Nine months after the election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Iranian politics has shifted so sharply to the right that some traditional conservatives are warning of the dangers of radicalism.
With reformists sidelined and Ahmadinejad setting a strident new tone on the global stage, figures from the extreme right of Iran's political spectrum are defining the terms of political debate in the country. In remarks that set off a domestic firestorm, a senior cleric close to the new president suggested in January that Iranian voters were largely irrelevant because the government requires only the approval of God.
The remarks by Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah, and similar comments by an aide, were roundly criticized, even on the editorial page of Kayhan, a traditional showcase for hard-line thinking. Iranian political insiders said the flap offered a window on intense infighting at the highest reaches of Iran's theocracy just as world attention focused on the government's determination to proceed with a nuclear program that skeptics call a cover for atomic weapons.
"Ayatollah Mesbah is an extremist," said one Iranian official close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the soft-spoken cleric who has been Iran's supreme leader since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.
"Ayatollah Khomeini warned the people lots of times not to allow these people, the Shia Talibans, to come to power in Iran and have space," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that Khamenei has judged it prudent to accommodate even extremists within the system and accord them respect. "Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei feel these people can do a lot of damage. They can damage Iran. They can damage Islam. They are like the Taliban. They are like al-Qaeda. They say they know what Allah expects from us -- that we should do what he wants from us without paying attention to the consequences.
"And it's a very dangerous belief."
Divisions on the right
The tension makes clear significant divisions within Iran's conservative camp, often viewed from outside the country as a turbaned monolith. In reality, 27 years after the 1979 revolution that brought Shiite clerics to power, Iranian politics is a nuanced landscape defined largely by the lessons taken from the previous quarter-century.
Traditional conservatives describe themselves as firm but flexible. While remaining committed to the precept that clerics should hold ultimate authority, they were chastened in the 1990s when reformists -- determined to lessen the intrusion of the state into private lives and show greater tolerance for dissent -- won landslide electoral victories.
Other conservatives, who proudly call themselves fundamentalists, argue that reformists were hollowing out the Islamic Republic from within. Equating dissent with treason, they demanded a hard-line defense of the revolution's tenets, including strident opposition to the United States and Israel.
In recent years the two camps united at election time, making common cause against reformists. But after the votes were counted, moderate conservatives were unfulfilled.
"There was a problem in our structure, our conservative political structure," said Amir Mohebian, a leader in a conservative faction that absorbed some reformist inclinations, including cautious engagement with the West. "We start very well, but the result was not under our control."
Mohebian said the outcomes of 2003 elections for local councils, the 2004 contest for parliament, "and now the presidency," were "not our result." Each succeeding contest tightened the right's grip.
One reason was the hard-line orientation of the Guardian Council, a screening panel that barred reformist candidates, producing a ballot skewed to the right.
‘An artificial social class’
That amplified another factor: turnout. The Basij civilian militia, and in last June's presidential contest the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, showed most reliably at the polls, doing their duty as the core constituency Khamenei set out to create after succeeding Khomeini.
"The Basij is mainly a creation of Mr. Khamenei," said one Iranian analyst, who declined to be quoted by name. "They spent a huge amount of money to reinforce these military groups. Basiji people and even the Revolutionary Guard people are really an artificial social class, like an artificial island."
Ahmadinejad spent most of his career in both groups, and he wrote huge increases for each into his first budget as president. He commanded a Revolutionary Guard engineering unit during the 1980s war with Iraq, the defining experience for many hard-liners holding fast to the slogans of a then-young revolution, and he was a leader in the Basij.
"He's a true believer in the revolutionary values, which we believe in, too," said Mohammad Ali Tai, 61, as he squatted on a curb at Tehran University, where Friday prayers are held in the capital. Usually, a few thousand people attend. Most are veterans like Tai, who returned home to lives that failed to improve materially while the governing elites grew wealthy.
