February 25, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 488

Renewed Power Struggle in Iran as the Presidential Elections Approach: Part I – Ahmadinejad's Revolutionary-Messianic Faction vs. Rafsanjani–Reformist Alliance

February 25, 2009 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 488


The next presidential election in Iran is scheduled for June 12, 2009. Though it is not yet certain who the candidates will be, the election campaign has already begun. The conservatives of various stripes as well as the remnants of the reformist camp are both having a difficult time finding a worthy candidate with sufficient public appeal to win against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In August 2008, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced his support for Ahmadinejad's reelection.[1] This step was apparently meant to ensure the regime's stability and to prevent internal conflict that might upset the delicate balance between Ahmadinejad's revolutionary camp and the camp of the powerful Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his old-guard allies. By preserving the balance among the various political streams, Khamenei – who functions as Shah – is steering the Islamic Regime in Iran, maneuvering among the regime's various power groups and maintaining the fragile equilibrium between them.

Rafsanjani's conservative allies have lately been attempting to form a coalition with senior figures among the reformists loyal to the Islamic Revolution regime, such as former president Mohammad Khatami and former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi, in order to put forward an agreed-upon candidate who will enjoy broad public support against Ahmadinejad. This plan – which has come to be known as the National Unity Government initiative – seems to be a unique organized effort to challenge Khamenei's decision to back Ahmadinejad, and to update the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, offering an alternative to the messianic "Second Islamic Revolution" of Ahmadinejad's ultra-conservative camp.

Khamenei's Candidate: Ahmadinejad

Every president in the history of the Islamic Republic has been reelected for a second term in office. Ahmadinejad, however, has faced unprecedented public criticism – from both the conservative and the reformist camps – over many aspects of his policy, including: his economic strategy, which is undermining the social order in Iran;[2] his promotion of the messianic Mahdist doctrine;[3] his statements about the Holocaust and Israel; and his foreign policy, which his critics call acquiescent to the point of disregarding Iran's interests – especially vis-à-vis Russia, vis-à-vis the U.S. with regards to the negotiations on opening an American interests office in Tehran, and vis-à-vis the Gulf states with respect to the three islands claimed by the UAE.[4]

Nevertheless, Khamenei has announced his support for Ahmadinejad, and the conservatives who oppose Ahmadinejad are having great difficulty coming out against Khamenei's decision.

The media outlets affiliated with Ahmadinejad are naturally backing him, including the news agencies Fars and IRNA, the weeklies Parto-ye Sokhan and Sobh-e Sadeq, and the daily Javan, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Especially active was Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the daily Kayhan, which is close to Khamenei. In a number of recent editorials, Shariatmadari argued that Ahmadinejad, despite his flaws, was the best candidate the conservatives had. He also warned that if the conservatives were to split their support, the "treasonous" reformists might win the election.[5]

Ahmadinejad, for his part, is trying to obtain the blessing of the traditional Ayatollahs of Qom, despite their criticism of him, and was scheduled to visit them on December 25, 2008 for this purpose.[6]

Despite Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad, several other conservatives have announced their candidacy, including Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who ran against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections, and former finance minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, who was removed from his post by Ahmadinejad.[7] It seems that neither of these two enjoy extensive support in the conservative establishment; nonetheless, after Qalibaf met with Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, Ahmadinejad's supporters warned him not to run for president, lest he "vanish from the political arena."[8] Larijani himself, who also ran against Ahmadinejad in 2005, announced when he was appointed Majlis speaker that he did not intend to leave this post in order to run for president again.

The Reformists In Crisis

Despite the continued scathing criticism against Ahmadinejad, the reformists are facing their own difficulty, in finding a prominent candidate capable of inspiring the public, as did former president Mohammad Khatami. The primary reason for this is the systematic and thorough campaign waged against the reformists in recent years by the regime's conservative institutions, which significantly eroded the reformist camp. The reformists no longer have representatives in the executive branch, and their presence in the Majlis is minor, in terms of both the number and the political status of their representatives. Moreover, Khatami's term in office showed the Iranian public that even if a reformist candidate does manage to get elected, the influential conservative establishment will hobble him and strip his actions of all meaning. Khatami's associates occasionally mention him as a worthy candidate for the upcoming elections – but Khatami himself is reluctant to return to the political arena. Furthermore, it seems that because of the criticism directed against him by students and young people during his second term in office, he is now supported only by the crumbling reformist elite.

