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Q & A with Mashallah Shamsolvaezin | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In this interview, Iranian analyst, sociologist and journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, talks to Asharq Al-Awsat about the political situation in Iran. The interview proceeded as follows:

Q) Will the political future of Iran be confined to rivalry between the conservative and pragmatic hardliners whilst the influence of the reformists decreases?

A) I will never forget what one senior conservative once said: “We will create a replica of the reformist camp within the conservative camp.” These words were brought into action in the conservative camp that has emerged under the leadership of Ali Larijani, former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and current Parliament Speaker. Another current [constitutes of] technocrats led by Mohammed Qalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran, who seem to oppose many of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s approaches. With regards to some issues, they seem share a similar view to the reformists.

However, I believe that the political scene of the near future in Iran will not be confined to rivalry between the two trends of the reformist conservatives – if such a term can be used – under Larijani and Qalibaf on the one hand, and the fundamentalist conservatives, under Ahmadinejad on the other. I believe that the real reformist current will also be present due to the numerous failures that we have witnessed in the policies of Ahmadinejad whether in terms of domestic or foreign policy.

Q) Are you depending on the role of pragmatic conservatives? Do you believe they could really make a difference?

A) I am quite pessimistic in this respect. I believe that the conservative current, (because of the popularity of the reformists in Iranian society and the dissatisfaction of Ahmadinejad’s performance regarding many issues, especially the economy) is playing a very intelligent political game. Basically, it is handing out roles to its currents and creating fabricated internal rifts. For instance we have the “neo-conservatives”, “reformist conservatives” and “fundamental conservatives”. Why do conservatives use the word “reformist?” This word in Iran is highly-appreciated by society. Conservatives use this term to preserve the camp on the one hand, and to put the ball in the court of the reformists on the other. That is why the upcoming political scene in Iran will be diverse and mixed because there is an undeclared alliance between the reformists of the current parliament and the “reformist conservatives” under Larijani to confront Ahmadinejad in parliament and to put pressure on him.

Q) Would it be fair to say that this is the beginning of the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency?

A) I believe that Ahmadinejad’s presidency has already ended. It ended a long time ago. However, because of the strong support that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei lent to President Ahmadinejad in his confrontations with the West, Ahmadinejad is still around. Ayatollah Khamenei wants to adopt stronger foreign policy towards the West until Iran gains official recognition from the US and the West on two issues: firstly, the nuclear program and Iran’s right to possess nuclear technology for peaceful purposes along with the nuclear fuel cycle and the enrichment process. Secondly, acknowledging Iran’s geostrategic position regarding Iraq and the Middle East. If the Iranian political regime, I am talking about the political regime as a whole here, succeeds in gaining this recognition, Ahmadinejad might have no significance at all.

Usually, Iranians prefer to sit and negotiate with the US and others from a position of power. Until we reach this stage, I believe that Iran will follow a hard-line policy and will not be flexible regarding foreign policy. Yet, on the domestic level, I think more flexibility and moderation will be shown and there will be more control and accountability from parliament regarding Ahmadinejad’s policies and his poor economic performance.

Q) The balance of power in Iran is complicated. You spoke about reformist conservatives like Larijani and Qalibaf, hard-line conservatives such as Ahmadinejad, and there are also reformists like Mohammed Khatami. There are also pragmatic reformists such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Out of all of these powers, who is the most influential?

A) In order to ensure the political regime, groups in all parts of the world must take on the state project. Any state project, whether imperial, socialist, capitalist or Islamic, must have a group behind the scene that practices political authority. In the US, a Cartel or the capitalists assume this role.

In other societies, the middle class shoulders this responsibility. In Scandinavian societies, there are civil organizations that protect the political system against any foreign threat. In Iran, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, we, and many observers and researchers, expected that clerics would be responsible for taking on the state project in Iran. But due to objective and very simple reasons, such as the fact that the clerics had no connection to sources of wealth, clerics failed to assume that role. They are consumers of wealth but not producers. This is a global phenomenon. The clerics in Iran could not establish any firm bond with sources of wealth and because those who assume the political system project must have close ties to sources of wealth, so the role of the clerics is now receding in Iran. In every parliamentary election in Iran, the number of clerics taking part declines. Why? Because they are gradually withdrawing from the political arena because they have no connection to sources of wealth.

The second reason relates to the absolute loyalty that those who take part in the political project must have to the governing regime. As we all know, in democratic and semi-democratic societies, there is no such thing as absolute loyalty. There is negotiation, bargaining, and clashes of interests. All these control the sources of power in any society. The Iranian political system was searching for absolute loyalty for its unique structure and regime. But it fell short of securing this loyalty even among clerics and political parties in Iran. The Iranian regime searched for potential figures to take on the state project only to discover that the military institution, and I do not mean the army here but the Revolutionary Guard, is far more loyal to the existing political regime than any other group in Iranian society.

