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Divisions Emerge Among Iran’s Conservatives

BY Robert Zeliger  September 16, 2010 at 3:30 PM EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

In Iran these days, it’s hard to run from political conflict. Even in soccer.

By some accounts one of the biggest fights in the nation right now is over a hugely popular sports show on TV called, “Minute 90.” The show’s host, Adel Ferdosipour, known for his blunt commentary, has gone after the coach of Foolad Mobarakeh Sepahan, the soccer club in the city of Isfahan. The show aired embarrassing footage of the coach, Amir Ghalenoie, cursing. He in turn accused Ferdosipour of being biased against the team, and his supporters have called for a boycott of the show.

The dispute takes on a political undercurrent since many teams in Iran are politically connected, and some are backed by wealthy former Revolutionary Guards. In that environment, the show’s criticism has touched a nerve.

According to Farideh Farhi, an independent researcher based at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, the dispute gets at a larger societal truth. “There is conflict at every level, in every arena.”

In the 15 months since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second term as president — in an election where results have been challenged by many analysts — unity has eluded the nation, even as it faces a slew of pressing foreign and domestic crises, including new international sanctions that some senior officials have acknowledged are having a significant impact on the nation’s economy.

The fighting comes despite the new silencing of the main opposition force in the country, the Green Movement, led by two of the losing candidates in last year’s election. While the movement’s leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, continue to attack Ahmadinejad and his policies, the country’s president has suffered his worst slings from fellow hard-liners. He’s been attacked by members of the parliament, the judiciary, and even by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself. Although he backed Ahmadinejad after last year’s election, Khamenei has seemed to challenge the president’s leadership style, policies and appointments.

The disputes within the government are complicated and constantly shifting. Broadly speaking, though, there appear to be two camps that have emerged among the hard-liners, longtime analysts note. There are those who have rallied behind the Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment, on one side, and there are the supporters of Ahmadinejad, who has the backing of many officials in the Revolutionary Guard, and is seen as taking on the clerical order.

“Ahmadinejad believes he received 24 million votes in the last election, despite the fact that this is largely disputed,” says Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California and a political columnist for the online news site, Tehran Bureau. “The ultimate goal of Ahmadinejad and the people around him seems to be to get the clerics out of the hierarchy. They have been trying to chip away the power the clerics have.”

Sahimi says Khamenei initially supported Ahmadinejad in the last election because, “he was the devil he knew,” as opposed to the opposition candidates, of whom he had strong objections. After winning the election, Ahmadinejad began showing his independence on domestic and foreign policies — and in his selections of political appointees — possibly in an effort to shore up his credibility with some segments of society from whom Khamenei had lost support.

There is conflict at every level, in every arena.Farideh Farhi, Independent Researcher

Over harsh criticisms, Ahmadinejad appointed his friend and confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to the position of first vice president. Mashaei is a divisive figure in Iranian politics for, among other reasons, comments he made that were interpreted as supportive of the people of Israel (he is quoted as saying Iran has no conflict with anyone in the world, including Israeli citizens). Khamenei ordered him sacked. After a few days, Ahmadinejad complied, but in a show of defiance appointed him his chief of staff. He’s since appointed him to several other significant government positions.

Ahmadinejad has also supported positions on women’s issues that are at odds with the socially conservative clerical establishment (including appointing three women to his cabinet for the first time and backing the right of women to go to sports stadiums to watch games alongside men). He’s also shown some willingness to reach out to the United States for talks that have gone beyond what the Supreme Leader seems willing to back.

Meanwhile, his government continues to be attacked for economic mismanagement as the country endures deep financial turbulence — exacerbated by additional international sanctions put in place this year.

“I get e-mails from friends who say for weeks they can’t afford to buy meat due to the impact of inflation,” says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “The economy is in a very dark situation and the urban classes; everyone in the middle class is up in arms. Their lives have been made more difficult. The regime can’t afford to pay subsidies. In an economy where a professor can’t afford meat, this is very bad.”

The latest salvo in the internal power struggle came this week from a former president — and one of Ahmadinejad’s chief political foes — Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Rafsanjani, the head of the influential clerical council, the Assembly of Experts, told the group that Iran could become a “dictatorship,” unless its current course was reversed. He lambasted the leaders for not taking international sanctions seriously enough.

“We have never been faced with so many sanctions,” he is reported saying. “I would like to ask you and all the country’s officials to take the sanctions seriously and not as a joke.”

The remarks stand in contrast to Ahmadinejad, who has brushed away concerns about sanctions having an effect on Iran, calling them “pathetic” and less effective than “a used handkerchief.”

For some analysts, the degree of bluntness by Rafsanjani, who is still seen as having the support of the Supreme Leader, is indicative of Ahmadinejad’s falling stature among conservatives.

“Rafsanjani would not have gone on this kind of attack if he didn’t sense there was change,” says Milani.

All eyes will be on the embattled Iranian president at next week’s U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. Ahmadinejad has often reveled in his role as the world body’s chief provocateur, the figure defiantly standing up to Western powers. But the country he’s leaving behind for a few days is very different, with enemies around every corner, daggers drawn. Therefore, we might see a more diplomatic Ahmadinejad in New York, analysts say.

Additional reporting from Daniel Sagalyn.