While the US chews over the change in policy regarding engagement with Iran, the Iranians have a burgeoning leadership crisis of their own. With Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini falling more seriously ill, the future leadership of the Islamic Republic seems up for grabs — and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is not too shy to make his move before an abrupt departure creates chaos:
After Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent defiant announcement about installing 3,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges in Natanz, signs of an emerging leadership crisis in Iran have appeared. They expose the power group of Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard supporters (usually backed by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei) and the more “pragmatic,” though no less extreme in their final goals, clerical leadership.
In a speech on January 8 Khamenei warned against any withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear program by any person or Iranian official in the present or in the future. Recently there have been rumors that Khamenei is seriously ill, and may die soon. His speech seems to be the proclamation of a dying man’s will.
Simultaneously, former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the recently elected chairman of the Experts Assembly, which has the authority to select the supreme leader, had an intensive two-day meeting with the top-level ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom. The most important issue discussed was the selection of a new supreme leader. Rafsanjani asserted in his speech in Qom that the Experts Assembly should choose the leader soon, in order to keep the regime safe and avoid a future power struggle after his death.
What happens if Khameini goes to his 72 virgins without having established a successor? The nation turns its lonely, veiled eyes to a triumvirate of officials to act in his stead until the Assembly of Experts can select the next true power of Iran. Right now, that triumvirate would consist of the head of Iran’s Supreme Court, a representative of the Guardian Council, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President. All of these will be hard-liners and radicals, making the appointment of a radical most likely.
Rafsanjani wants to keep that from happening. Towards that end, he has done something rather unprecedented: he has started campaigning for Khameini’s post while Khameini has the bad taste to still be alive. This sounds more dangerous than it is, mostly because Khameini’s latest speech on the nuclear program — which echoed Ahmadinejad’s lunacy of late — has rattled some within the regime. Rafsanjani is gambling that the mullahcracy will not allow Khameini to choose his successor now that he seems both close to death and less rational, although given Iranian mullahs, it must be hard to tell the difference on the latter score.
Rafsanjani has gone on Iranian television to speak about his qualifications for the role. Considered something of a clerical lightweight, he has engaged interviewers on the subject of Islam in order to improve his reputation. He even tells the story of how he convinced Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian Islamic state, that mullahs should run the government and not just lead in spiritual matters, and Khomeini replaced Abulhassan Bani-Sadr as a result.
Why is that important? Bani-Sadr was not a mullah. Neither is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The internal dissent within the mullahcracy appears to have grown. The military pressure placed on Iran by the US and the British have had a dividing effect on the Iranian government, with the first official objection within Teheran to the nuclear program’s continuance coming last week. Rafsanjani may use this dissension to press for an impeachment of Ahmadinejad and his ascension to the post, perhaps sooner than later. American attempts to open a dialogue on Iraq may be complicated by the lack of a clear contact within the Iranian government, if Rafsanjani continues his efforts.