Isolated, weak and as delusional as ever
29 Aug 2009 11:16
Ahmadinejad, pictured with the halo of light he claims the audience saw over his head the first time he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, says "Torture was the work of [foreign] enemies." Nikahang Kowsar/RoozonlineBy MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 29 August 2009
Comments Two of the many unflattering characteristics that describe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are as follows: (1) He tries to present an upbeat and supremely confident image of himself to the outside world at all times, even when he is standing on shaky ground; and (2) even though he is supposedly a devout and pious Muslim, he never hesitates to lie in order to promote that image. These two features were in plain view to the public on Friday, August 28, when Ahmadinejad spoke at Friday Prayers at the University of Tehran.
After Mohammad Ali Rajai and Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, Iran's president and prime minister respectively, were assassinated on August 30, 1981, the government named the week between the end of August and beginning of September (the first week of the month of Shahrivar on the Iranian calendar) as the week of the government. It was on this occasion that Ahmadinejad gave a speech yesterday.
After referring to the huge demonstrations that erupted after the rigged presidential election of June 12 as "riots" (the standard terminology of the hardliners), he demanded that their leaders -- Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mohammad Khatami, none of whom he named -- be put on trial for committing "treason."
Ahmadinejad followed that statement by lying about, well, practically everything. But two of his lies were particularly painful and obvious. One was that all the crimes that have been committed against the detainees were, according to Ahmadinejad, the work of foreign agents for which "there are clear and irrefutable evidence and documents," although he presented none. Ahmadinejad perpetuated this lie even though just last Wednesday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged in a speech to the Basij militia that many crimes had taken place after the election, and said the culprits would be punished, without connecting the culprits to the "enemy," the fictional character that he usually invokes in his speeches to drive his point home. Later, Ayatollah Khamenei also said that he did not believe that the reformist leaders had any link to foreign powers, an accusation that was repeated by Ahmadinejad, regardless and in spite of the Supreme Leader's statement.
According to Ahmadinejad, two acts committed by the reformist leaders amounted to "treason." One was "hurting the people," and two was "presenting distorted images of the Islamic system, and the security, military and intelligence forces." He made these accusations at a time when figures across the political spectrum, and even some of the hardliners, have condemned the many crimes -- including torture, rape, and murder -- that were committed against the young people and reformist leaders who were arrested and imprisoned since June 12.
Ahmadinejad also claimed that foreign governments that had condemned the violent crackdown on the demonstrators had since changed their minds. Ahmadinejad said that they have stated that, "We [the foreign powers] accept the election [of Ahmadinejad] and consider it legitimate, but will not congratulate [him]." Ahmadinejad also claimed that more recently the same foreign powers that he did not name had sent him a message saying, "We want to correct [our position regarding Ahmadinejad's 'election']."
Such fabrications are of course meant to present Ahmadinejad as a confident leader. But, in reality, he is weaker and more isolated than ever. True, the right wing is in control, but that control has been achieved first and foremost by the support of the high command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Otherwise, the base of support for Ahmadinejad among the population is extremely narrow, limited to at most 15% of the population.
At the same time, as the author has previously emphasized, glaring fissures which have emerged within the conservative and reactionary camp, which poses a growing threat to Iran's political stability. Even Ayatollah Khamenei and the hardliners around him are well aware of the danger, which explains why they have been gradually retreating over the past few weeks.
First, they acknowledged some of the crimes that have taken place in the detention centers.
Second, they have retreated from linking the reformist leaders with foreign powers, notwithstanding Ahmadinejad's tired accusations during Friday Prayer.
Third, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former judiciary chief, as a member to the powerful Guardian Council, in preparation for the departure of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-conservative secretary-general of the Council, and an ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad. At least compared to Jannati, Shahroudi is a relative moderate.
Fourth, Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiar Rahimi Mashaei as the First Vice President was blocked. Mashaei was even barred for two months from holding any governmental position, another tactic to put Ahmadinejad under control.
Fifth, many of the reformists and their supporters, if not their main leaders, have been released from detention.
Sixth, behind-the-scene efforts continue to reach some sort of reconciliation between the reformists and the conservative camp. So far these have failed because the main demand of the reformists, holding a new election, has been rejected.
Seventh, Saeed Mortazavi, the notorious Tehran Prosecutor General and the man implicated in many crimes was sacked.
At the same time, Iran's uranium enrichment program has stagnated, either by design, or due to technical difficulties, or because of a lack of raw materials (yellow cake) needed for uranium enrichment. Iran has also become more flexible with the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowing more visits to its nuclear sites. The hardliners fully recognize that by lacking popular support and legitimacy at home, they have only two possible approaches to address their foreign policy woes: They can act even more aggressively than in the past, hence dramatically increasing the possibility of tough sanctions. Or, they can become more flexible and make concessions, in order to mollify the foreign powers and get them off their backs about gross human rights violations.
