He is out of office now, but he shook the Iranian system so hard, it rang like a bell, and we got to hear the tone. There is an experiment in systems engineering, called “system identification”, where you’re given a black box which has terminals. You can stimulate the system inside the box with signals, i.e., shake it, and analyze what comes out. If the box is tested in this way thoroughly enough, what’s inside can be mathematically determined.
The first study of the human body was anatomy, the detailed description of all the parts as they visibly appear. Then came function on a macroscopic level, physiology: the coursing of the blood, respiration, metabolism, proceeding in an ever-more microscopic direction, until all becomes chemistry.
Iran a Country Study, (Federal Research Division) is a useful anatomic reference. Some political descriptions are not properly integrated through the text, though it’s a minor cavil, and it has no bias. After Khomeini (Arjomand, Oxford, 2009) is the physiology, with the degree of analysis appropriate to a conservative historian, writing for the record, with justification in facts.
Iran frustrates analysts with unpredictability. Iranian physiology is not well predicted by the anatomy. In our confusion, we seek the grease that makes the wheels turn, that allows exercise of power. Two suspects are money and ideas. The governments of Russia and Iran have roughly similar gross anatomies. Yet while Russia runs mostly on money, Iran has a much stronger idea component. For extremes, look to the Mafia and the Vatican.
That the exercise of power depends upon only one or two things is not to negate or deny all the positive qualities we celebrate in humanity. But Putin, regardless of the purity of his motives, relies on money for power. To move beyond that is not currently possible in Russia. If we suppose the mullahs have motives in some way admirable, they must still rely on the dual levers of money and ideas.
Imagine that the attitudes and actions of an Iranian public figure wander about the inside of an ellipse, which has two axis: money and ideas. The area of the ellipse is Π*$*ideas. If the ellipse is squashed on either axis, the freedom of action moves towards zero. The constantly shifting interplay that between money and ideas creates variety in the mind of the individual, and lessens the predictability.
We can avoid being sophomoric if we use simple models such as these, not to reach great truth, but to focus our thoughts. A model can be tested by events and found practically useful, or found too simple and in need of elaboration. With Iran, a two dimensional model is compatible with some features of the conflict surrounding Ahmadinejad.
Arjomand divides Iranian society, which has always been class-conscious, into three strata: clerical, political, and common. The political class includes the military-security apparatus, of which Ahmadinejad has been a member since the 1979 revolution. His election in 2005 marked the eclipse of the reformers who, containing some percentage of secular sympathies, threatened the core of theocracy. But even in his first term, conflicts with Khamenei occurred in which statutory resolution and extralegal power grabs by both occurred in rapid succession. Yet in 2009 Khamenei, still afraid of the reformers, acted to ensure the reelection of Ahmadinejad by fraud.
The conflicts of Ahmadinejad’s first term had an elastic quality; both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei appeared to adhere to the rules of a contest for power that had leeway of interpretation. In fact, there were no rules, yet each conflict was self-limited, with each appropriation by one followed with a negation by the other. Each player seemed to have some confidence as to the maximum response of the other. Perhaps Ahmadinejad knew that Khamenei wanted to preserve the semblance of a functional president. Negation without repeal of Ahmadinejad’s actions satisfied Khamenei because he was secure in his clerical prerogative, the “Mandate of the Jurist” conceived by Khomeini, that vested Khamenei with ultimate power.
Arjomand states that Khamenei did not realize that, in 2009, by a fraud that destroyed a democracy, he became the singular counterbalance to the entire military-security complex. This would be a prescription for revolution, were it not for Khomeini’s “Mandate”. While Egypt and Thailand are the most recent examples, Eisenhower’s caution, “Beware of the military-industrial complex“, seems generally justified. So if Ahmadinejad could bypass or negate the clerical prerogative, it would, on the condition of deep support in the IRG, have opened the door for a putsch.
It is not likely that Ahmadinejad will return to politics. So why the story? It is about two powerful individuals, shadowboxing in the light of a government that, as of 2005, had just been deprived of some vital institutions. Each player interpreted the remaining institutions according to either the law, or his own desires, subject to what he thought the other player would tolerate without drawing a gun. The slang for this is, each could read the mind of the other.
This offers an intelligence strategy. The visible aspects of Iran’s government offer the opportunity to observe interactions, and derive relationships. The derivations are more important than the anatomy.
Perhaps Ahmadinejad merely wanted to diminish the power of the clerical estate. Perhaps he was just nuts. One looks to an individual’s past statements, speeches, and writings for clues to his goals. But his statements are not consistent. Before we make too much of this, inconsistency of belief systems is fairly common in the region. The Alawite sect of Syria has been described as syncretistic, a fusion of mutually incompatible ideas.
The Ahmadinejad/Khamenei conflict appeared rooted in ideas and form of government. Although much of Ahmadinejad’s job involved the disbursement of public money in highly personal gestures, it never became visibly central to the conflict.But the clergy actually is highly monetized, and many engage in conspicuous consumption that is resented by the third, lowest stratum.
Although money does not appear explicitly in this conflict, it is reasonable to ask if it has a dark presence. The self interest is disguised in the dark courses of the bonyads, or charitable foundations of the mullahs, an estimated 40% of the economy. This would provide a reason of rational self-interest for a putsch by the military-security apparatus. They already control the military-industrial complex, but with the addition of the bonyads, their control would surmount the entire economic system of Iran.
The intersection of ideas and money in Iran is difficult to map.
Next: Ahmadinejad’s beliefs. Current divisions in Iran’s government.