Furthermore, during the last decade, the Revolutionary Guard excelled in establishing close relations with sources of wealth. All economic projects in Iran are now run by the military institution. Therefore, bit by bit, the Revolutionary Guard, under which millions of members are enlisted both as regular members and volunteers, is transforming to become the bearer of the Iranian state project in its new form, or as it is called in English, the “Deep State”. The concept of Deep State relates to a number of countries around the world including countries similar to Iran such as Pakistan and Turkey, and even Israel. In all these countries, army generals join top political parties and come to control political authority.

Therefore, I will answer your question about who has most influence based on political-sociological studies by saying that ever since President Ahmadinejad came to power, the military institution, not the political parties, is controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is why in the current parliament, about 63 percent of its members come from a military background and were part of the Revolutionary Guard. This has been declared officially.

With regards to the executive authority, wherever you look, you find that the Revolutionary Guard controls the institutions, municipalities and government bodies as well. Mohammed Qalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran, comes from the military institution. All officials affiliated to Tehran’s city hall have military backgrounds.

Parliament Speaker Dr Ali Larijani also comes from the military institution, the Revolutionary Guard to be precise. The Supreme Council for National Security is also run by the military institution. President Ahmadinejad comes from a military background as well. Many cabinet ministers belong to the military institution. All economic projects with a budget of 10 million dollars or more are all virtually controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are the real rulers of Iran today. Until further notice, the military institution remains responsible for taking on the state project. The Basij form the foundation of this entity and if we look at the top of the political pyramid, we can see that this entity dominates the political structure.

Q) Do you believe that the reformative project was courageous at first to the extent that it frightened the Supreme Leader who personally began to confront the reformative project and its leadership and that Iran further strengthened the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij to protect the state project?

A) This is a good explanation of what happened. To clarify matters further, I believe that there are two reasons for that qualitative shift in Iran. This shift began during the second term of former President Mohamed Khatami in 2000. The first reason is that the reformative movement had to change its course and overstep President Khatami’s slogans that aimed at secularizing the state was due to the lack of a distinct strategy and the harassment it had faced from the authority, the Revolutionary Guards and all government institutions affiliated to the conservatives. The conservatives within the reformative movement were the main reason for the strategic concerns in the minds of religious scholars, especially Khamenei. The major question that was raised was: what is the destiny of the Islamic state and religious rule? Today, Khamenei emerged from the polls and tomorrow Abdullah Nouri (one of the most prominent reformists in Iran and the former Minister of Interior under Khatami) will emerge and the day after tomorrow somebody who is one hundred percent secularist will emerge. These are concerns that exist in the political mentalities of any political regime. I’m not criticizing Iranian society because such concerns exist in all societies.

So the first reason for the rise of the military institution was the emergence of the radical wing of the reformative movement surpassing the slogans and values brought forward by Khatami.

The second main reason [for the qualitative shift] was America’s tough stance towards Iran during the reformative era, which many observers failed to notice. During the Clinton-Khatami era, the US placed Iran on the Axis of Evil list and Clinton brought in tough sanctions in the framework of the D’Amato bill. This caused the conservatives to be even stricter in Iran. The conservatives said to the reformists: where will you go? If you head to the West, this is how you will be treated. This is the West’s response to your policy of openness to the world. This is what paved the way for Ahmadinejad to emerge as a hardliner to confront that difficult period under George W. Bush. President Ahmadinejad’s example is the product of two extremist movements: the first being that of the West towards Iran and the second is the extremism within the reformative system in Iran. This is the reason why Ahmadinejad came to power.

Q) Is Hashemi Rafsanjani still powerful in Iran? Could his positioned be weakened for the sake of a certain party?

A) In Iran, we describe President Rafsanjani as “progressive.” He is a pragmatic and progressive figure who founded the Executives of Construction party that contributes to reconstructing parts of Iran after the war with Iraq.

But this stage required the international community to be tougher. Therefore, President Rafsanjani was not the most suitable [leader] for that period because of his well-known strategy of openness for the region. He was ousted from the political game in the 2005 presidential elections. Why did Khamenei sacrifice President Hashemi Rafsanjani for the sake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Because he believed that the upcoming period required a tougher rather than more pragmatic approach with regards to the West. This was due to the way that America pressured Iran in different spheres. However, in my opinion, the smart player was Ayatollah Khamenei who sensed that the upcoming period would not require openness to the West but rather a tougher stance after George W. Bush came to power. The military is the toughest party in Iran. Who was the symbol of the military institution in the elections? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is why as soon as Ahmadinejad stepped in, he began to make heated statements against Israel, the US and the West. This is what is happening in Iran.