Moments after it was presented to the Islamic Majlis in Teheran on Sunday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first cabinet was labeled by his defeated rivals and most Iran-watchers as a group of "hard-liners" handpicked by the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei.
Former majlis member Behzad Nabavi, a theorist of the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction which lost the presidential election to Ahamdinejad, has described him as nothing but "a presidential secretary to the supreme guide."
Such analyses, however, could be seen as sour grapes on the part of a faction facing not only a loss of power but possible prosecution on a range of charges related to corruption, mismanagement and murder. In fact, Ahmadinejad has promised to publish an exhaustive report on the state of the Islamic Republic at the time of his accession to the presidency. Such a report cannot but be an indictment of the Rafsanjani-Khatami administrations.
The truth is that Ahmadinejad's cabinet represents a new power coalition in which Khamenei, far from being the puppet-master, emerges as one player, albeit a big player, among many.
Last June's presidential election represented a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic for a number of reasons. This was the first time in a quarter of a century that a non-mullah was becoming president. Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the man defeated in the election, was one of the two biggest hitters within the clerical ruling elite and regarded as a pillar of the regime since 1979. That unexpected outcome was made possible by Khamenei, also a mullah, who decided to abandon his turbaned camp and ally himself to the new power coalition represented by Ahamdinejad.
But what does this new coalition consist of?
THE COMPOSITION of Ahmadinejad's cabinet provides some clues. The backbone of the new coalition consists of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a 350,000-strong parallel army which, if its veterans are taken into account, represents a popular base of between two and three million, including families of officers and men. That base is further broadened thanks to the Baseej Mustazafin (Mobilization of the Dispossessed), a paramilitary force of some 4.5 million active and reservist fighters.
Of the 21 members of the new cabinet at least eight have backgrounds of service in either the IRCG or the Baseej.
Almost all the posts related to the economy and finance have gone to the tendency known as usulgara or fundamentalist, which consists of politicians and businessmen with strong connections to the traditional bazaars. Such key ministries as Security, Justice, and the Interior have gone to individuals with long years of service within the so-called intelligence community. But the cabinet also includes a number of technocrats and professional civil servants, including in such key positions as foreign minister. At least six ministers belong to the so-called Ithari (self-sacrificing) faction of which Ahamdinejad himself is a member.
What do these factions have in common?
The first ingredient of their ideology is a firm belief that the Islamic Republic is destined to play a major historic role by mobilizing the Muslim world against what they see as "the reshaping of the world by the American Great Satan."
The second element, borrowed from the triemondiste literature of the 1960s, is the belief that the fight against colonialism and neocolonialism is far from over and that, with the physical phase of colonialism now over, the world must cope with the threat of "cultural Imperialism."
A THIRD element in the common ideology of these groups is a clear desire to broaden the base of the regime away from the mullahs who have monopolized key positions of power since 1979. This is based on the belief that the ruling mullahs have milked the system and, having become rich, can no longer share the revolutionary aspirations of the poor masses.
The fourth element of this ideology consists of a firm belief in the leading role of the state in the national economy. This does not mean doing away with the traditional private sector as represented by the bazaars, which backed Ahamdinejad in the election. But it legitimates state control over almost 70 per cent of the gross domestic product and assigns to government the task of redistributing the nation's wealth, especially the oil income. The new coalition's economic philosophy also emphasizes self-sufficiency and the need for strict controls over foreign trade and direct foreign investment.
The Rafsanjani-Khatami faction likes to describe itself as "leftist" and "reformist" and has labeled the coalition led by Ahmadinejad as "rightist" or "conservative." These labels are misleading. The Usuli-Itahri coalition led by Ahamdinejad is a radical one dedicated to a revolutionary agenda in both domestic and foreign policies.
Does this mean that a clash between the West and the Islamic Republic is inevitable?
Not necessarily. Ahmadinejad heads a more tightly-knit coalition and is supported by all organs of state, including the "Supreme Guide." Unlike Rafsanjani and Khatami, who were fakes both as revolutionaries and as reformers, Ahmadinejad is the authentic article and thus has no need to provoke foreign crises in order to underpin his radical credentials. The new coalition also thinks that it can play a long game against its real or imaginary foes, and may thus be prepared to pursue a more predictable foreign policy.