by Reza Molavi and K. Luisa Gandolfo
In the 30-year reign of
How did this happen? How did a man holding such views on two countries regarded throughout
It is hard to know just what Masha'i intended by his original remarks since they were overtaken so quickly by condemnation and denial. In themselves, they are of little importance since they clearly did not mark any change in emphasis for Iranian foreign policy. It is the incident in its entirety that is of importance, in what it says about the workings of the regime, above all the relationship between the supreme leader and the president.
Masha'i was born in November 1960 in the Caspian Sea resort town of
Moreover, Masha'i's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, a union that emerged after years of close friendship between the two families. The association denotes a predilection for domestic connections: Just as Ahmadinejad appointed Masha'i to the post of first vice president (there being ten vice presidents in all), so too, he named his son-in-law, Mehdi Khorshidi, chief of staff—a role Masha'i would take soon after his dismissal from the vice presidency.
Masha'i's appointment generated controversy on the one hand because of the way in which it was made, and, on the other, because of a remark almost calculated to arouse anger in a wide section of the Iranian public and the political leadership. With what seems in hindsight to have been extraordinary naiveté, he commented publicly on the nature of Israeli-Iranian relations.
Calling the American and Israeli people "friends" engendered apoplexy among clerics and politicians alike. Two hundred deputies wrote to Ahmadinejad condemning Masha'i's remarks, and
But, according to Iranian state radio, on the day following his original remarks, he performed a complete about-face, saying, "This is not what I meant and these are all lies. During my speech I also said that
He made this clearer later that same day, with two related statements:
It is obvious that
Given the alacrity with which he reversed his position, his original statement may have been less significant than commentators have led us to believe. Clearly, something else was happening from the start. If Masha'i's initial remarks signaled a significant departure from the rhetoric customarily issued from
Ahmadinejad made a suitably ambiguous statement in response to Masha'i's pro-Israeli sentiments. The ambiguity allowed Ahmadinejad the luxury of demonstrating solidarity with his colleague without departing from the official line. His statement also opened a way for Masha'i to make the shift in position he so quickly did: "Masha'i's word," said Ahmadinejad, "is the administration's word, and it is very clear. Our nation has no problem with people and nations." Although surprising, Ahmadinejad's stance was not unusual, and the events of 2008 were ultimately to prove a prelude for Masha'i's appointment and the ensuing debate the following year.
Masha'i's appointment generated an outrage that has emphasized the fragile political balance that Ahmadinejad must now strike between extremist organizations and those others who have rendered smooth his professional passage. It also brought into the open the strain in relations between the president as head of state and the supreme leader as the religious leader and overriding authority in the regime. Ahmadinejad's task is not easy. As a neo-fundamentalist and arch-conservative, he has to carry on a balancing act that will allow him to gain acceptance from the reformist wings of the Iranian state and society. When he was mayor of
Again, following Masha'i's selection, support for Ahmadinejad was less than forthcoming; for example, the reformist lawmaker Dariush Ghanbari said of the appointment: "Now lawmakers can question Ahmadinejad or even impeach him for this appointment." Much of the concern rests on Ahmadinejad's autocratic nature: Instead of consulting the deputies before choosing his cabinet, Ahmadinejad handed the position directly to Masha'i, a move that elicited "shock" from the conservative parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Likewise, the departure of the minister of information, Hujjat al-Islam Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Eje'i, is said to have followed a verbal confrontation with Ahmadinejad over Masha'i's appointment.
Ahmadinejad and Masha'i remained indifferent in the face of strident objections—an indifference that compelled Khamenei to formally request Masha'i's removal by Ahmadinejad. On July 21, the supreme leader wrote to his president: "The appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i to the post of deputy president is contrary to your interest and that of your government, and it will cause division and frustration for your supporters … We must cancel this appointment." That the supreme leader's unspoken criticisms passed unacknowledged by the president until they were conveyed through a handwritten letter raised questions among traditional conservative allies of Ahmadinejad as to whether the student was ignoring the voice of his master.
Nevertheless, Khamenei got his way in the end. Masha'i tendered his written resignation, stating: "Obeying the orders of the supreme leader, I do not see myself to be the first vice president but … I will serve our dear people as best I can." Yet, Ahmadinejad's perceived insolence in the face of Khamenei's request angered many clerics, Majlis parliament members, theologians, and the conservative media alike. Ahmadinejad greeted early suggestions that Masha'i should resign by asking, "Why should he resign? Masha'i has been appointed as the first vice president and continues his activities in the government." This hinted at an attempt by Ahmadinejad to assert personal whims over the wishes of the supreme leader.
Yet the resignation when it came, did not mark the end of the silent antagonism. Ahmadinejad waited one week before passing the resignation letter to Khamenei, along with a brief correspondence that acknowledged the demands of protocol: "Peace be upon you. While sending you a copy of the resignation letter of Mr. (Engineer) Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i … from the position of first vice president, you are hereby informed that in accordance with article 57 of the constitution, the instructions contained in your letter … have been carried out." The brevity of the correspondence came close to expressing disrespect for the supreme leader. Moreover, while Article 57, which acknowledges the supervision of the supreme leader over all governmental affairs, is noted, Ahmadinejad did not mention any compliance on a religious or legal level, rendering his correspondence merely an accompaniment to the attached resignation letter from Masha'i.
