On the surface, the stage is set for a new power struggle in Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already thinking of re-election in 2009, sees himself counter-balanced by his three rivals in the 2005 race.
There is the inevitable Hashemi Rafsanjani, the mullah-cum-businessman crushed by Ahamdinejad in the final round of the last election. Since then, Rafsanjani has made a spectacular comeback as chairman of two key organs of state: the Assembly of Experts ( Majlis al-Khobara), which, theoretically at least, elects the “ Supreme Guide”, and the Council of Discernment ( Majlis al-Tashkis al-Maslahat al-Nizam) that arbitrates between the Islamic Majlis and the government headed by the President.
Those two posts give Rafsanjani enough clout vis-a-vis the radical president. But even without such posts, Rafsanjani, thanks to his immense wealth, widespread connections, and background as a close aide to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, remains a heavy-weight in the way that Ahmadinejad is not.
Then there is General Muhamamd-Baqer Qalibaf, an ambitious soldier who became Mayor of Tehran almost two years ago. Qalibaf has visited a number of foreign capitals and attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to project himself as a possible challenger to Ahmadinejad next year.
In 2005, Qalibaf was the favourite candidate of at least one faction within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Many had expected Qalibaf to win because he had enlisted as head of his campaign a son of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi.
Qalibaf’s friends claim he was “made to lose” because the mullahs didn’t like his image as “strongman”. In any case, Qalibaf is still around and, almost certainly, dreaming of winning what he believes he should have won three years ago.
The third man in the triangle is Ali Larijani, alias Ardeshir, who has just been elected to the influential position of Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament.
A candidate in the presidential election of 2005, Larijani was last but one in the number of votes won. Nevertheless, this spring he managed to get elected with a good score in Qom, the heartland of the mullahs. Then, he won his new post with the highest number of votes that anyone has received in an election for the speakership of the Majlis, since 1984. The fact that the man he defeated, Ghulam Haddad-Adel, is a close relative of the “Supreme Guide” indicates that Khamenehi wanted Larijani to win.
Larijani has other advantages. As son of a mullah, he is the darling of the traditional clergy. But he is also “appreciated” in the West. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy czar, makes no secret of his admiration for Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator.
“ He is a man we could work with, ” Solana has said. Larijani also has admirers in London and Washington. Two members of the British House of Lords, speaking on condition of anonymity, tell us that only Larijani could prevent a final rupture between the EU and Tehran.
Tehran wisecrackers see the new situation as one that gives Khamenehi a chance for playing the three-card trick. He has three men each of whom offers something distinct. Khamenehi could play the Rafsanjani card to reassure businessmen, conservative mullahs, and the bureaucracy. The Qalibaf card is useful for winning over IRGC officers and their business associates plus those who hope that the revolution will, at last, produce its own Bonaparte.
The Larijani card could be played if and when the Islamic Republic feels it is seriously threatened by military action by the United States. Larijani could be put forward as a man of negotiations and peace. His presence would enable the Europeans to restrain the Americans, in case John McCain ends up as President of the United States.
If you want a banquet, call Rafsanjani.
If you want to frighten your opponents, play the Qalibaf card.
If you want to hoodwink the Europeans, who demand only to be hoodwinked provided this is done nicely, play the Larijani card.
The Persian poet Sanai said that two elements are needed to take and hold a country: one yellow, the other silk-like. The yellow one , of course, is gold; and the silk-like one is the sword.
In the modern world, a third element is needed, something red- a tongue to caress and cajole friend and foe. In his three cards, Khamenehi has all three elements.
Having said all that, it would be unwise to forget the fourth card, the wild one: Ahmadinejad.
Getting rid of him would not be easy, especially if he is able to claim a full record of success. He has bullied and humiliated the Americans and put the issue of “ wiping Israel off the map” at the centre of debate, without serious consequences. He has revived revolutionary slogans that Rafsanjani, Qalibaf and Larijani feel it is no longer polite to mention. If Tehran really wants to make the bomb, Ahmadinejad has provided the first key elements needed.
Thanks to unexpectedly high oil prices, Ahamdinejad has had plenty of money to throw around, and secured a lot of personal support by spending vast sums in the poorest parts of the country. This may be bad economics, as his Central Bank Governor Tahmasp Mazaheri asserts. But at a time that the regime is on the defensive on the domestic political front, calming ardour with money may be not be unwise.
To force Ahmadinejad not to seek re-election won’t be easy.
He thinks he has a mission from the “Hidden Imam” and would not let others interfere before it is accomplished.
It would, of course, be possible to arrange the polls so that he loses to a new favourite- presumably one of the three cards.
However, that, too, won’t be easy. No president of the Islamic Republic has been forced to drop out of a re-election against his will. To pretend that voters have rejected Ahmadinejad, would be an admission that the record of the past four years is condemned by Iranians, something that the “ Supreme Guide” as the man ultimately responsible for power would have to ponder.
More importantly, perhaps, today Ahamdinejad has his own popular base within the Khomeinist movement. Many like his anti-corruption discourse, even though it has not produced much action.
As long as no one stops him, there is no reason why he should stop.
Ahmadinejad remains the revolutionary joker in the pack.