WHO RULES IRAN?
By Reza Molavi & Luisa Gandolfo
How did this happen? How did a man holding such views on two countries regarded throughout Iran as the Great and Lesser Satan come to such an important public position? Was something less obvious going on? Why was it so important for Khamenei to risk such a public censure of the President?
It is hard to know just what Masha'i intended by his original remarks, since they were overtaken so quickly by condemnation and denial. In themselves, they are of little importance, since they clearly did not mark any change in emphasis for Iranian foreign policy. It is the incident in its entirety that is of importance, in what it says about the workings of the regime, above all the relationship between the Supreme Leader and the President.
Moreover, Masha'i's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, a union that emerged after years of close friendship between the two families. The association denotes a predilection for domestic connections: Just as Ahmadinejad appointed Masha'i to the post of First Vice President (there being ten Vice Presidents in all), so too, he named his son-in-law, Mehdi Khorshidi, Chief of Staff — a role Masha'i would take soon after his dismissal from the Vice Presidency.
Calling the American and Israeli people "friends" engendered apoplexy among clerics and politicians alike. Two hundred deputies wrote to Ahmadinejad condemning Masha'i's remarks, and Iran's Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, criticized the statements independently.  Students protested outside Masha'i's office, calling for his dismissal.  Masha'i had identified himself with a level of liberalism [constitutional democracy] that could not be tolerated in a regime already under threat from reformists. For the Union of Islamic Students Societies, the removal of Masha'i was a crucial condition for the fundamentalist cause, as outlined in a missive to the Vice President himself: "While reaffirming our support for Mr. Ahmadinejad, the best choice for President, we believe that your immediate resignation from the post of Vice President would be the only way to serve fundamentalism." Should he refuse to comply, there would be severe repercussions: "You will be on the receiving end of the dire consequences of this appointment."  Masha'i reiterated: "I will repeat this a thousand more times, that we love the people of Israel, and I am not afraid of anybody saying that." 
But, according to Iranian state radio, on the day following his original remarks, he performed a complete about-face, saying,
He made this clearer later that same day, with two related statements:
"It is obvious that Iran cannot be friendly with Zionist usurpators [sic]. Everyone should have understood that I made a mistake by saying we are friendly with the Israeli people, while I had the Palestinians in mind … however, as stated by our dear President several times, Iranians have no enmity with the American or the Jewish people, which we distinguish from the Zionists who occupied Palestinian's homeland." 
Given the alacrity with which he reversed his position, his original statement may have been less significant than commentators have led us to believe. Clearly, something else was happening from the start. If Masha'i's initial remarks signaled a significant departure from the rhetoric customarily issued from Iran, then the response by Ahmadinejad at a subsequent press conference was just as remarkable. It is important to remember that Ahmadinejad has created a reputation for himself as an uncompromisingly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist politician. His many statements of hostility toward Jews and Israel have acquired notoriety on the world stage. For example, on October 26, 2005, he said:
Ahmadinejad made a suitably ambiguous statement in response to Masha'i's pro-Israeli sentiments. The ambiguity allowed Ahmadinejad the luxury of demonstrating solidarity with his colleague without departing from the official line. His statement also opened a way for Masha'i to make the shift in position he so quickly did: "Masha'i's word," said Ahmadinejad, "is the administration's word, and it is very clear. Our nation has no problem with people and nations."  Although surprising, Ahmadinejad's stance was not unusual, and the events of 2008 were ultimately to prove a prelude for Masha'i's appointment and the ensuing debate the following year.
Again, following Masha'i's selection, support for Ahmadinejad was less than forthcoming; for example, the reformist lawmaker Dariush Ghanbari said of the appointment: "Now lawmakers can question Ahmadinejad or even impeach him for this appointment."  Much of the concern rests on Ahmadinejad's autocratic nature: Instead of consulting the deputies before choosing his Cabinet, Ahmadinejad handed the position directly to Masha'i, a move that elicited "shock" from the Reactionary Parliament speaker Ali Larijani.  Likewise, the departure of the Minister of Information, Hujjat al-Islam Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Eje'i, is said to have followed a verbal confrontation with Ahmadinejad over Masha'i's appointment. 