Other reformists occasionally mentioned as possible candidates (but who likewise have not announced their candidacy) are Hassan Rohani, formerly in charge of Iran's nuclear dossier; former interior minister Abdollah Nouri (who was removed from his post by the conservatives and imprisoned for three years); and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi. However, they do not enjoy broad support, for they are perceived as technocrats, or as incapable of coming up with a clear and comprehensive political, social and economic agenda.

It should be mentioned that former Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi, head of the opposition party Etemad-e Meli, has announced his candidacy. Karrubi ran against Ahmadinejad in 2005, and subsequently resigned from all the posts he held in the regime to protest against the election fraud that brought Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Since then, he has steered clear of all governmental frameworks and championed the cause of proper governance. However, since he is not likely to attract much support, he has already announced that he will withdraw his candidacy if the reformists agree on a more prominent and charismatic candidate. Mohammad Reza Aref, who was vice president to Khatami, has likewise thrown his hat into the ring, but will withdraw if an agreed-upon reformist candidate is found.[9]

This situation demonstrates the depth of the crisis in which the reformists find themselves, being unable to transcend political divisions and unite behind a single charismatic candidate who has a clear and practical political-social reformist agenda.

The Anti-Ahmadinejad Conservatives Advocate a 'National Unity Government': "A Hundred Ahmadinejads Will Come and Go – But the Revolution and Regime Will Remain"

The main rivalry within the conservative camp today is between Ahmadinejad, and Hashemi Rafsanjani and his supporters. The latter, who is the most powerful figure after Khamenei and who heads several important regime bodies, including the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, cannot come out publicly against Khamenei's decision to back Ahmadinejad.[10]

However, his associates are promoting the National Unity Government initiative, the main aim of which is to advance an agreed-upon candidate from among the traditional conservatives to replace Ahmadinejad. This initiative is also supported in principle by the pro-regime reformists.

Though it is not clear precisely who is behind the initiative, the fact that such an initiative exists reflects the unease among the traditional conservatives over a possible Ahmadinejad reelection, and the initiative itself actually constitutes a front for removing Ahmadinejad from power. Not surprisingly, Ahmadinejad's supporters strongly oppose this initiative, calling it an American move carried out by the reformists in a bid to divide the conservative camp.

On August 3, 2008, the reformist daily Shahrvand-e Emrouz (which was closed down by the regime in November 2008) reported that the conservative Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri – former Majlis speaker and advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei – had contacted Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karrubi, and Mohammad Khatami. The paper said that the four met out of their mutual concern "for the future of the state," in order to discuss the possibility of establishing a national unity government consisting of "the original conservatives and moderate reformists."[11]

On August 24, 2008, the day after Khamenei announced that he "sees Ahmadinejad as president in the next five years," Nateq Nouri stated that a proposal that he had put forth for a national unity government had been rejected while still in its initial phases. He defended this proposal, saying that "no faction could run the state by itself [meaning Ahmadinejad's faction], and therefore all [forces] in the state should cooperate." He also explained that under his original proposal, a national unity government would select a presidential candidate who would preserve the principles and values of the Islamic Revolution, and who would also be acceptable to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as to all the [Iranian] factions.[12]

Although Khamenei rejected Nouri's plan, it apparently was endorsed by the Kargozaran Party (the Executives of Construction Party, affiliated with Rafsanjani). At a rally in early December 2008, party secretary-general Gholam Hossein Karbaschi – an associate of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, and former mayor of Tehran who was removed from office by the conservatives on allegations of corruption – presented the national unity government plan as the main element of the party's strategy in the upcoming elections.[13]

