TCS Daily

Iran's Ribbentrop

By Ali Kazemi - August 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Since taking over from his predecessor Mohammad Katami and becoming the president of Iran's Islamic republic a year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has put on quiet a show.

  • Denies that the Holocaust ever happened and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.
  • Claims he was enveloped in a protective shield of light during a speech at the UN and an invisible hand kept the audience frozen in their seats.
  • Declares: "And God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism."
  • Writes a series of bizarre and rambling letters to the world leaders inviting them to convert to Islam.

Why is Ahmadinejad acting this way? Is he insane or does have his reasons? As important as those questions are we should first decide if his words and actions actually matter.

It may seem a superfluous question. Western media often call him the popularly elected President of Iran. That should vest him with the highest authority in Iran. But all this doesn't get it quite right.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a constitution and political arrangement unfamiliar to Westerners. It is an hermetically sealed system that does not allow anyone from the outside to enter. Power rests with unelected bodies. Those who are "elected" -- e.g. the President and Parliamentarians -- are actually pre-selected by unelected bodies.

In the Islamic Republic the highest authority is not the President or the Parliament. The Supreme Leader (Velayat Faghih) Ali Khamenei is -- as his title implies -- the highest authority. Below him are other unelected entities such as members of the Expediency Council and Guardian Council, which are still more powerful than the President and the Parliament. The Supreme Leader has to approve the President before he assumes his post. He can also dismiss the President from his post.

The Supreme Leader has the same authority over the Parliament. He is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He is the only person who can declare war or peace. He appoints and dismisses the leaders of the judiciary as well as the state radio and television networks. And he controls the intelligence and security operations.

The Supreme Leader's power is extended through his representatives, who are present in all sectors of the government. Those representatives are more powerful than the president's ministers and have the authority to intervene in any matter of state on the Supreme Leader's behalf.

He appoints six of the twelve members of the Guardian Council, the clerical body that can reject any laws passed by the Parliament and determines which candidates are allowed to run for public office.

The vast majority of the would-be candidates are never allowed to run in the Islamic Republic's elections. Only candidates that are from the ruling circle and proven to be loyal to the Supreme Leader can run. More than a thousand candidates registered for the election that Ahmadinejad won, but the Guardian Council approved only eight -- all of whom were former or present government officials.

After knowing that the Iranian President has little actual authority or power, we might be tempted to dismiss him as irrelevant. That would be a mistake. His position is somewhat like the White House Spokesman. While he has no actual power, we should listen to him because he represents Iranian power. Again, Ahmadinejad was selected to represent and communicate the wishes of the Supreme Leader.

The moment Ahmadinejad stops following his orders, he would be dismissed. This is not just theory. By 1981 President Banisadre had become too much of a nuisance for the Supreme Leader and he was impeached. He barely escaped the country with his life. It is a clever system, which lets the Supreme Leader have all the power and at same time lay all the blame and responsibility on the President.

Before Ahmadinejad, when the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council wanted to appear more moderate, they picked Mohammad Khatami and allowed him to become the President. But they never gave him any actual authority and kept him on a short leash regarding his actions.

Khatami projected the image of a reformer and a moderate who believed in dialogue. He performed his role admirably by speaking in platitudes and generalities such as the "Dialogue among the Civilizations". The reality of the Islamic republic during the 8 years of his presidency was very different.

Domestically, dozens of newspapers were shut down and journalists were jailed. Dissidents were imprisoned, assassinated and executed. People were executed for offenses that should not even be considered crimes such as adultery, homosexuality, and converting from Islam to other religions. Then there are the catchall offenses such as "Fighting the will of God" or "Spreading corruption on earth" for which one may also be executed. During Khatami's presidency, Iran had one of the worst human rights records according to UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

During Khatami's presidency, the Islamic Republic was also an international menace. Year after year the Iran was singled out as a leading state-sponsor of terrorism. Khatami publicly supported terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as helped fund, arm and train them throughout his presidency. Building of illegal clandestine sites for uranium enrichment continued during Khatami's Presidency.

Khatami was more soft-spoken than Ahmadinejad, but their actual policies and practices are very similar. Khatami was the public face that unelected oligarchy of the Islamic Republic chose for domestic and international purposes. Now Ahmadinejad is that face.

In February 1938 Hitler replaced his urbane and sophisticated foreign minister Konstantin Neurath with the bellicose and blunt Joachim von Ribbentrop. Neurath had bought Hitler time. But there was no longer a need for the respectability that Neurath brought to his government. Soon the Nazis annexed Austria to be followed by the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland and the start of WWII. Hitler had had his plans of world invasion for many years. Ribbentrop's appointment did not reflect any deviation in the nature of Nazism. It rather made it plainer for everyone to see.

Ahmadinejad does not represent any actual changes in the Islamic Republic's major policies. It was just that after eight years in office, the tension between the image of Khatami and the reality of the Islamic Republic became untenable. The charade had come to an end. That is why Ahmadinejad was selected. He is a more consistent and honest face for the Islamic Republic.

This is why Ahmadinejad really matters. In him, unlike his predecessor, we see the true nature of those in power. In his words, we clearly hear what they want. Without his predecessor's embellishment and polish we can no longer pretend that we are dealing with people who care about dialogues. They have plans and they are executing them.

Ali Kazemi is a writer born and raised in Iran. He currently lives in Washington DC.


TCS Daily Archives