Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani lost his position on Tuesday as head of an important state clerical body after being criticised by hardliners for being too close to the reformist opposition.
I asked Michael Singh of the Washington Institute what this tells us about Iran. He replied by e-mail:
In my view this is the next step in what has been a long-unfolding consolidation of power by hardliners in Iran. In its current form, it began in the background during the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, picked up steam with the rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and accelerated further with the outbreak of the opposition Green Movement in 2009. [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei no longer makes any pretense of hovering above politics or balancing factions against one another, but rather relies increasingly on the hardest-line elements and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for his authority. It is not just reformists who are shut out of the corridors of power now, but also traditional conservatives.
But while this seems to be negative news in the short term, it may be indicative of the regime's fragility. Singh suggests: "Khamenei may be motivated by the desire to eliminate any perceived threats to his absolute power, but one can't help but feel that the Iranian regime is increasingly a one-legged stool. In the short run this move may enhance Khamenei's power, but in the longer run it seems likely to unify his foes and give dissenting political factions in Iran -- reformist and conservative -- common cause."
This development should bring us back to the most pressing issue (still) in the Middle East, namely whether our efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program are succeeding. The answer from news reports is no. Scientists may have had accidents and a virus may have disrupted the Iranian nuclear program, but the effort to become a nuclear power continues apace.
If, as Singh surmises, the regime is increasingly frail and defensive this would certainly bolster the argument of Obama critics, who say that regime change should be our official policy. Rather than thinking up new forums in which the Iranian regime can refuse to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, we should, it seems, be working to assist, aid and provide visibility to the regime's opponents. But, then, this president doesn't really like to get out in front in the Middle East, does he?
| March 9, 2011; 12:35 PM ET
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