The hardliners have already taken the latter approach with Russia in order to buy its support: they have made significant concessions regarding the legal status of the Caspian Sea and its natural resources, which are actually detrimental to Iran's national interests. It has gotten to the point that the littoral states convened a meeting last week about the status of the Sea without the presence of any Iran representative.
All are signs of a very weak Ahmadinejad presidency ahead, not to mention his complete lack of legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of Iranian people, even among those who may have supported him before the election.
Even more damaging for Ahmadnejad is that his chief clerical patron, Ayatollah Khamenei, has himself been greatly weakened. The Ayatollah has been openly challenged and strongly criticized by many important clerics. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the most important Shiite cleric in Iran, openly called him unqualified and his reign illegitimate. Ayatollah Khamenei has allowed himself to be reduced to the leader of one faction in the conservative camp by openly and unabashedly supporting Ahmaduinejad. He can no longer pretend that he is above the political fray.
The rift between Ahmadinejad and the rest of the clergy is also pretty glaringly obvious. He did not receive a congratulatory message or endorsement for his second term from any major ayatollah [aside from those who are closely associated with Ayatollah Khamenei] or a clerical organization. There was supposedly a letter signed by 50 members of the Assembly of Experts [a clerical Constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and monitors his performance] that endorsed him after the election. But several sources have revealed that the letter had been drafted by Mojtaba Khamenei, the Ayatollah's son and a power behind the scene, and presented to the Assembly by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and Ayatollah Jannati. It was apparently actually signed by only 8 members [including the two of them]; 10 other members endorsed it, but did not sign. Therefore, at most 18 out of a total of 86 members endorsed Ahmadinejad.
But Ahmadinejad has continued to become increasingly isolated and even overruled behind the scene. Saeed Jalili, his close friend who was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council, was put forth by Ahmadinejad as his choice for foreign minister, but rejected by the powers behind the scene. Ahmadinejad was unable to keep Sadegh Mahsouli, the "billionaire minister" and another close friend at the Ministry of Interior. He nominated Mahsouli [a former IRGC commander] as the defense minister, but the Armed Forces Joint Headquarters (AFJH) rejected him. He could not keep Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, a career soldier, at Defense, because the AFJH rejected him too. As a result, he was left with nominating Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, who was affiliated with the secretive unit of the IRGC, the Quds force, and on the Interpol wanted list, as the new defense minister.
Ahmadinejad has also been deserted by other notable conservatives. Parviz Davoodi, his First Vice President during his first term, refused to join him in his second administration, even though Davoodi is close to Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad's spiritual advisor and ardent supporter. Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, the hardline Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and another former IRGC commander, resigned saying, "I hope that God will have mercy on the next Minister." Ahmadinejad could not get along with Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, the hardline Minister of Intelligence, because he disputed the IRGC's contention that the reformist leaders were receiving support from foreign powers. Ahmadinejad fired him but Ejehei was just appointed by Hojjatoleslam Sadegh Larijani, the new judiciary chief, as the country's Prosecutor General.
In his relationship with the Majles [parliament], Ahmadinejad is not likely to fare any better. The Majles is slated to hold a vote of confidence on his proposed cabinet of 21 ministers in the coming week. Under the law, at least half of the proposed ministers must receive a vote of confidence for the second Ahmadinejad administration to begin official business. But, when Ahmadinejad first sent the list of his list of proposed ministers to the Majles, leading members of the Majles, even among the conservatives, suggested that four or five of the new ministers will not be confirmed. Others have suggested that up to half of the proposed cabinet nominees will be rejected. The reasons given vary from the animosity between certain proposed ministers and leading members of the Majles, to the total lack of experience of others, and legal problems for others still.
In fact, Ahmadinejad had great difficulty cobbling together an acceptable cabinet. Many conservatives have deserted him, unwilling to serve under him in the present situation. His choices for various ministerial positions have been extremely narrow. His nephew, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, was convicted by a court a few weeks ago for stealing the invention of a young man and registering it under his own name. Ahmadinejad still nominated him for the Minister of Industry, apparently because he had no other takers for the position.
