Showdown in Tehran

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is fighting for his political survival. But that doesn't mean his clerical enemies will be the winners.

While much of the Middle East is in the throes of a historic struggle for democracy, Iran's main political fissure pits the clerical establishment against muscular, nationalist upstarts who seek to usurp power. And in this contest between Iran's elite factions, the world should be rooting for the clergy.

The primary players in this battle are President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The two forged an ideological alliance in 2005 and worked closely to crush the "Green Movement" after the disputed 2009 election. They are now engaged in a public spat over the spoils of power and, more importantly, over the proper interpretation of the Shiite fundamentalist ideology that inspired the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The contest spilled dramatically into public view in April over Ahmadinejad's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to dismiss Iran's intelligence minister, and again this week with the forced resignation and arrest of the deputy foreign minister, an ally of the president's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

The political bickering masks a more fundamental dispute over the direction of the Shiite fundamentalist ideology that Iran's theocracy draws its legitimacy from. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini guided the 1979 revolution through a mix of religious zealotry and leftist revolutionary activism, with the aim of fomenting class war set to an Islamic tune. The Islamic state he envisioned was a dictatorship of the proletariat ruled by the clergy; in homage to Plato's Republic, Khomeini privileged a class distinguished by its education in Islamic law. He advanced the claim that, in the absence of the Shiite messiah, the Hidden Imam, they represent him in the world. And Khomeini assumed the position of the cleric supreme, vali-e faqih, the all-knowing philosopher-king with divine political authority.

The Islamic and the leftist components of Khomeinism came apart after his death in 1989. Exhausted by war and revolution, Iran opted for normalcy. Those interested in the Islamic aspect of the revolution, the so-called conservatives, gathered around Khamenei. They ended revolutionary activism, opened the economy to private-sector activity, and erected an authoritarian theocracy run by the supreme leader.

Meanwhile, the more radical Jacobin faction, which fed on revolutionary activism and favored a socialist economy, was pushed to the margins, only to resurface in the late 1990s in the guise of reformists. So it is that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leftist prime minister of the 1980s, has emerged as the face of the Green Movement.

Conservatives and reformists-cum-reconstructed-leftists have fought over power for the past two decades. Reformists have placed their hopes in elections and a Vatican II-style transformation of Shiite theology. Conservatives have resisted tampering with both religion and ideology and have used brute force to hold on to power. In the process, Iran's Shiite fundamentalist ideology, shorn of its leftist legacy, turned stolid and unpopular, and the regime turned to repression to survive.

Ahmadinejad arrived on the scene in 2005 promising to breathe new life into the dying revolution by combining religious fundamentalism with Iranian nationalism and economic populism. This formula -- the same one Khomeini had used to dominate the revolution in 1979 -- proved to be a clever political strategy that won him the presidency. But the promise of unending revolution came crashing down in the 2009 election, when reformists mounted a winning election campaign and then brought millions into the streets to protest the fraudulent results.

What Ahmadinejad preached posed a direct threat to the supreme position of clergy in the Islamic Republic. The president and his circle of advisors are of the view that, because of the Islamic Revolution and his defeat of the reformist challenge, Iran is now a genuinely Islamic state, and the state should take over the role of the clergy.

This only confirms the singular importance of the Islamic Revolution to Shiite history and theology. If, as Khomeini claimed, the Islamic Republic is the embodiment of a just and sacred government, Shiites no longer need the clergy as the anchor of their faith. Holiness rests in the state and not the guardians of the state. The idea appeals to the muscular nationalism and Bonapartist ambitions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which believes that military might, rather than clerical leadership, sustain Iran against domestic and foreign enemies.

Many Iranians dismiss Ahmadinejad's cultish messianism as no more than boorish superstition and clever political positioning. The clerics see it as a direct threat. Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has charged his cabinet to sign a pledge committing them to serve the Hidden Imam, peppered his speeches with messianic themes, and even claimed that he leads the "Hidden Imam's government." It is a folksy but religiously charged proposition.