Karbaschi stressed the need for a national unity government, and stated that Rafsanjani had emphasized this same point during a recent meeting with him. He added that Rafsanjani had also told him that the conservative Combatant Clergy Association had complained about the domination of state leadership by a certain group of people (namely, Ahmadinejad's revolutionary faction) that is pushing other factions out of the way. At the rally, Karbaschi enumerated the flaws of Ahmadinejad's policy (including his failure to implement the privatization program ordered by Khamenei; his failure to take advantage of the plight faced by the U.S. and other superpowers in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of Iran's unprecedented oil revenues, which at one point reached $150/bbl; and Iran's galloping inflation, which has reached 30% per annum). Karbaschi added that, owing to these strategic mistakes, "Iran is facing serious crises." As a result, he concluded, "the people and most of the forces active [in the political arena] are in despair..." [14]

Party spokesman Hossein Mar'ashi, an associate of Rafsanjani, wrote in the daily Kargozaran that the national unity government plan was meant to extricate the conservatives from their present plight, and to prevent a scenario in which Ahmadinejad runs against a reformist like Mohammad Khatami. He added that Ahmadinejad sees, and has always seen, the conservative movement as a mere tool to serve his ends, and has never been truly interested in cooperating with it. He rejected the criticism of the plan by Ahmadinejad's supporters, asking: "Why is it that the minute some reformists, headed by the Kargozaran Party, endorsed this plan, it suddenly became an 'American' plan? The conservatives must answer many questions... [For example,] since when do the Revolution, the Islamic regime, and [their] values and principles boil down to [only one person, namely] Ahmadinejad? Since when does [opposition] to Ahmadinejad count as opposition to these [ideals]? How is it that all the clerics and state leaders swallow this false claim? A hundred Ahmadinejads can come and go, but the Revolution and the regime will remain." Mar'ashi added that, as part of his policy, Ahmadinejad trampled the Majlis and its laws, disregarded the directives of the senior Ayatollahs and religious institutes, mismanaged state affairs, violated the principles and values of the revolution, and caused inflation to rise. All this, he said, has led to a situation where the conservatives can no longer accept his actions and policy.[15]

The Dilemma: Who Is the Best Candidate to Run Against Ahmadinejad?

The covert contacts between the traditional conservatives, headed by Rafsanjani, and the pro-regime reformists like Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karrubi seem to be a political maneuver and an ideological reaction to the domination of the presidency by the messianic-revolutionary movement of Ahmadinejad.[16]

Beyond the basic problem of the conservative establishment – namely, its inability to disobey the Supreme Leader by presenting a candidate other than Ahmadinejad – both the traditional conservatives and the pro-regime reformists have another problem – their inability to find a candidate other than former president Mohammad Khatami (who to date refuses to run, due to his previous experience with the regime leadership, which severely obstructed him when he was president).[17]

As for Rafsanjani, even though he has announced that he will not run in the elections, it seems that he intends to play a key role in them.[18] A source close to him told the website Asr-e Iran that he would personally like to see Hassan Rohani, who was in charge of the nuclear dossier in Khatami's government, as a joint conservative-reformist candidate. However, he knows that Rohani is unlikely to command a national consensus, especially running against Ahmadinejad. According to the source, Rafsanjani shares the assumption that Khatami could be a viable rival to Ahmadinejad, and thus is the most likely to receive Rafsanjani's support, should he decide to run – in which case Rohani will not run. Ali Shakuri-Rad, a member of the reformist Participation Front party, said that Rafsanjani and Khatami were very close in their views, and would most likely work together. He added that, should Khatami run, Rafsanjani is likely to support him, either officially or unofficially.[19] Asr-e Iran also mentioned that Rafsanjani and Khatami had already met several times for consultations on the presidential elections.[20] It seems, therefore, that pressure on Khatami to enter the running will mount in the coming months.

