Who’s in Charge?

Ervand Abrahamian

  • Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader by Kasra Naji
    Tauris, 298 pp, £12.99, December 2007, ISBN 978 1 84511 636 1
  • The Road to Democracy in Iran by Akbar Ganji
    MIT, 113 pp, £9.95, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 262 07295 3

American officials – without any trace of irony – label Iran as militaristic, aggressive, expansionist, interventionist, even as hegemonic and imperialistic. The media often echo this, depicting Iran as a cross between the Persian Empire and the Third Reich, aspiring to re-establish a Pax Iranica across the region. Neoconservatives go further, claiming that Iran ‘declared war’ on the US in 1979; that the two are in a ‘life and death struggle’; that this is World War Four (the Cold War was World War Three); and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is at the head of an Islamofascist movement out to re-create the early Caliphate.

We need to take a reality check. Iran spends $6 billion a year on its armed forces; Turkey and Israel both spend more than $10 billion, Saudi Arabia $21 billion, and the Gulf sheikhdoms, which are not so much countries as petrol stations, together easily outspend Iran. Meanwhile, the US pours more than $700 billion a year into its war machine. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran allocated as much as 18 per cent of GDP to the military; the figure is now under 3 per cent. During his recent tour of the region, Dick Cheney offered to sell $36 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms to counter the Iranian threat. In a rare candid moment, a former commander of US forces in the region admitted that Iran was an ‘ant’ that could be crushed at any time.

The US and Iran do have a real conflict of national interest – especially when national interest is determined by the maximalists rather than the minimalists in each country. The Bush Doctrine forthrightly declared that the US could remain the sole superpower of the 21st century by, on the one hand, forestalling the rise of other world powers, and, on the other, resorting to ‘regime change’ and ‘pre-emptive strikes’ to prevent the emergence of regional powers that could threaten ‘vital American interests’. This set America and Iran on a collision course, since Iran naturally considers the Persian Gulf to be on its doorstep, and since no interests are more vital to the US than oil, even if the word itself is scrupulously avoided. The Bush Doctrine may not have been given an official funeral, but Washington is now making it clear that it is willing to coexist with the Islamic Republic – so long as it does not actively threaten America’s vital interests by trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran is not a totalitarian state: the Islamic constitution, drafted in the early days of the revolution, is a hybrid, combining democracy with theocracy, vox populi with vox dei, popular sovereignty with clerical authority, modern concepts of government with Ayatollah Khomeini’s notion of velayat-e faqih (jurist’s guardianship). According to Khomeini, the clergy – in the absence of the Hidden Imam, the messiah who has yet to return – were the true guardians of the state. After all, the sharia, or divine law, was handed down to lead the community on the right path, and since the clergy had the expertise to understand, interpret and implement the sharia, it followed that they should guide the state.

The constitution gives the clergy extensive powers. It holds that the Rahbar (guide-leader) – known in the West as the Supreme Leader – has to be a ‘suitable cleric’ elected by an Assembly of Religious Experts. The Supreme Leader has the authority not only to ‘supervise’ and ‘guide’ the republic, but also to ‘determine the interests of Islam’. He appoints the commanders of the armed forces, the director of the national radio and television network, the heads of the major religious foundations, the prayer leaders in city mosques, and the members of national security councils dealing with defence and foreign affairs. He also appoints the chief judge, the chief prosecutor, special tribunals and, with the help of the chief judge, the 12 jurists of the Guardian Council – a glorified supreme court that can both vet electoral candidates and veto parliamentary bills. The Guardian Council also sets examinations for candidates to the Assembly of Religious Experts. (Reputable theologians have been known to fail.) This assembly not only elects the Supreme Leader but can also dismiss him on grounds of ill-health or incompetence.

The constitution also incorporates more democratic features. The public – through secret ballots and universal adult suffrage – has the authority to elect local councils, parliaments and presidents, as well as the Assembly of Religious Experts. Local councils supervise regional administrators. Parliament has the power to make and unmake ministers, approve government budgets, investigate questions of national importance and impeach presidents. The president, as chief executive officer, can choose ambassadors, provincial governors and, with parliamentary approval, cabinet ministers.

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