"I am a barber myself. I talk to many people," Tai said. "They are only tolerating this hardship because they believe in Islam. Some people who were in charge did not believe in these values, and this inequality is because of them."
Each week, Tai attends a Basij meeting, and well as a gathering of his hayat, a community group that mounts celebrations for religious holidays. When Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran, he provided the groups rice at discount prices.
"Everything we do is actually a matter of keeping alive the revolutionary spirit," said Tai, who said he voted in the previous two presidential contests for Mohammad Khatami, a reformist. "But this time the Basij told us: Only vote for Ahmadinejad, and don't vote for anybody else."
If such groups were key to Ahmadinejad's electoral success, the cocooning cycle of their meetings -- offering mutual reinforcement and fealty to a shared vision -- provides insight into the staying power of his rigid outlook. Friends say he held to it stubbornly when others adjusted their views to the post-revolution realities that spawned Iran's reform movement.
"He always thought that was a deviation from the true path of the revolution," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, who has known Ahmadinejad since grade school. "Equality, justice, humility, being simple, supporting Muslims, opposing global arrogance -- he was never ashamed of these principles. Never."
Hadian-Jazy, himself a revolutionary who evolved into a reformist, said he marveled at seeing his old friend wearing a checkered headdress around his shoulders on a university campus in 1998, a deeply unfashionable gesture at the height of the reform movement. "His sense of overconfidence, to me, that's not a positive point. But that's the way he is," said Hadian-Jazy, now a political scientist at Tehran University. "He's naive. The black and white area of his mind is a lot bigger than the gray area."
Insiders say these are the qualities that keep Iran's hard-liners in the extremes.
"Because of their religious beliefs, these people are inflexible," said a former senior official in Khatami's government, who declined to be identified further. "Although their number might be few, the certainty of their belief lets them resist a larger population. The supporters of civil society and reformists are less hard, less ready to be damaged because of their belief."
"Whenever someone is fixed in his thinking, we call them hard-liners," said Mehdi Karrubi, a moderate cleric who lost narrowly to Ahmadinejad in the first round of last year's presidential balloting. "A group of people just come together. They talk to each other and say: This is what the society thinks!"
‘Sock him in the mouth!’
Mesbah, the cleric whose speech touched off the current conflict in the conservative camp, is praised even by critics for his intellect. He leads a well-funded seminary in the holy city of Qom and has forged a reputation for steeling the resolve of Iran's harshest conservatives, famously declaring: "If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, sock him in the mouth!"
A cartoonist dubbed him "Ayatollah Crocodile" for encouraging suppression of the press. One follower, now Ahmadinejad's intelligence minister, once bit a journalist on the shoulder. Another, now Ahmadinejad's interior minister, oversaw the execution of thousands of prisoners in the late 1980s.
Many of Mesbah's former students hold places in the Revolutionary Guards' ideological and political section. He encourages students to study in Canada and the United States, which critics say does little to soften their views. Most eventually return to Qom.
Mesbah's followers have now set their sights, Hadian-Jazy said, on gaining control of the panel of clerics that is empowered to name Iran's supreme leader -- an open-ended appointment that has been assumed to run a lifetime. Called the Assembly of Experts, the 86-member body will be elected in nationwide balloting set for October.
Mesbah is expected to field a slate of graduates from his seminary, and in the preelection positioning now underway, some see preparations for a kind of coup. But the boldness hard-liners have shown since Ahmadinejad's surprise win -- on a populist platform that emphasized quality of life -- has unsettled many here.
"I believe the traditional right wing is worried," said Saeed Laylaz, a respected analyst who served in the first reformist administration of Khatami. "Until now they used each other as a horse to ride from one place to the other, and each thought the other was the rider."
Ahmadinejad's triumph, he said, clarified the driving force.
"When you create radicals, they don't stop when you want them to," Laylaz said. "The leader can order when they leave the barracks, but they decide when to go back. This is the dangerous position of the supreme leader and the right wing right now."