As Iran’s March 2012 parliamentary elections grow nearer, the Islamic Republic’s authorities are increasingly concerned that the country will experience public protests similar to those seen after the fraudulent 2009 presidential election. The regime is desperately trying to prevent intensified factional infighting—specifically between supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hardliner challengers—fearing it would reveal the depth of factionalism among Iran’s ruling elite.
In his August 31, 2011 sermon, Iran’s head of state Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that elections should not become “a challenge to the security of the state.” In line with this rhetoric, the Islamic Republic’s authorities have established the Principalists’ Unity Committee in an attempt to minimize factional infighting among the Iranian hardliners. These attempts at unifying the hardliners, however, have been challenged by the formation of yet another political faction, known as the “Islamic Revolution Resistance Front” (IRRF).
The IRRF criticizes Ahmadinejad’s policies, but within its ranks there is a heavy presence of erstwhile Ahmadinejad supporters. Its leader, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, is former spiritual advisor to the president. The financial backer of the IRRF, Sadeq Mahsouli, served in two ministerial posts under Ahmadinejad. Three more of Ahmadinejad’s former ministers count themselves among IRRF’s members, as do current and former advisors to the president. Their presence has made some of the president’s adversaries speculate that the IRRF’s criticism of Ahmadinejad is a deceptive tactic and a means for the president to extend his power beyond his second term.
Yet the diversity of the IRRF’s membership indicates otherwise, as it also includes some of Khamenei’s most ardent defenders among its ranks, such as: Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaght, a member of the Assembly of Experts and father-in-law to Khamenei’s son Mostafa; Gholam Ali Hadad-Adel, former parliament speaker and father-in-law to Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, and; Hojjat al-Eslam Ali-Reza Panahian, one-time representative of Khamenei to Iran’s universities and deputy head of the think tank devoted to disseminating the leader’s revolutionary ideology.
What is the glue that binds members of the IRRF? Aside from its hardline base, the only thread linking this disparate faction is its desire to survive looming political turmoil. Beyond the 2012 parliamentary elections lies the 2013 presidential vote; both of these events are sure to bring simmering hostilities to a boil with uncertain consequences. Once again, Iran’s elites are responding to unpredictable political conditions with rapid fluidity, abandoning long-term alliances in favor of short-term survival pacts.
The true depth of division among Iran’s hardliners has been made evident by the Machiavellian maneuverings over the course of the past two years by Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, yet the factional conflict unfolding in the run-up to the parliamentary elections is perhaps more revealing. Despite Khamenei’s ceaseless declamations about unity in the Islamic Republic, Iran’s political system is plagued by a disintegrative instability that is an impediment to internal progress and external relations.
With the future of Iran’s leadership difficult to discern from within, it is near impossible to engage from without. Come 2012, Washington-based proponents of negotiations with the Islamic Republic may find their argument an even harder sell than before.