His nominee for the power [energy] ministry, Mohammad Aliabadi, another close relative, has brought Ahmadinejad more ridicule. Aliabadi has no experience in energy-related issues and was previously a vice president in charge of sports, where he was widely criticized for mismanaging soccer, the most popular sport in Iran. His proposed Minister of Science, Research and Technology, Kamran Daneshjoo, another close friend, has a dubious educational background. He has claimed that he received his PhD in aerospace engineering from "College of London," which does not exist under this name. But then, on his website at Iran University of Science and Technology (where both he and Ahmadinejad are on the faculty), Daneshjoo claims that he received his degree from University of Manchester!
Ahmadinejad's nominee for the Minister of Oil, Masoud Mir Kazemi, who has close ties to the IRGC, was the former Minister of Commerce. But many members, including the head of the Majles Energy Committee, the influential deputy Hamid Reza Katouzian, have said that Mir Kazemi lacks any qualification for the Oil Ministry, which requires someone with a highly specialized portfolio. Other lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of appointing Mohammad Najjar, a career military officer, as the Interior Minister. The nominees for the Cooperatives, Mohammad Abbasi, and for Labor and Social Affairs, Ali Nikzad, have also being widely ridiculed.
To placate women, Ahmadinejad has proposed three female ministers, but they have been criticized by almost all sides. Many conservatives, including many right-wing ayatollahs, are opposed to women serving in the cabinet [or working at all]. Reformists have mocked Ahmadinejad for his choice of three female ministers, due to their reactionary backgrounds and inexperience.
Fatemeh Ajorlou, the nominee for the Welfare and Social Security Ministry, who is a Majles deputy from Karaj, a town on the western edge of Tehran, is one of the most reactionary deputies. She was formerly in charge of the female members of the Basij militia. She has advocated limiting the number of female students admitted to the universities and limiting opportuniteis for women to work. She has proposed the chador as the "national outfit for women," and has suggested that a different set of books be written for high school girls and boys, "so girls will not be harmed."
Ahmadinejad's nominee for the Minister of Health and Medical Education is Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, an obstetrician. She is the wife of Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline and dreaded managing editor of Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the security and intelligence apparatus. Dastjerdi herself, who was a deputy in the 4th and 5th Majles, has been a hardliner herself, harshly criticizing the reformists. She has proposed that only female doctors be allowed to examine and treat women.
Sousan Keshavarz, the nominee for the Ministry of Education, was the deputy there for only one year. She has also been highly criticized as inexperienced to take over this massive ministry.
It is not even clear that Ahmadinejad can put together a majority in the Majles to get most of his nominees approved. The Principlists control about 170 seats. The reformists have about 50 seats, the independents about 65. But the Principlists have split into several factions. Ahmadinejad can definitely count on about 70 votes from former IRGC officers and some hardliners, but the vote of the rest of the Principlists is fluid. The author's guess is that several of the nominees will be rejected, and several more will be barely approved.
Ahmadinejad's most visible supporters in the Majles include Ruhollah Hosseinian and Hamid Rasaei [mid-rank clerics], Mehdi Kouchakzadeh [a Tehran deputy], Hossein Fadaei, Alireza Zakani, and Parviz Sorouri. The last three are members of the Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees (SIRD). In Iran the SIRD is known simply as the Isargaraan. Isaar is an Arabic word for altruism, and an Isaargar is someone who is willing to selflessly sacrifice for a sacred cause.
SIRD consists mainly of the former Basij and the IRGC veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. Fasaei is its secretary-general. He was jailed during the Shah's reign for his political activities, and worked with the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war as a combat engineer. Mowj-e Sabz (the Green Wave), a reformist website, has accused the three of being involved in the interrogation and torture of the prisoners at Kahrizak detention center on the southern edge of Tehran, before it was closed. At least three people died there as a result of torture.
Ahmadinejad has tried to mend his icy relationship with the Majles. He invited all 290 members to the presidential compound for an Iftar feast, the meal Muslims take after sunset, breaking their fast. But only 20 deputies showed up, which amounted to a great insult as attending Iftar is considered almost a religious duty. To save face, Ahmadinejad's office claimed that he had only invited the 20 deputies.
In his speech before Friday Prayer, Ahmadinejad claimed that his nominees are "devout, revolutionaries who believe in the Leader's ideals and love the Revolution and the political system." He said, "I ask the dear Majles deputies to trust their friend and brother [meaning himself]. We all want to form a strong cabinet. You [the deputies] consider the qualifications [of the nominees], and base [your judgment] on trust."
Given the above, it should be clear that even though the hardliners, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retain control of the government, all of them have been weakened and isolated. Their weak positions, together with the gaping fissures in the political establishment, will impair the decision-making process on any important issue. Iran very likely faces a period of instability and uncertainty. Given that there is no prospect for a rapprochement between the hardliners and the reformists, it is not even clear how the nation can rescue itself from this deep crisis.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau