Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad getting a rough deal from his rivals within the Khomeinist regime?
Judging by the daily chorus of derision organized against him in Tehran the answer must be yes.
Many mullas worried about Ahmadinejad's thinly disguised intention to drive them back to the mosques, are using their pulpits to pour invective on him. Last week they went as far as calling for his impeachment and removal from the presidency on unspecified charges. An Iranian website is even taking bets on Ahmadinejad being forced out within less than a year.
The problem with Ahmadinejad's Khomeinist foes is that they do not quite know where to place him. For over a quarter of a century the mulla-businessmen who have dominated Iran since the Khomeinist seizure of power have had it easy against their opponents.
Anyone who called for a free media and fair elections was branded as "an agent of Imperialism and Zionism." Those who called for social justice and a fairer deal for the poor were dismissed as "remnants of the bankrupt left".
Those who wanted a mixture of Islam and Marxism were called "the munafeqin" (hypocrites) and agents of the fallen Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. Those who talked of Iranian nationalism in the context of a plurimilennial history were branded as "monarchist enemies of the revolution". Finally, the extra-pious Muslims who expressed shock at the way the mullas were plundering the country were labeled "plotters against Islam."
In many cases any of those labels could lead to death by execution. According to Amnesty International, the mullas have executed almost 100,000 of their political opponents since 1979. Hundreds of thousands more were sent to prison and almost five million driven into exile.
Interestingly, much of the criticism made against the rule of the mullas by all those branded opponents of the regime has now become part of Ahmadinejad's official discourse. He is talking of "decades of corruption and repression" and promises to bring to book "all those who have robbed the people." Worse still, he is making it clear that the 1979 was not about having more but less individual freedom. He also exposes the so-called moderate mullas who talk of "religious democracy" as frauds out to deceive the Iranians and hoodwink the gullible Westerners.
For mullas like Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad is the worst possible nightmare. For he is dismantling their business empires while exposing their so-called "moderate" discourse as a sham.
These mullas cannot brand Ahmadinejad either as a monarchist or a nostalgic leftist. Nor can he be charged with collaboration with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. To question his religious piety is also impossible while it is now clear that Ahmadinejad is better versed in the Qur'an and the Hadith (sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) than most mullas.
The Rafsanjani-Khatami faction cannot question Ahmadinejad's revolutionary credentials. For, he is much more a child of the revolution than they.
He has no pre-revolutionary past to speak of while the mullas who oppose him al had interesting business, political or bureaucratic careers before Khomeini's seizure of power.
In a recent visit and in an informal chat with citizens in Khorassan, Ahmadinejad reminded everyone that the 1979 events that led to the seizure of power by Khomeini had been "a revolution, not a garden party.
Ahmadinejad knows that a revolution is like a bicycle: It keeps you up and going as long as you keep pedaling. Stop pedaling and you are sure to fall head on.
And a revolution, which certainly is not like a garden party, needs enemies to divest of privilege, to drive into exile, to imprison and, whenever necessary, to massacre. A revolution needs fifth columnists to kill and foreign foes to face. It must incite followers of one faith against those of another, and prosecute those who subscribe to an ideology in the name of another ideology. A revolution must incite the poor against the rich and the common folk against privileged elites. The symbol of the revolution is the guillotine.
Thus if the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction consider themselves to be revolutionaries they must rally to the banner of Ahmadinejad's "second revolutionary wave." But if they believe that the Khomeinist revolution, though a historic fact, was a tragic mistake, they should say so and join those who want the revolutionary episode in ran to come to a definitive close. A revolution cannot be reformed for reform and revolution are as far apart as fire and water. But a revolution can be brought to an end, as history has shown on countless occasions, including in such afflicted countries as France and Russia.
Are mullas like Rafsanjani and Khatami trying to deliberately misunderstand the Ahmadinejad phenomenon?
Sometimes they describe the new president as "nothing but a pawn" in the hands of occult groups and organizations such as the Hojatieh (the followers of the Hidden Imam) or the Usulyoun (The Fundamentalists). They claim that he not only has no policy but is not even capable of knowing what policy is. At other times, however, the same pawn is described as "a dangerous dictator" as if the Islamic Republic ahs not been a dictatorship all along.
None of those labels, however, seem credible. Ahmadinejad has started a massive purge of all levels of the state apparatus and the public sector of the economy. Hundreds of officials and businessmen who belong to the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction have been purged and legal proceedings are impending against scores of them on charges of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. Ahmadinejad has also imposed his style on virtually all public servants. Clearly, he is nobody's pawn.
But is he a dictator? It is too early to tell. But what is certain is that he has not done what Rafsanjani and Khatami did during their presidency; the two mullas between them held the presidency for 16 years. During Khatami's eight-year stint as president over 300 newspaper, magazines and other journals were closed down and over 3000 journalists, intellectuals and university teachers imprisoned for varying lengths of time. Khatami also established a black list of Iranian and foreign authors that contained more than 4000 names. The list of works banned, including some by a number of Iran's greatest classical poets, was even longer.
Ahmadinejad, however, has not closed down any newspapers, at least not yet. Nor has he ordered the arrest of any journalist or academic — again at least not yet.
He may well turn out to be the dictator that his rivals claim he is. And he may even prove to be a crypto-fascist with a religious veneer, as even some of his friends fear.
All he has done is to trigger a tremor at the heart of the new ruling class that has taken shape in the past quarter of a century. He has cancelled some big contracts awarded to South Korean, Chinese, Malaysian, Turkish and Austrian companies represented in the Iranian market by members of the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction. He has, as already noted, also booted out hundreds of cronies and provoked much excitement among Iran's poorest masses.
In other words, he is trying to keep the creaking bicycle going by pedaling as hard as he can. The question is how long he can pedal.