by Amir Taheri
Wall Street Journal
June 30th, 2005

In one of his rare outings during the Iranian presidential election campaign last week, Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the man then designated as the likely winner by almost everyone, ran into a spot of bother. An old woman broke through his security ring, shouting, "May I have a word with you?" Once allowed to approach Mr. Rafsanjani, the woman removed his turban with a blow and shouted, "No more mullahs!"
A couple of nights before that, Mr. Rafsanjani had been booed by students at Tehran University with cries of "mullahs back to the mosques!" Acknowledging the rising antimullah sentiments, Mr. Rafsanjani had himself photographed without a turban for the last posters in his forlorn campaign.

Mr. Rafsanjani was not the only mullah to experience the adverse tide of opinion. Ayatollah Muhammad Javadi Amoli, one of the regime's five "grand ayatollahs," was slapped across the face and shouted down from the stage as he tried to deliver a sermon supporting Mr. Rafsanjani in the holy city of Qom.

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There are many ways to interpret the surprise victory of Mahmoud Ahamadinejad, who becomes the sixth president of the Islamic Republic. But one thing is certain: It marks a shift of power within the Khomeinist regime from the mullahs to the military. This is the first time that a mullah, in this case the most prominent of all political mullahs, has been defeated by a virtually unknown nonmullah in a high-profile election.

The defeat of the mullahs is illustrated by other facts as well. All the self-styled grand ayatollahs of Qom endorsed Mr. Rafsanjani, as did both rival wings of the Society of Combatant Clergy. This vast coalition, ranging from Mossadeqists to Tudeh Communists and so-called "religious nationalists" that had helped Khomeini to power in 1979, also campaigned for Mr. Rafsanjani.

Mr. Ahamadinejad exploited the antimullah feeling without any qualms. He spoke of "16 years of decline, despotism and theft." And no one needed reminding that in those 16 years Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had been the "Supreme Guide" while two mullahs, Mr. Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, had held the presidency for eight years each.

Mr. Ahamadinejad's victory marks the ascendancy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the half-dozen paramilitary organizations related to it. A regime whose elite has been discredited as a result of years of misrule is forced to bring its military to the fore to meet the political challenges ahead.

What is happening in Iran today has numerous precedents in Islamic history. Many regimes based on religion ended up making a Faustian pact with their military for protection against the people. And in every case the military, once in power, eliminated its masters. Islamic history knows such military rulers as the "mamelukes" -- literally, "the owned ones," individuals who were supposed to serve the caliph but ended up chopping off his head and seizing power for themselves.

There is no doubt that Mr. Ahamadinejad, and beyond him the military elite of the regime, owe their victory to Ayatollah Khamenei, who broke with his fellow mullahs to help the military win the struggle within the regime. Theoretically, Ayatollah Khamenei now controls all the levers of power in the establishment. In reality, however, he is a lone mullah who will be increasingly opposed by the clergy for different reasons. At the same time, because he lacks a popular base of his own, he will in time become a hostage to the new "mamelukes" symbolized by Mr. Ahamadinejad.

The victory of the new mamelukes has not come out of the blue. They have been capturing positions of power at the expense of the mullahs for many years. Right now, 22 of the 30 governors of provinces are new mamelukes. In the Islamic Consultative Majlis, or parliament, the new mamelukes outnumber the mullahs 130 to 63, out of a total of 290 seats. The new mamelukes are also strongly represented in the Islamic Republic's diplomatic service, controlling more than half of Iran's embassies in key capitals such as Kabul, Baghdad and Beijing.

Late last year the new mamelukes showed their power symbolically when they shut down the new airport at Tehran hours after its pompous inauguration by President Khatami. The reason cited was that Mr. Khatami had given the management of the airport to a Turkish firm whose agent in Iran is a brother of Mr. Rafsanjani. The Revolutionary Guard wanted an Iranian firm to get the contract, and ended up winning the argument. Mr. Khatami and his mentor, Mr. Rafsanjani, were left with egg on their faces.

The advent of the new mamelukes also represents a change of generation within the Khomeinist establishment. The older mullahs and Mossadeqists who provided the bulk of the leadership will now be replaced by men in their 30s and 40s who, gun in hand, fought for the revolution, participated in the eight-year war against Iraq and then helped rebuild the devastated provinces.

This new generation is better educated than the one driven out. Mr. Ahamadinejad will be the first president of the Islamic Republic to hold a Ph.D. At the same time, the new mamelukes have been gaining political and administrative experience by holding jobs as mayors, governors and deputy ministers for years. Mr. Ahamadinejad himself has served as a provincial governor on three occasions and became mayor of Tehran nearly two years ago.

The new mamelukes can revive Khomeini's populist message because, unlike the mullahs, they have not been involved in "looting the nation's treasury," as Mr. Ahamadinejad claims.

Mr. Rafsanjani had promised a "Chinese model" -- that is to say, an oppressive political regime combined with a certain measure of economic liberalization. Mr. Ahamadinejad favors the North Korean model, emphasizing the virtues of self-sufficiency and the evils of joining the World Trade Organization, and promising a massive redistribution of wealth, presumably from the mullahs to the urban poor who provided the bedrock of his support.

Political mullahs like Messrs. Khatami and Rafsanjani tried to deceive Europeans, and often succeeded, by pretending to be Davos-style liberals abroad while telling women at home to cover their hair because it emanates a dangerous ray that makes men wild. With Mr. Ahamadinejad, however, you'll get what you see. Unlike Mr. Khatami, who claimed that Islam was the same thing as democracy, Mr. Ahamadinejad has no qualms about saying that the two are incompatible. He is also open about his belief that women are not the equal of men and that non-Muslims cannot have equal rights with Muslims.

Messrs. Khatami and Rafsanjani tried to present to the Western world an "other" that was really the same bar the beard and the turban. Mr. Ahamadinejad, however, is proud of acting as the "other" that can never abandon its otherness.

All this offers the immense advantage of clarity. We now know that Iran is controlled by an elite that rejects the global model and claims to represent an alternative to what it labels "the corrupt Western way of life." Mr. Ahamadinejad's victory shows that the Khomeinist regime cannot be reformed from within, at least not in the direction desired by the Iranian urban middle classes and the Western powers.

Mr. Ahamadinejad says Iran is entitled to any weapons it might want, including nuclear arms, abandoning the ambiguity so dear to Jack Straw and Joshcka Fischer.

Paradoxically, this need not be bad news. At