Iran: the next generation

Reza Marashi and Jason Rezaian write:

For several weeks now, observers and analysts of Iran have been referring to an emerging rift between the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The recent back-and-forth between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei reflects a deeper generational shift. After three decades of Iran’s clerical network dominating the political scene, the emergence of the Islamic Republic’s next generation of leaders—nonclerical, war-veteran technocrats—may well portend larger ramifications for Iran’s inward and outward orientation.

The common narrative argues that all Iranian leaders—especially given the vetting system that one must go through to enter politics—are cut from the same cloth. “He is one of them,” or “He is like all the rest,” has increasingly become the mantra of a society and much of its Diaspora who have grown tired of decades of disappointment. At the moment, though, Ahmadinejad and his cronies have emerged as an unlikely group challenging the status quo in Iran; simply put, when looking at the trajectory of the Islamic Republic and what it has stood for since its inception in 1979, the current president and his cabinet have done more to shake the system to its core than any other group, including their reformist predecessors.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of Ahmadinejad, or a suggestion that he intends to dismantle the system—far from it. But continuing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable by the Islamic Republic’s own standards is certainly a trend worth tracking. It is through this paradigm that the recent rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei tells the real story: It’s not about Ahmadinejad as much as what and who he represents: a generation of war veterans who felt the Iranian power structure had cast them aside. This generation increasingly personifies everything that Iran’s clerical establishment is not; they are seen as young and confident; as the real reason for Iran’s revolutionary survival and at the heart of a dissipating mistrust of the West in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war. Above all, they represent a belief system predicated on Iranian self-reliance and self-sufficiency. They have remained loyal to the Supreme Leader for religious reasons, but are hostile towards clerics who grabbed power while they fought to protect Iran from Iraqi aggression. To that end, they believe that the Islamic Republic has become corrupt and deviated from the true path of the 1979 Revolution. Perhaps more than seeking to profit from their inclusion amongst Iran’s political elite, this new generation of technocrats seeks to include Iran more fully in the global economy.

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