Mohammad Ali Ramin, Ahmadinejad's associate and advisor, has recently written a letter to Khatami asking him not to run for presidency and not to respond to the demagogical call to "save Iran." Ramin added that even though he himself had expressed criticism of Khatami's and Rafsanjani's policy, he knew that Khatami had prominent international status, and asked Khatami to continue his efforts for Iran in the international arena.[21]

Ahmadinejad's Supporters: The National Unity Government Plan Is a Maneuver by the Americans and the Reformists

Ahmadinejad's supporters and associates – including Khamenei's associate, Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari; Parto-ye Sokhan editor Qassem Ravanbakhsh, who is associated with Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi; and the papers Sobh-e Sadeq, Javan and Iran – came out strongly against the national unity government plan, citing the traditional claim that it was initiated by those reformists who are collaborating with the Americans and working against Iran's interests. They added that the real motivation behind the plan was the Americans' desire to stop Iran's nuclear program, or to replace Iran's leaders with puppets obedient to the West.

In a December 7, 2008 editorial, Shariatmadari characterized the plan as an American-reformist plot to depose Ahmadinejad, and warned the "friends of Islam and the Revolution" among the conservatives not to fall into the trap set by the enemies and called the "national unity government plan" or "the coalition for the rescue of the country." "What is it that they want to rescue the country from?" he asked. "From which political movement? The reformists do not [even] attempt to conceal [the fact] that they want to save the country from the conservatives..."

Shariatmadari added: "While the conservatives, and especially Ahmadinejad, insist on values like the fair distribution of wealth, support for the underprivileged, steadfastness in the face of the American extortion, and struggle against economic corruption, the reformists' goals are to [remain in] open conflict with the directives of the Islamic Revolution and [Ayatollah] Khomeini; to hand the country over to the enemies of the people; to [maintain] secret ties with foreign forces; support rebels; to attempt to undermine the foundations of the regime; and to [help implement] the [anti-Iranian] plans officially announced by America. We must ask the reformists: Is it not [true] that most of your plans correspond to the demands of America and its allies?

"The goal of the reformists in [forming] the 'Coalition for the Rescue of the Country' is to remove the conservatives from the centers of power in [Iran] – and in this, they are in complete agreement with the U.S. and its allies. Therefore, if there is [indeed] a need for a national rescue plan, it must be [a plan] to rescue [the country] from the danger posed by the reformist camp.

"Testimonies and docments reveal clearly that the one thing that the reformists and their Western supporters cannot tolerate is the continued presence of Ahmadinejad as head of the Iranian executive branch. Therefore, the conservatives must... warn [the public] not to fall for the 'national unity government' deception, which is meant to fight the conservative rule."[22]

In another editorial, Shariatmadari called the plan an American plot "to stop Iran at the point where it stands today, by means of internal [political forces], before it reaches the point of no return [in its nuclear program]." In addition, he wrote, the plan is aimed at "promoting, by every possible means, the process of restoring the Iranian government to the forces preferred by the West."[23]

The editor of Parto-ye Sokhan, Qassem Ravanbakhsh, who is close to Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi, stated that the goal of the national unity government plan was to incorporate into the regime reformist groups that have been rejected by Khamenei and the regime – groups that were recently supported by U.S. President George W. Bush.

"The reformists and the Americans have common goals," he added. "To some extent, both wish to deny Iran nuclear energy... [In addition, both wish to] remove the Guardians Council, to change the regime's constitution and remove from it the principle of the rule of the jurisprudent, to stage an attack on the [Islamic] faith, to instigate internal conflicts, etc..."[24]

The daily Iran, affiliated with Ahmadinejad's government, called the plan "a deception" and "an attempt to restore the minority to power." It also accused Rafsanjani of presenting the plan as conservative when it is in fact reformist.[25]

Government spokesman and Justice Minister Gholam Hossein Elham stated that removing Ahmadinejad from the presidency would result in Rafsanjani's allies returning to power, and warned against the revival of this "mafia."[26]

IRGC Political Bureau director Yadollah Javani wrote in the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq that the main goal of the plan's initiators, namely the reformists, is to sow division among the conservatives and thereby neutralize Ahmadinejad – the elimination of whom is, in fact, a goal of the Americans.[27]


[1] IRNA (Iran), August 25, 2008.

[2] The daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami claimed that this policy would have uncontrollable social consequences and would badly undermine social solidarity (September 4, 2008). See also Hashemi Rafsanjani's public criticism of Ahmadinejad's economic policy (Rooz, December 14, 2008).

