What's that saying? You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? Well, after eight long years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, I'm willing to bet that even those of us who loathe the man are going to end up missing him -- not just because of the comedy he provided with his bellicose rhetoric and his inane populism, but because he may have been the last, best hope of stripping the clerical regime of its "God-given" right to rule Iran.
Back in 2011, I argued that those who oppose the clerical regime in Iran and who yearn for a more secular nation that looks for inspiration in the glories of its Persian past instead of its Islamist present may have an unexpected champion in their corner: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I was not suggesting that Ahmadinejad is some sort of democracy icon or that he is even a good guy, let alone a competent president -- though he is far more politically sophisticated than his critics generally assume. It is a Western fallacy that "more secular" necessarily means "more free." But the fact remains that no president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy, and so brazenly tried to channel the government's decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran.
Under Ahmadinejad, the presidency has become a legitimate base of power in a way it never had been before. That may explain why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lately been threatening to get rid of the office altogether.
At the time, I was skewered for the article by many in the Iranian-American community. My critics did not object to the content, they simply hated that I said something remotely positive about a man who had become the poster child for everything loathsome about the Iranian regime. I was equally taken to task by some American journalists, who seem incapable of viewing Ahmadinejad through any other lens save his absurd and odious views on Israel.
Today, Ahmadinejad's unprecedented challenge to the unchecked powers of the supreme leader is something even those who can't stand the man recognize and grudgingly admire. And now, as Ahmadinejad is about to be replaced by one of a claque of Ayatollah Khamenei's fawning admirers, we may start to think a little more kindly of these last few years.
The mullahs' conflict with Ahmadinejad goes to the very heart of what constitutes political legitimacy in the Islamic Republic. In Iran's byzantine government, the elected president is supposed to represent the sovereignty of the people while the unelected supreme leader represents the sovereignty of God. In practice, however, nearly all levers of political power rest in the hands of the supreme leader, leaving the president with very little control over policy decisions.
That is just how the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted it. Khomeini's religio-political concept of velayat-e faqih, or "guardianship of the jurist" argued that in the absence of the Muslim messiah (known as the Mahdi), the powers of government should rest with the messiah's representatives on Earth -- that is, the ayatollahs. After creating the position of supreme leader, Khomeini named himself to the office and began accumulating absolute religious, economic, and political authority, paving the way for complete clerical dominance.