Sunday, 15 May 2011

13 May 2011

It’s more than four months now since the start of the Arab Spring, so maybe it’s time to take stock.

Number of Arab leaders toppled: 2 (Ben Ali in Tunisia; Mubarak in Egypt).

Number of Arab leaders under heavy pressure but hanging on: 4 (Gaddafi in Libya; Assad in Syria; Saleh in Yemen; King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Bahrain).

Number of Arab leaders more or less untroubled: 15.

In other words, the so-called wave of Arab uprisings has pretty much by-passed something like 70 per cent of the members of the League of Arab States. (In Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Sudan and the UAE, there have been some protests, but in general, they’ve been relatively small-scale.)

So if you’re wondering who’ll be the next despot to depart, I suggest you look beyond the Arab world and focus for a moment on Iran.

Not because I’m expecting a repeat of the street protests that followed the contested presidential election of two years ago (suppressed, you’ll remember, in much the same way as President Assad of Syria, Iran’s close ally, is now suppressing protests in his own back yard.)

No, in Iran the threat to the survival of the President comes from inside, not outside, the political structure. It seems Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fallen out – big time – with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is not a good career move, and many Iran analysts are now openly speculating that Ahmadinejad may soon be either gone, or rendered effectively powerless (one Iranian cartoonist this week depicted him as a bee buzzing around the ear of Khamenei, only to have his sting removed).

Here’s the background. The Iranian political system is like no other: the president is not the most senior figure in the administration of the State, who ever since the revolution of 1979 has been a religious figure known as the Supreme Leader.

So when President Ahmadinejad decided to sack his intelligence minister (who had allegedly been spying on him and his chief of staff), he did not take kindly to the Supreme Leader promptly reinstating the dismissed minister.

The president went on strike, and for 10 days refused to turn up for cabinet meetings. He found himself being accused by high-ranking clerics of associating with religious “deviants” who believe in djinns, or spirits.

According to Farhang Jahanpour of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University, the accusation stems from a series of recently-released documentary films that has enraged the clerical establishment by suggesting that Ahmadinejad is the embodiment of a mythical religious figure who will accompany the “Hidden Imam”, who Shia Muslims believe will return on the Day of Judgement to establish an Islamic kingdom. This would give the president a religious status far above that of the ruling clerics. Not a suggestion to which they take kindly.

But the real target of the clerics’ wrath seems to be Ahmadinejad’s close confidant and chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i, who is the father of his daughter-in-law. His crime is to have claimed that he doesn’t need the clergy to intepret religious texts for him – and to have attended an event in Turkey at which there was a performance by women dancers.

Ahmadinejad is said to be grooming Masha’i as his eventual successor, something the clerical establishment are determined to prevent. More than 20 of his allies have been arrested in the past week.

At stake in all this is the role of religion in a future Iran. Ahmadinejad owes much of his power to the Revolutionary Guards rather than to the clergy, although there are now suggestions that the Guards may be shifting their allegience. So if he is ousted, the religious establishment, not for the first time, will have re-established itself as the country’s pre-eminent political force.

And that, perhaps paradoxically, could be the best outcome for the rest of us. Because, according to the Iran analyst Geneive Abdo, writing in Foreign Policy: “The alternative – a highly militarised state run by the Revolutionary Guards – would be much worse.”

In many ways, the future shape of Iran probably matters much more to the outside world in the long term than the future shape of Libya. I suspect that if it hadn’t been for Libya – and Syria, and Osama bin Laden, and the Royal wedding – the Iran crisis would have received far more attention than it has.

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