The issue of Masha'i's appointment and dismissal is only a symptom of a broader malaise afflicting Iranian politics. His attempt to suggest a new démarche for Iranian foreign policy—and on such a sensitive issue—while he was minister for tourism and cultural heritage was clearly misguided and can only have tainted his reputation from that time on. But his rapid turnaround and Ahmadinejad's measured defense of his views served to give him an extended career that only reached its crisis point following the 2009 elections. Nor were Masha'i's remarks about
Real Power in
Political leadership in the
Given the close relationship between Ahmadinejad and Masha'i, it is questionable whether the impetus to remove him arose as a consequence of his not very important statements on Israeli-Iranian relations or whether it carried greater weight as an endeavor by the supreme leader to test the president's loyalty by compelling him to choose between his confidante and his master. Although Khamenei triumphed, some degree of uncertainty emerged from Ahmadinejad's lengthy hesitation. This in turn could prove conducive to a widening rift between the supreme leader and the president in an environment in which nobody is indispensable. Thus, the very system that Ahmadinejad thrives in could equally prove his downfall.
Of particular interest is the military dimension. In the case of
This latest transgression, however, proved too much, and as Iran specialist James Bill and Middle East politics analyst Robert Springborg note, "When leadership rests so heavily upon the military reed, then it must be prepared to collapse whenever that reed breaks." Buoyed by previous support, Ahmadinejad leaned on the reed of the IRGC with excessive confidence and since he ignored the supreme leader, clerics, and lay conservatives alike in his quest to sustain Masha'i's vice presidential role, the IRGC reed finally broke. Choosing the pen over the sword as a means for conveying the switch in allegiance, the political wing of the IRGC, the Sobh-e Sadeq, published an editorial criticizing Ahmadinejad and unmistakably supporting Khamenei in the Masha'i affair. Although the military is a requisite in ensuring the durability of patrimonialist rule, it is fragile, meaning that leaders can be made or unmade at will. In placing too much faith in the mode of governance, Ahmadinejad jeopardized his rule and his future relations with the supreme leader—the repercussions of which will doubtless continue to damage him through what is left of his term in office.
Ahmadinejad as Leader
As Ahmadinejad enters his second term under a cloud in the eyes of those outraged by the Masha'i affair, he must also contend with the wider discord engendered under his previous term. In recent years, global politics has been marked by the ascension of a series of charismatic leaders who invariably pledge salvation for ailing economies, unemployment levels, and domestic and regional security. Charismatic leaders emerge in times of upheaval, imbuing decaying political systems with a vitality that inspires optimism in an uneasy population. It is fitting, then, that as Ahmadinejad entered the initial presidential race for his first term, Iranian politics were ripe for an extraordinary leader. Ali Ansari, history professor at
Nevertheless, charisma conceals its own fissures; it does not evolve but is forged in periods of crisis or rapid change. For charismatic leadership to endure from one leader to the next, it must conform to a process, whereby successive holders of the charismatic office do so in a formalized fashion, like the popes or the early caliphs. This in turn results in a self-contradictory evolution. According to Max Weber, the early twentieth-century German political economist and sociologist, pure charismatic authority lacks permanence, and thus the very elements that made the original charismatic leadership dynamic now become enshrined within the bureaucratic or patrimonial system. The fresh, original charisma becomes routinized in a more urbane form of leadership. Moreover, the effects of charismatic leadership are questionable: Impersonal, institutional charisma is a basic requirement for organizational stability, and Ahmadinejad has shown a talent for original charisma, yet enters his second term with a much destabilized administration.
The Iranian economy is in a terminal state, yet the only salvation for it would involve casualties—in this instance in the form of the Iranian employment market. Of course, Ahmadinejad has not been spared his portion of the blame for the economic malaise; his inability to stop spending during the oil price boom resulted in a departure from rational economic policies and the pursuance of policy by decree that resulted in "the exercise of a royal prerogative which would put the shah to shame." As a result, Ahmadinejad squandered not only the Iranian coffers but also the confidence of the population. Lurching from bad to worse, the damage inflicted on the economy under Ahmadinejad reinforces the reality that the controversy arising over the appointment and dismissal of Masha'i is but the tip of a crisis-infused iceberg and that the decline in relations between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei could be the pressure that will finally break the system within this presidential term.
The tenth presidential elections represented a new chapter in
Reza Molavi is a research fellow at the
 Deutsche Presse-Agentur (
 Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Aug. 13, 2008.
 Asia Times (Hong Kong), Aug. 4, 2009; Middle East Strategic Information,
 "The Inevitable Clarification," IsraellyCool, July 28, 2008, accessed Dec. 4, 2009.
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 Elihu D. Richter and Alex Barnea, "Tehran's Genocidal Incitement against Israel," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, p. 46; Joshua Teitelbaum, "What Iranian Leaders Really Say about Doing away with Israel," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, July 1, 2008.
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 Bill and Springborg, Politics in the
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