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Mullah Muscle By: Amir Taheri
Arab News | Monday, July 11, 2005


While the outside world is trying to size up Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and decide whether or not he was involved in terrorist operations, the people of Iran are witnessing an impressive build-up of power around the newly elected president.

Ahmadinejad has hit the ground running.

Just two days after his election he sent emissaries to all the defeated candidates to warn them in no uncertain turns that they would have to cooperate with his administration or else. Even Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was beaten by Ahmadinejad, stopped sniping at his rival after receiving an offer he could not refuse. According to sources, Rafsanjani was told to either fall into line or have a special commission investigate his family's business deals. Mahdi Karrubi, another mulla who lost in the election, had promised to lodge a formal compliant against the results, alleging "massive and shameless fraud". By last week, however, he had been "persuaded" by Ahmadinejad to swallow his words. He now says that not only will he not make a complaint but is advising his supporters to rally behind the winner.

Next it was the turn of another mulla, Muhammad Khatami the outgoing president, to stop his jibes against Ahmadinejad and ask to meet him for a photo opportunity. Significantly, the president-elect insisted that Khatami call on him rather than the other way round.

The power show continued with another unprecedented scene. This time a delegation of Majlis (Islamic Parliament) deputies called on the president-elect to read him a letter of support composed in a language of panegyric usually reserved for the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. The letter was signed by over 260 of the 290 members of the Majlis, making Ahmadinejad the first president of the Islamic Republic to start work with such a huge base within the legislature.

While all this was going on Ahmadinejad's aides were busy organizing a campaign of declarations and newspapers advertisements in which prominent political, clerical and business figures expressed their support for the new president. This type of operation, unprecedented in Iran, is routine in Arab states ruled by despotic regimes.

But if there is one message that Ahmadinejad seems keen to impart is that he hopes to limit the role of the mullas in government. Instead, he intends to give the military a bigger voice in all aspects of decision-making.

This theme has been hammered in with a series of spectacular encounters that Ahmadinejad has organized with the military leaders in recent days.

The parade began with the army's Commander-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Ali Salimi who called on the president-elect to pledge "the unfailing loyalty of the armed forces". This was interesting because legally speaking the president has no direct relations with the armed forces that Khamenei is supposed to control as "Supreme Commander".

The military theme of Ahmadinejad's presidency became more emphasized Wednesday when the entire top brass of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

(IRGC) called on him to pledge loyalty.

Before the meeting the IRGC issued a statement, composed in almost lyrical prose, to welcome Ahmadinejad's victory and promise to defend his administration against "all domestic and foreign enemies."

"President-elect Ahmadinejad is a son of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard,"

the IRGC Commander-in-Chief Gen. Rahim Safavi said before the meeting. "It is our duty to make sure that he succeeds."

This was in sharp contrast to Safavi's statements eight years ago when Muhammad Khatami won the presidency. At the time Safavi had warned Khatami not to "dream of dangerous reforms", and publicly promised that the IRGC would step in to stop policies it deemed to be a threat to the regime's "truly Islamic foundations."

It may be too early to speak of "akhundzodai" (de-mullaization) of the regime as some commentators in Tehran are doing. But there is no doubt that Ahmadinejad's election brings Iran closer to the Middle Eastern model in which the military and security apparatus, rather than the clergy, provide the backbone of the state. Far from being a puppet in the hands of Khamenei, the new president, elected on anti-status quo platform, is almost certain to try and impose his own agenda.

But what is that agenda?

Domestically, we may expect a generational changeover in which older revolutionary figures, most of them mullas, are replaced by younger figures mainly emerging from the IRGC and the paramilitary Baseej Mustadafeen (Mobilization of the Dispossessed). The IRGC's expanding political role will be reflected in the appointment of new provincial governors and major city mayors with military and security backgrounds.

On the economic front, the new president will almost certainly move to the left in the sense of increasing government intervention in business, raising subsidies on basic necessities, and offering more government hand-outs for the poor.

Socially, the election may also lead to a retreat by the urban middle classes in favor of the poorer strata of society. During his eight-year long presidency Khatami tried to pander to the urban middle classes and failed to win their sympathy and support. Ahmadinejad is focusing on the lower middle class and the mass of the urban and rural poor, hoping that they would provide him with a lasting support base.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, expect the Islamic Republic to project its power more decisively. While Rafsanjani tried to sell himself as the man who could deal with the United States, Ahmadinejad told the Iranians that the US was "a failing power" and, quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini, "cannot do a damn thing" against the rising tide of the global Islamic revolution. Ahmadinejad has also dismissed the regional Arab countries as "irrelevant" to what he sees as the coming showdown between Islam and the United States. "These are not countries but petrol stations," he quipped at a recent television interview in Tehran. Later, he forecast that the Islamist revolution would, in time, spread to the entire world.

Ahmadinejad's muscular style has already affected the behavior of the Islamic Foreign Ministry that has threatened a number of countries, ranging from Bahrain to Belgium and Austria, of dire consequences for a variety of incidents.

The threat to Bahrain was related to the publication by a Bahraini newspaper of a cartoon of the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. According to the Iranian constitution Khamenei is not only the "Supreme Guide" of the Islamic Republic but also the highest religious authority for all Muslims throughout the world. Thus any disrespect to Khamenei is regarded as an insult to the entire Muslim "Ummah" (community). The threat to Belgium came after the president of the Belgian Senate cancelled a meeting with the visiting Iranian Majlis speaker because the latter refused to shake hands with the former because she is a woman. Austria received its threat after a public prosecutor in Vienna opened an investigation into the murder of three Kurdish leaders there in 1989, alleging that Ahmadinejad had been involved in the crime.

The new president is also certain to take a tougher line in the nuclear nonproliferation talks with the European Union. The daily newspaper Kayhan, which was Ahmadinejad's strongest supporter in the election, has called on him to take the Islamic Republic out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

(NPT) altogether thus making any talks with the EU and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unnecessary.

"Why do we need to talk to any foreigners about what we want to do in our own country?" demanded Hussein Shariatmadari, Kayhan's executive editor, in a recent comment.

Ahmadinejad may not go that far. He may even try to lead the EU trio up the garden path for a while. But one ting is certain: He is determined not to be a pushover.




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