Ahmadinejad and Masha'i remained indifferent in the face of strident objections — an indifference that compelled Khamenei to formally request Masha'i's removal by Ahmadinejad. On July 21, 2009, the Supreme Leader wrote to his President:
That the Supreme Leader's unspoken criticisms passed unacknowledged by the President until they were conveyed through a handwritten letter raised questions among Reactionary Traditionalist allies of Ahmadinejad as to whether the student was ignoring the voice of his master.
Nevertheless, Khamenei got his way in the end. Masha'i tendered his written resignation, stating:
Yet, Ahmadinejad's perceived insolence in the face of Khamenei's request angered many clerics, Majlis Parliament members, theologians, and the Reactionary media alike. Ahmadinejad greeted early suggestions that Masha'i should resign by asking,
This hinted at an attempt by Ahmadinejad to assert personal whims over the wishes of the Supreme Leader.
Yet, the resignation, when it came, did not mark the end of the silent antagonism. Ahmadinejad waited one week before passing the resignation letter to Khamenei, along with a brief correspondence that acknowledged the demands of protocol:
The brevity of the correspondence came close to expressing disrespect for the Supreme Leader. Moreover, while Article 57, which acknowledges the supervision of the Supreme Leader over all governmental affairs, is noted, Ahmadinejad did not mention any compliance on a religious or legal level, rendering his correspondence merely an accompaniment to the attached resignation letter from Masha'i.
The issue of Masha'i's appointment and dismissal is only a symptom of a broader malaise afflicting Iranian politics. His attempt to suggest a new démarche for Iranian foreign policy — and on such a sensitive issue — while he was Minister for Tourism and Cultural Heritage was clearly misguided and can only have tainted his reputation from that time on. But his rapid turnaround and Ahmadinejad's measured defense of his views served to give him an extended career that only reached its crisis point following the 2009 elections. Nor were Masha'i's remarks about Israel the only matters that cast doubt on his ability to maintain the trust of the religious establishment, something that, in turn, cast doubt on Ahmadinejad's wisdom in appointing him in the first place.
Given the close relationship between Ahmadinejad and Masha'i, it is questionable whether the impetus to remove him arose as a consequence of his not very important statements on Israeli-Iranian relations or whether it carried greater weight as an endeavor by the Supreme Leader to test the President's loyalty by compelling him to choose between his confidante and his master. Although Khamenei triumphed, some degree of uncertainty emerged from Ahmadinejad's lengthy hesitation. This, in turn, could prove conducive to a widening rift between the Supreme Leader and the President in an environment in which nobody is indispensable. Thus, the very system that Ahmadinejad thrives in could equally prove his downfall.
Of particular interest, is the military dimension. In the case of Iran, this chiefly means the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Sepah, the religious and governmental henchmen who have the power to silence restless citizens and enforce the whims of the authorities. Since Ahmadinejad took office, the IRGC has demonstrated a fickleness that showed it to be aligned with the President, until the rift occurred between him and Khamenei. While opting for one over the other was inevitable, given that the IRGC owes its allegiance to the Islamic Republic, rather than to the President, Ahmadinejad nevertheless took a calculated risk; the IRGC had previously supported a number of his earlier political forays against Khamenei.
This latest transgression, however, proved too much, and, as Iran specialist James Bill and Middle East politics analyst Robert Springborg note, "When leadership rests so heavily upon the military reed, then it must be prepared to collapse whenever that reed breaks."  Buoyed by previous support, Ahmadinejad leaned on the reed of the IRGC with excessive confidence, and, since he ignored the Supreme Leader, clerics, and lay Reactionaries alike in his quest to sustain Masha'i's vice presidential role, the IRGC reed finally broke. Choosing the pen over the sword as a means for conveying the switch in allegiance, the political wing of the IRGC, the Sobh-e Sadeq, published an editorial criticizing Ahmadinejad and unmistakably supporting Khamenei in the Masha'i affair.  Although the military is a requisite in ensuring the durability of patrimonialist rule, it is fragile, meaning that leaders can be made or unmade at will. In placing too much faith in the mode of governance, Ahmadinejad jeopardized his rule and his future relations with the Supreme Leader — the repercussions of which will doubtless continue to damage him through what is left of his term in office.
