Even as events in Tunisia show one autocratic regime in turmoil, another appears to be taking shape.As the glare of nuclear summitry resumes this week, Iran is undergoing one its most momentous changes since the 1979 revolution. Having launched an impressive economic reform programme in the midst of international sanctions, President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is beginning to attempt to consolidate his power.
Iran's theocratic government has always been different from a traditional Middle East autocracy, like that of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Its bickering elites and competing centres of power gave the system an aura of pluralism. Today, however, even this semblance of democracy is fading as the Islamic Republic is gradually incorporated into Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's cult of personality dictatorship.
The principal loser of this subtle transformation is its primary instigator – Ali Khamenei, Iran's ageing Supreme Leader. Mr Khamenei originally hoped his protégé would displace other claimants for power, and thus ensure his own political hegemony. Instead of confining himself to such a subsidiary role, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is moving to create a system in which presidential authority is exercised with little deference to constitutional limits. Should he succeed Mr Khamenei may be largely removed from the daily affairs of the state.
Iran's system used to divide authority, with presidents and parliaments battling each other, under the watchful eye of unelected branches of government. Political acrimony concealed the system's essential solidarity, as all the actors confined themselves to its delicate red-lines. Now, however, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad often defies the parliament, in particular circumventing its power of the purse.
The new economic reform package, for instance, calls for removal of subsidies on basic commodities. It looks like an important step in rationalising Iran's economy, and could even seem as if international sanctions had forced the changes. But Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's calculations, stem as much from his desire to disenfranchise middle-class critics. In due course more targeted subsidies are likely to reward the lower classes that still support his regime.
As with every aspiring autocrat seeking to usher in a new epoch, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is also launching his own cultural revolution. Iranian universities have historically been the vanguards of political change and remain an indispensable sanctuary of the opposition. Recently announced curriculum revisions – some of which aim to teach social science on Islamic lines – along with the removal of certain university personnel seem ostensibly designed to produce an educational system based on Islamic values. But they also aim to fill the ranks of higher education with those loyal to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
Even Iran's clerical class is not exempt from the president's enterprising moves. Despite lacing its regular pronouncements with religious imagery, Iran's government is often subject to harsh criticism from the hardline clerical community. But Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and his advisers have at times hinted that interpretation of religion may not in future necessarily require a mediating role from the clerics themselves.
Most importantly, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's political pretensions require nuclear empowerment and confrontational diplomacy. Following a fraudulent election that diminished his legitimacy, the president needs a mature nuclear programme to buttress his nation's regional aspirations, and showcase its scientific ability – while also stimulating patriotic feelings and rejuvenating his stature. As the international community this week again contemplates ways to restrain Iran's nuclear trajectory, it would be wise to recognise the extent to which the programme is entangled in its internal domestic squabbles.
For now the politics of the Islamic Republic remain defined by the interplay between the Supreme Leader and his president. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad still faces institutional barriers to the projection of his power. But a new Islamic Republic is being born – a truculent dictatorship contemptuous of international norms as well as the mandates of its citizens. This new direction in Iranian politics ought to disturb its internal guardians and the international community alike.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former senior adviser at the US Department of State on the Gulf and southwest Asia
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