Ahmadinejad was ridiculed when a video clip showed him bragging to a senior ayatollah that the Shiite messiah had visited him during his 2005 address before the United Nations. The larger message, which was not lost on skittish ayatollahs, was that the lay president was giving notice that the messiah favored him over the clerics. Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's close advisor, has been blunter, declaring that Shiism can and should do without clerics and that the Islamic Republic no longer needs a supreme leader.

Unsurprisingly, many in Iran have come to see Ahmadinejad as the Shiite Martin Luther, determined to break the clergy. Senior ayatollahs have accordingly criticized the president at every turn and refused to receive him or his representatives in the holy city of Qom.

Ahmadinejad may believe the Hidden Imam is on his side, but for now Khamenei holds most of the cards: He controls the media and can mobilize the parliament, judiciary, and security forces against the president. Still, Ahmadinejad's ouster may not herald the death of his brand of Khomeinism. That will depend on how ambitious military leaders react and whether Ahmadinejad's base among the poor stays by his side. For now, both the IRGC and the base are divided over their allegiance to old Khomeinism and support for Ahmadinejad's new variety.

Around the region, Ahmadinejad has had little impact. The Shiite revival in the Arab world, which started in Iraq in 2003 and spread across the region, looks to the Iraqi Shiite religious center Najaf's quietist brand of the faith for inspiration. In pockets of Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon, where Khomeinism commands support, fealty belongs to Khamenei. The supreme leader has even bypassed Ahmadinejad's government and assigned a trusted advisor to oversee relations with Hezbollah.

Yet any victory the clergy could win against this new upstart will only be a Pyrrhic one. Ahmadinejad is a threat to clerical supremacy, but without him, Khomeinism is even more vulnerable to reformist challengers. The alternative would be a right-wing ideological state -- nationalist, fundamentalist, populist, and ruled by militarism, something akin to the Japan of the 1930s. And that cannot last. In this contest between Iran's elite factions, the world should be rooting for the clergy -- their victory will bring about the quickest end to the Islamic Republic.



Bahrain Doesn't Want Stability

Keeping the country off balance is good for royal business.

A military tribunal in Bahrain has sentenced eight prominent opposition activists to life imprisonment and 13 others to lesser prison sentences, on charges of seeking to topple the monarchy and collaborating with a foreign terrorist group, among a host of other charges.

The group was arrested in March as part of the Saudi-backed security crackdown on pro-reform protesters who had occupied the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama. Most of those sentenced are leaders or sympathizers of a coalition formed during the uprising that advocated the establishment of a republic and an end to the 200-year-old Sunni monarchy.

One of the sentenced men is Ibrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of the secular left-of-center Waad party, which never called for a republic but rather for a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy.

The sentencing comes just a week before the launch of a "national dialogue" by the government to discuss reforms in the country.

Due to the closed nature of the military tribunal, it is not exactly clear what evidence was provided to prove that the men were guilty of the charges against them. There's no doubt that all except Sharif openly called for the fall of the Al Khalifa regime. But there is no proof that they planned to use violence or that they were being aided by a foreign terrorist group (read Hezbollah and Iran).

If the government did have evidence to prove its claims, you can be sure that it would have already been broadcast on Bahrain's state TV network during the televised witch trials that take place every night in parallel to the one in court.

Government spokespersons have repeated in the media ad nauseam the claim that the defendants, and specifically Hassan Mushaima, called for the establishment of an "Islamic Republic" à la Iran. Once again, no evidence has yet been provided to prove this allegation, even though all their speeches at the Pearl Roundabout are publicly available online. In fact, there are several videos showing the leaders at Pearl Roundabout calling for unity between Sunni and Shiite and equal rights for people of all religions in the country -- but no statements calling for an Iranian-style theocratic regime.

So why have these individuals been specifically targeted and not some other opposition leaders? From the regime's point of view, these individuals pose far more of a threat than the mainstream Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq, which held 18 of 40 seats in the lower house of parliament, prior to resigning in protest in February.