Nevertheless, charisma conceals its own fissures; it does not evolve, but is forged in periods of crisis or rapid change. For charismatic leadership to endure from one leader to the next, it must conform to a process, whereby successive holders of the charismatic office do so in a formalized fashion, like the Popes or the early Caliphs.  This, in turn, results in a self-contradictory evolution. According to Max Weber, the early Twentieth-Century German political economist and sociologist, pure charismatic authority lacks permanence, and thus the very elements that made the original charismatic leadership dynamic now become enshrined within the bureaucratic or patrimonial system. The fresh, original charisma becomes routinized in a more urbane form of leadership. Moreover, the effects of charismatic leadership are questionable: Impersonal, institutional charisma is a basic requirement for organizational stability,  and Ahmadinejad has shown a talent for original charisma, yet enters his second term with a much destabilized administration.
The Iranian economy is in a terminal state, yet the only salvation for it would involve casualties — in this instance, in the form of the Iranian employment market. Of course, Ahmadinejad has not been spared his portion of the blame for the economic malaise; his inability to stop spending during the oil price boom resulted in a departure from rational economic policies and the pursuance of policy by decree that resulted in "the exercise of a royal prerogative which would put the Shah to shame."  As a result, Ahmadinejad squandered not only the Iranian coffers, but also the confidence of the population. Lurching from bad to worse, the damage inflicted on the economy under Ahmadinejad reinforces the reality that the controversy arising over the appointment and dismissal of Masha'i is but the tip of a crisis-infused iceberg and that the decline in relations between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei could be the pressure that will finally break the system within this presidential term.
 Deutsche Presse-Agentur (Hamburg), Aug. 13, 2008.
 Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Aug. 13, 2008.
 Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2009.
 Asia Times (Hong Kong), Aug. 4, 2009; Middle East Strategic Information, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Aug. 8, 2009.
 "The Inevitable Clarification," IsraellyCool, July 28, 2008, accessed Dec. 4, 2009.
 Fars News Agency (Tehran), cited in ibid.
 Elihu D. Richter and Alex Barnea, "Tehran's Genocidal Incitement against Israel," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, p. 46; Joshua Teitelbaum, "What Iranian Leaders Really Say about Doing away with Israel," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, July 1, 2008.
 Asia Times, Aug. 4, 2009.
 Sami Moubayed, "Iran and the Art of Crisis Management," Asia Times, Jan. 19, 2006.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), July 24, 2009.
 Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2009.
 Le Figaro (Paris), July 27, 2009.
 Le Figaro, July 25, 2009.
 Le Figaro, July 25, 2009.
 Asia Times, Aug. 4, 2009.
 Asia Times, Aug. 4, 2009.
 Guenther Roth, "Personal Rulership, Patrimonialism, and Empire-Building in the New States," World Politics, Jan. 1968, p. 197.
 James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 5th ed. (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2000), p. 125.
 Asia Times, Aug. 4, 2009.
 Ali Ansari, "Iran under Ahmadinejad: Populism and Its Malcontents," International Affairs, July 2008, p. 8.
 Bill and Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, p. 117.
 Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, "Authority and Power in Bureaucratic and Patrimonial Administration: A Revisionist Interpretation of Weber on Bureaucracy," World Politics, vol. 38 (1985), p. 195.
 Edward Shils, "Charisma, Order, and Status," American Sociological Review, Apr. 1965, pp. 199-213.
 M. Mohajeri, "Ta'adol mahor basheed lotfan," Baztab.com, June 20, 2007, cited in Ansari, "Iran under Ahmadinejad," p. 698.
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Reza Molavi is a research fellow at the School of Government and International Affairs and the Executive Director of the Centre for Iranian Studies, University of Durham, United Kingdom. K. Luisa Gandolfo is a research fellow of the Center for the Advanced Study of the Arab World at the School of Government and International Affairs, University of Durham, U.K.
The foregoing article by Molavi and Gandolfo was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Winter, 2010, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (URL: http://www.meforum.org/2586/who-rules-iran)
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