[3] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 357, "The Doctrine of Mahdism in the Ideological and Political Philosophy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi," May 31, 2007, The Doctrine of Mahdism: In the Ideological and Political Philosophy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-e Yazdi.

[4] Ahmadinejad incurred criticism by agreeing to sit under a sign bearing the name "The Arabian Gulf" (rather than "Persian Gulf") at a December 7, 2007 conference with representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council. This was characterized by his opponents as legitimizing the term "Arabian Gulf," and as acquiescence on his part to the Gulf states' claim of sovereignty over the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Moussa – which is at odds with Iran's official policy.

[5] Kayhan (Iran), November 10, 2008; December 7, 2008; December 12, 2008.

[6] Rooz (Iran), December 22, 2008.

[7] Qalibaf announced his candidacy on November 25, 2008, and Pour Mohammadi announced his on December 1, 2008. Press TV (Iran), November 25, 2008; Alborz (Iran), December 1, 2008.

[8] Etemad (Iran), December 23, 2008.

[9] Tehran Times (Iran), December 22, 2008.

[10] See his statements as quoted in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on November 25, 2008.

[11] Shahrvand-e Emrouz (Iran), August 3, 2008. On December 8, 2008, the website Asr-e Iran likewise mentioned that, during the summer, reports had been leaked on consultations between Nateq Nouri, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Karrubi, who were displeased with the current government and were examining a plan for establishing a national rescue front.

[12] IRNA (Iran), August 24, 2008.

[13] The rally was attended by leading members of the reformist camp, including Mehdi Karrubi, Mohammad Khatami, Mohsen Armin, Mostafa Tajzadeh, and others.

[14] Kargozaran (Iran), December 6, 2008.

[15] Kargozaran (Iran), December 10, 2008.

[16] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 229 "Iran's ‘Second Islamic Revolution': Fulfilled by Election of Conservative President," June 28, 2008, Iran's ‘Second Islamic Revolution’: Fulfilled by Election of Conservative President, and MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 253 The ‘Second Islamic Revolution' in Iran: Power Struggle at the Top," November 17, 2008, The ‘Second Islamic Revolution’ in Iran: Power Struggle at the Top.

[17] Reformist Mashallah Shams Al-Vaezin, who welcomed the national unity government plan, stated that this government should be headed by Khatami, since he is one of the few figures in Iran capable of running such a government. Sarmayeh (Iran), December 3, 2008. Mohammad Salamati, secretary-general of the reformist party Mujahideen-e Enqelabi-ye Eslami, rejected the plan on the grounds that the conservative camp was trying to evade responsibility for problems created by its own government. However, he stated that if such a government were to be established, Khatami would be the only one to head it, since he is acceptable not only to the reformists but also to some of the conservatives. Salamati added that the reformists were trying to persuade Khatami to run, and that his party had not yet decided what course it will take in the elections should Khatami continue to refuse. ILNA (Iran), December 6, 2008.

[18] Rafsanjani has announced that neither he nor his brother would run for president. Mehr (Iran), December 21, 2008. He suffered a humiliating defeat in the second round of elections in 2005, in which he lost to Ahmadinejad by a wide margin, and also in the 2000 elections to the Sixth Majlis, when he failed altogether to win a place in parliament. Only after the Guardians Council rejected numerous candidates did he manage to obtain 30th and last place, as Tehran representative. These setbacks reflect the considerable public criticism against him.

[19] Fars (Iran), December 21, 2008.

[20] Asr-e Iran (Iran), November 29, 2008.

[21] ISNA (Iran), December 22, 2008.

[22] Kayhan (Iran), December 7, 2008.

[23] Kayhan (Iran) December 12, 2008.

[24] Fars (Iran), December 14, 2008; Parto-ye Sohan (Iran), December 17, 2008.

[25] Iran (Iran), December 11, 2008.

[26] Rafsanjani has been accused in the past of financial corruption. ILNA (Iran), December 23, 2008.

[27] Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), December 15, 2008.

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