Will Ansar-e Hezbollah rise again?

Article Highlights

  • Irony in Iran: While the Supreme Leader may theoretically hold absolute power, the gov't is nonetheless riven with factions.

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  • The Supreme Leader maintains control by balancing Iran’s various factions, political groups, and power centers.

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  • While the presidency in Iran is more about style than substance, the elections have, at times, threatened to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

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The irony of the Iranian system of government is that while the Supreme Leader may, as the “deputy of the Messiah on Earth,” theoretically hold absolute power, the Iranian government is nonetheless riven with factions. The Supreme Leader maintains control by balancing Iran’s various factions, political groups, and power centers so that none gets powerful enough to challenge his grip. When the balance gets knocked out of whack, sometimes the Supreme Leader and security services must rely on extralegal means. It is in this context that the report excerpted from Ansar-e Hezbollah’s newspaper Ya Lisarat is important.

While the presidency in Iran is more about style than substance, the elections have, at times, threatened to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Most famously, questions regarding election fraud led to nationwide riots in 2009. However, even before that, the Supreme Leader feared elections and their results. In 1997, for example, the elections delivered a surprise victory for former Culture Minister Mohammad Khatami over establishment favorite, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri. Khatami was the most reformist of the four candidates contesting that election (even though the Guardian Council, the regime’s vetting body, had disqualified 234 other candidates it considered too reformist or liberal) and captured the public’s imagination. The Supreme Leader soon found himself and those adhering most strictly to the regime’s revolutionary principles threatened by a wave of reformist desire for more openness.
In order to counter the reformist trend, the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps turned to vigilante groups, which need not, in practice, adhere to the constraints of law as most state bodies would. Chief among these was Ansar-e Hezbollah. The vigilante groups acted as the Supreme Leader’s “Brown Shirts,” roughing up opposition and, in a number of incidents during the Khatami administration, kidnapping and killing dissidents. While Ansar-e Hezbollah paralyzed the latter years of the Khatami administration, the group largely disappeared from the public stage after the hardline ‘Principalist’ candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded him.

The June 2013 presidential elections are particularly sensitive this year, as the post-election unrest that marked the 2009 polls remains in the public mind. That Ansar-e Hezbollah appears to be gearing up again for action—and that security force officials appear to be cooperating with it—suggests that the Supreme Leader and his inner circle again will seek extralegal means to constrain not only the Iranian public, but also whoever the new president is. Ansar-e Hezbollah’s rise presages greater domestic violence inside Iran.

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