Beset by sanctions and isolated internationally, Iran decides to test its system of checks and balances.
Casual Iran observers tend to portray the country's most prominent political division as that between fundamentalist hard-liners and secular moderates. In reality, however, the struggle for Iran's future is a three-way fight waged by the different branches of conservatives that control the parliament, the presidency, and the theocracy. The Green Movement may have stalled, but the parliamentary opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has only grown stronger and more assertive over the past year -- culminating in a recent push to charge the president with abuses of power warranting impeachment. Those efforts are coming to a halt under orders from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who fears that the parliament's attempt to assert itself against the president will also be at the expense of his own power base, the country's conservative mullahs.
In fact, this isn't the first round of infighting among Iran's leaders. In July 2009, legislators warned Ahmadinejad that they would seek to oust him as the chief executive if he continued acting in an autocratic manner. Ahmadinejad responded by claiming the executive branch is the most important one of the government.
Ahmadinejad has also clashed with parliamentarians over his prerogative to influence the activities of the Central Bank. As financial hardships mount on common Iranians, in part due to mismanagement and in part from international sanctions, their elected representatives are blaming the president and his bureaucrats for the economy's woes.
It's a naked power struggle that has cloaked itself in ideology. Ahmadinejad and his cohorts in the executive branch of Iran's government increasingly reference secular Iranian nationalism. They recently celebrated an exhibition honoring Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago; they have also been known to castigate influential mullahs for diminishing Iran's greatness, going so far as to encourage the separation of religion from the government. Meanwhile parliament speaker Ali Larijani and his legislative supporters present themselves as adherents to the fundamentalist traditions of Shiite Islam and as true believers in the velayat-e faqih, Iran's system of governance by Muslim jurists.
But at its root, the infighting is motivated by differences over pragmatic political strategy. At a time of economic stagnation and international isolation, Iran's power players are all competing to put their stamp on national crisis management.
Ahmadinejad has generally held the best cards in this high-stakes game. The president, together with has chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have built up a formidable power base within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary, and the civilian bureaucracy, with which they have deep links through service, appointees, and millions of dollars in economic patronage. The power-broking clerics, including Khamenei and the hard-line ayatollahs on the Guardian Council -- the panel of Shiite scholars who vet all electoral candidates and legislation for adherence to the principles of the Islamic Revolution -- now need Ahmadinejad's support more than he needs theirs. Those mullahs handpicked Ahmadinejad to become president in 2005, re-endorsed him as "God's miracle" during the hotly contested June 2009 presidential elections, and so have associated their own legitimacy with his continued success. The president is also emboldened by the knowledge that this will be his last term, as Iran's Constitution allows only two consecutive presidential terms. Ahmadinejad no longer has to keep an eye on the opinion polls.
Khamenei, whose main concerns are to safeguard Iran's novel system of velayat-e faqih and his own role as its head, likely views both the president and parliament with suspicion. He knows that Ahmadinejad is cultivating support, on the basis of secular nationalism, from among the materialistic military and civil services. On the other hand, Khamenei knows that Larijani -- whose brother heads the judicial branch of Iran's government and whose family is of high ecclesiastic descent -- has enough clout among religious conservatives to make a seductive case for vesting popular sovereignty in the parliament rather than in the clerical hierarchy or the presidency.
All this is why too much shouldn't be read into Khamenei's support for the president in the face of impeachment -- this is a tactical, not a permanent, alliance. If the president continues to undermine velayat-e faqih, the supreme leader won't hesitate to back Ahmadinejad's rivals. And there are even more basic reasons for Khamenei to avoid a showdown with the president. Both the parliament and the supreme leader may lack the means to enforce Ahmadinejad's impeachment. When President Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached in 1981, it was only the authority of the IRGC that made his ouster possible. Now, however, the IRGC and its Basij paramilitary are divided in their loyalties between the supreme leader and the president. It would be risky to assume they would side with the mullahs. In fact, Khamenei's personal authority has been so eroded since the public protests of late 2009, as evidenced by other prominent ayatollahs openly challenging both his qualifications to hold the position of supreme leader and his insistence that religion should play a central role in politics, that it's not entirely clear whether the parliament will actually acquiesce to his calls for a show of political and ideological unity. Khamenei's best hope may be that the struggle between the parliament and president will critically weaken both.
These intraregime clashes have serious foreign-policy ramifications. Ahmadinejad's attempt to strike up a nuclear deal with the West failed in 2009 when the ayatollahs sided with naysayers in the parliament. Once again, and this time under much greater economic strain, Iran's government has another chance of negotiating accommodations that would mitigate and perhaps even lift sanctions. But Iran's ruling factions may again prove unable to unite behind a deal that will benefit their country. Parliamentarians and mullahs may balk at enabling a triumph for Ahmadinejad and his allies.
Ordinary Iranians have been the inadvertent beneficiaries of all this political gridlock. Ahmadinejad has used social liberalization as a way to shore up his support over the past year -- by encouraging women's involvement in politics, demanding that youth be free to date and wear clothing of their choice, and similar actions, much to the chagrin of theocrats and parliamentarians. The public has enjoyed greater personal freedoms as a result. Of course, that may only be a temporary reprieve. Domestic unrest over the economy is growing. Whatever their differences, it's easy to imagine Iran's warring factions agreeing to put them aside and focus on the real long-term threat to their power: the Iranian people themselves.