What is the most risky position in a despotic system? Political scientists have debated the question since Machiavelli. By common consent, their answer is: the number-two. The reason is that in despotic systems, in which the top dog wields unchecked power, the number-two man is squeezed between the number one and the number three. The number one is constantly anxious about the number-two stabbing him in the back and seizing the top position. Sizzling with ambition, the number-three would stop at nothing to destroy the number-two and move up the ladder.
In the Bolshevik system, as long as Lenin was alive, Leon Trotsky was number two and Josef Stalin number three. Once Lenin had disappeared, Trotsky was forced into exile and then assassinated. Hitler’s number-two, Rudolf Hess, escaped to Britain before he faced a disagreeable fate decreed by the Fuhrer. Liu Shao-chi, for long number-two to Mao Zedong, ended up cleaning toilets in a Red Guard camp. The next number-two, Lin Biao, died in a prearranged air crash.
The despotic system created in Iran by Ruhallah Khomeini has several chapters about number-two men who ended badly.
When the mullahs’ revolt started in 1978, the consensus was that Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari was number-two to Khomeini, at the time
exiled in Iraq.
I knew Shariatmadari and wondered how such a gentle human being could be number-two to a tough-guy like Khomeini. I was not surprised when Khomeini decided to destroy Shariatmadari by subjecting him to a televised de-frocking spectacle, something never done in Shi’ite Islam before. Several members of Shariatmadari’s family were executed and several others exiled. The ayatollah died in a hospital room that had been turned into a prison.
With Shariatmadari gone, it was the turn of Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Monatzeri to be promoted number-two with licence to “suspend even the basic rules of Islam.” He fared no better. Within five years, Khomeini had cast him in the role of evil incarnate. His family members were executed and he himself was put under arrest until the end of his life.
The man who engineered the downfall of both Shariatmadari and Mobntazeri was a junior mullah-cum-businessman named Ali-Akbar Bahremani who used the nom de guerre of Hashemi Rafsanjani. As number-three of the Khomeinist Mafia, Rafsanjani wanted to become number-two. By 1987, two years before Khomeini’s demise, he was where he wanted to be.
It was then that Rafsanjani made his mistake.
Once Khomeini had died, Rafsanjani could have jumped to the number-one position. The more senior mullahs regarded the system Khomeini had created as an innovation (bid’aah) and were reluctant to be openly associated with it. In any case, the circumstances under which Khomeini’s successor was chosen under the guns of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard was such that a daring number-two could have walked to the podium and claimed the top turban.
Comfortable in his number-two position, however, Rafsanjani made no such move. Instead, he pushed another junior mullah, Ali Khamenei into the top slot, hoping that the new “Supreme Guide” would remain a puppet.
It is remarkable that Rafsanjani, who had been closely associated with the creation of the Khomeinist system, chose to ignore its chief feature: the concentration of power in the hands of the “Supreme Guide”.
Hiding an enormous ego behind his faux modest façade, the man known to Iranians as “kusseh” (The Shark) believed he could outsmart anyone in the zoological power struggle that goes for politics in the Khomeinist republic.
As President of the Islamic Republic for eight years, Rafsanjani deluded himself into believing that he was the top dog in all but name, especially when he contemplated the vast network of business contacts and influence that he had built.
With his presidency over, Rafsanjani continued to believe himself to be “strongman” because of a post created for him. This was the so-called Chairman of the Expediency Council, a body supposed to rule on disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government.
On the surface, it seems a powerful perch from which to control both the executive and the legislative. In practice, it means absolutely nothing.
In hindsight, it is now clear that all along, Khamenei was plotting to cut Rafsanjani down to size. For a number of reasons, he could not do this in a single dramatic move.
Lacking a constituency of his own, Khamenei needed years before he could build a power-base. In a culture that equates age with authority, Khamenei also had to become older, growing a more substantial, and whiter, beard. The method that Khamenei chose to destroy Rafsanjani could be described as slow strangulation, the way a cobra deals with its prey.
In 2005, Khamenei arranged for the landslide election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president against Rafsanjani who had been fooled into becoming a candidate. At that time, Rafsanjani might still have carried the day had he rejected the results. Instead, he made a few moans and retreated into the fantasy world of his Expediency Council.
In 2009, Rafsanjani had a second chance, if not to become number-one, at least to get even. Whatever the truth of the matter, a substantial chunk of politically active Iranians believed that Ahmadinejad had lost the presidential election. Again, Rafsanjani hesitated in a system in which the slightest tergiversation could mean political death. For the second time in four years, the opiate of the Expediency Council lulled him into deadly slumber.
Last Tuesday, the cobra decided to squeeze harder.
In a 63-word laconic “edict” Khamenei appointed Hashemi Shahroudi, a mullah of Iraqi origin, as Chairman of a new state organ named: The Council for Discernment between the Three Powers.
Khamenei cites Article 110 of the Constitution as the legal basis for the new organ. It was under the same article that was utilized to set up Rafsanjani’s Expediency Council. The new organ means pulling the carpet from under Rafsanjani’s feet, leaving him in the air. It is not clear whether “the shark” will continue having an office and a chauffeur-driven limousine. But it is certain that, the once powerful number-two, has pulled the number zero.