Of course, these individuals -- barring Sharif -- did call for the fall of the regime in a Tunisia/Egypt-style revolution. But the history runs deeper. Even before this year's uprising, the defendants formed the rejectionist faction of Bahrain's opposition. When al-Wefaq chose to end its boycott of parliamentary elections in 2006, then members Mushaima, Abduljalil al-Singace, and Abdul Wahab Hussein (all given life sentences on Wednesday, June 22) broke away to form their own parties: Haq and al-Wafa. Their argument was that participation would give legitimacy to a Constitution that was imposed without the will of the people.

Their strategy since then has been to lead a campaign against the regime using street protests, and also to try to internationalize their cause. In 2006, for example, the Haq party led a nationwide signature-collection campaign to petition the United Nations to intervene on the question of constitutional reform.

Similarly, human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja (also sentenced to life imprisonment Wednesday) has played a central role in bringing economic and political rights to the top of the human rights agenda in Bahrain. His group has encouraged youth to speak out and take to the street to address issues like unemployment, poverty, and sectarian discrimination. In 2004, he publicly stated what no one else in Bahrain dared to say before. At a seminar, he criticized the long-serving prime minister -- the king's uncle -- for corruption and accused him of being a major cause of poverty in the country. He was arrested the next day, sparking protests demanding his release. Those protests paved the way for more demonstrations and organization, which eventually culminated in this February's uprising.

In other words, the men sentenced this week have been a consistent thorn in the side of the regime. Almost all have been arrested at one time or another over the past 30 years on very similar charges. But there is also something about their ideology that the regime finds threatening. The rejectionist camp represents a new trend among Shiites in Bahrain, in distinction to more traditional groups like al-Wefaq. For all the government's attempts to paint the rejectionists as religious radicals, this trend emphasizes rights rather than religious duties and piety, much like what University of Illinois scholar Asef Bayat calls "post-Islamism."

For example, in a speech given by Khawaja in January 2009 in central Manama during the commemoration of Muharram, a Shiite festival in remembrance of the martyrdom the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, he lays out his view of how standing up to injustice is a more important part of Shiism than practicing the Shiite religious rites. He prefaces his argument by stating that his message goes out to all people regardless of sect or class.

And though the rejectionist camp is more radical in its political demands, it is in many ways less sectarian than al-Wefaq. For example, Haq's central committee originally consisted of a Sunni cleric and a noted leftist (though they parted ways with the group during the uprising).

The rejectionists are also far less reliant on the Shiite clerical establishment for legitimacy than is al-Wefaq -- which makes it more difficult for the regime to control or co-opt the movement.

In all of this, why has Sharif, the leader of a political society with far more moderate demands, been lumped in with the rejectionists? For starters, he was the first of the non-rejectionist politicians to endorse the Feb. 14 protests. But more importantly, as the most prominent Sunni political leader in the protest movement, his presence challenged the sectarian narrative that the regime has been so desperate to sell to the international media. Indeed, when he arrived at the Pearl Roundabout for the first time after its occupation, he was given a hero's welcome and lifted on to the shoulders of the mostly Shiite protesters as a symbol of Sunni-Shiite unity. Another prominent Sunni, Mohammed al-Buflasa, was arrested after he gave a speech at the roundabout in support of the protesters, and he remains in detention today without having been charged.

So what's next? There is still an appeal process for the sentenced activists. We may also see a repeat of past routine, wherein the king pardons the detainees -- a sign of his magnanimity -- without the suspects being declared innocent. It is by no means clear, however, whether the king is in full control this time around.

Buoyed by the backing of Saudi Arabia, the hard-liners within the Al Khalifa regime (led by the prime minister) may not want to see these activists pardoned. Surely they know that putting them in jail will not lead to a return of stability (scattered protests against the ruling class have already reportedly started in Shiite villages across the country). Rather, they may be relying on instability to stay in power.

Whereas the king and crown prince would remain in their positions if there were a transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy, many others in the royal family stand to lose a great deal. They will no longer be guaranteed their postings as ministers, advisors, judges, ambassadors, and military officers, and they will correspondingly lose their ability to extract rent as a source of income. Continued instability allows the hawks in the family to rally support from the Sunni establishment and more importantly from Saudi Arabia to ensure the continuation of the status quo.

After all, it's worked for the last 40 years. Why change now?