now up to everyone to decide whether or not that analysis could be taken seriously or dismissed as the juvenile illusions of a novice who will, in time, learn that the real world is different. But the dilemma that Ahamdinejad has created for most Islamists inside and outside Iran cannot be ignored. He says Islam is not just a flavour to add to policies that are not, indeed cannot be, Islamic. Either we go the whole way and abolish politics as a space distinct from religion or we stop using religion as a device to give our policies the legitimacy they do not deserve.
Posing such questions is no mean feat; and in less than 100 days.