Even as hundreds of thousands gathered across Iran on Thursday to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Republic, it's worth noting that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't the religious fanatic he is portrayed as in the West. In fact, in a country where overt allegiance to fundamentalist Shiism and obedience to the ayatollahs is expected of senior state officials, Ahmadinejad and his supporters are increasing their independence from the theocrats in both domestic and foreign affairs. The root cause is a struggle within the government itself, as Ahmadinejad and his cronies undermine the increasingly unpopular religious establishment to gain a larger share of power. Even the anti-government protesters help the president when they chant "traitor [Supreme] Leader" and "death to Khamenei."
The president, his ministers, and staff no longer attend meetings of the Expediency Discernment Council appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to mediate between the branches of Iran's Islamic government. That council, headed by former presidential rival Mohsen Rezai (who reports to the office of the Supreme Leader), had served to oversee the president and his appointees. Hardline clerics and parliamentarians grumble that Ahmadinejad and his ministers regularly defy the Supreme Leader. But having validated last June's election in Ahmadinejad's favor, their reactions are limited to blocking certain executive actions like a nuclear deal with the West.
In response, Ahmadinejad has publicly chastised his rivals in the government for "running to Qum for every instruction," adding that "administering the country should not be left to the [Supreme] Leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]." His chief of staff, and relative through marriage, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, echoes those views: "An Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran. Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clergy] are not horse racers." Mashaei further riled the mullahs by criticizing prophets like Noah and Moses as ineffective administrators akin to the contemporary clergymen who wield power in Iran.
In his efforts to undercut the religious basis of the clerics' political authority, Ahmadinejad has begun emphasizing "pragmatic values" in governance. When addressing an Iranian university in November, Mashaei took the attack on the mullahs' authority much further: "God does not unify humans…[because] each person's [notion of] God varies from the God of others based on individual understanding." His words, it was quickly noted by aghast ayatollahs, are blasphemous under Islamic law and therefore punishable by death. Rebukes by Shiite leaders fell on deaf ears in the executive branch.
Realizing that antigovernment sentiments are fueled in part by years of behavioral restrictions, Minster of Science Kamran Daneshjou is encouraging attendees at funerals and memorial services to observe a moment of silence instead of reciting the first chapter of the Quran, as has been obligatory. Likewise, the government's cultural adviser, Javad Shamaghdari, is recommending that the hijab, or veil, not be mandatory—much to the horror of mullahs and orthodox laymen. Powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari even averred publicly in October that preserving the government "is more vital than performing daily prayers." Being denounced as "heretics" and "infidels" has not swayed the president and his bureaucratic and military cohorts from their increasingly secular politics.
Ahmadinejad's close ties to the ultraorthodox Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi also haven't dampened the president's drive to consolidate power by abjuring beliefs and practices central to the theocracy. Recently Ahmadinejad has even begun rephrasing his oft-repeated statements about the end of the world—in strictly religious terms. In an interview with U.S. news media in September, he commented: "The [Mahdi, or 12th] imam will come with logic, with culture, with science…The stories that have been disseminated around the world about extensive war, apocalyptic wars…are false." So even Ahmadinejad's representation of a nonviolent apocalypse serves to distinguish members of the executive office from the mainstream mullahs in power.
Despite strenuous objections on religious grounds from clerics and parliamentarians, Ahmadinejad separated himself further from the mullahs by nominating three women for cabinet portfolios. Ahmadinejad ridiculed his opponents, demanding to know: "Why shouldn't women be in the cabinet?" In the end, only Marzieh Dastjerdi was confirmed as health minister. Dastjerdi herself provoked the clergy's opposition for declaring, contrary to Islamic tradition, that women's rights should be independent from their fathers and husbands. Ahmadinejad subsequently appointed other women to senior administrative posts. "What's wrong with a woman becoming a governor?" he rhetorically asked an irate gathering in late October, apparently caring little that fundamentalist Muslims everywhere would be incensed.
The president's example was quickly followed yet again by his subordinates and some family members. Science Minster Daneshjou in-augurated an international conference for women in the sciences in Tehran in January. Azamossadat Farahi, who is Ahmadinejad's wife, defied both tradition and clerical wish by delivering the keynote speech there on women, knowledge, and science as "cornerstones" of Allah's creation. Since the recent elections, Farahi has entered public politics very visibly by participating in a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement and by publicly raising the issue of women's lack of rights. Not to be outdone, chief of staff Mashaei has been snubbing conservatives by providing state funding to female artists.
Likewise, through on-and-off offers to reach a nuclear deal with the West, Ahmadinejad keeps his internal opponents worried—for such an agreement would ease tensions with the West, open Iran to greater interaction with the international community, and thereby consolidate his authority at the expense of the Supreme Leader and the parliamentarians. The latter vigorously oppose any accommodation with the U.S. on nuclear issues, but realize that the executive branch—which is increasingly beyond their control—oversees foreign affairs. Simultaneously, by authorizing development of enrichment facilities and missile-based nuclear-warhead delivery systems, the Iranian president keeps his international critics in a constant state of angst while partially mollifying hardline critics at home.
What does all this mean for the Islamic Republic? Supreme Leader Khamenei originally had endorsed both Ahmadinejad's reelection and the IRGC's influence as means of reinforcing clerical power in the wake of last June's electoral dispute. But then the Green Movement's challenge to the political legitimacy of rule by Muslim jurists weakened the status quo. As the people seek a more representative government, the secularist factions of Iran's administration and military are finding common cause in ensuring not only their own survival, but a firmer grasp on power—minus the clergy who have become the central focus of protest.
As a result, together with the IRGC and Basij (a volunteer paramilitary group that has attacked opposition protesters), Ahmadinejad and his ilk are turning to totalitarianism, rather than the fundamentalism of Shiite clerics, to suppress the steadily growing democratic aspira-tions of the Green Movement. Yet the mullahs have strong allies too, not only in the legislature, led by Ali Larijani (who hails from a family of well-known clerics), but even among the president's own clan, whose members remain divided on abjuring theocracy.
The Green Movement is most open to rapprochement with the West; the clerics, the least flexible. Ahmadinejad, his ministers, and their secular bureaucracy shift back and forth—knowing foreign engagement is essential but not yet completely free of the theocrats' yoke. Perhaps the squabbling factions in power eventually will render themselves too ineffective to stand in the way of the Green Movement's reforms. For now, it's a three-way struggle for the future of freedom, faith, and internationalism.