Who's in Charge?
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
29 Jun 2010 03:08
[ analysis ] An important question that those who follow Iran's political developments keep asking is, Who is the ultimate power in Iran, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and the clerics around him, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? Given the complexities of Iran's political system and power hierarchy, the question is not easy to answer, but over the past few years, particularly since the rigged presidential election of June 2009, much evidence has surfaced that provides insight into the ongoing power struggle, not between the Green Movement and the hardliners, but between the Guards and the clerics who accept Khamenei as the legitimate Faghih, the Islamic jurist recognized as Supreme Leader.
To address the question of who is the ultimate power, we need to first understand the power base of each side. The fact is that, unlike his predecessor as Supreme Leader -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- Khamenei has never had his own independent base of popular support. He did not belong to Khomeini's inner circle, nor was he an original member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council that Khomeini formed in January 1979 to prepare for the transition from the monarchic rule of the Pahlavi dynasty to an Islamic republic. He was brought into the council only later and given a relatively junior position, deputy minister of defense.
When Khamenei was Iran's president in the 1980s, he clashed frequently with Khomeini, particularly over the choice of Mir Hossein Mousavi as prime minister. Mousavi was strongly supported by Khomeini and is still known as the "Imam's prime minister." At one point, Khamenei even threatened to quit politics and stayed home for three days in protest. The deep differences between Khamenei and Mousavi partly concerned the latter's economic policy. Khamenei represented the conservatives who were not happy with Mousavi's tight control of the economy during the Iran-Iraq War and the price control system he established.
When Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader and theoretically monitors his performance, held an emergency session to select his successor. The first choice was Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, then considered the foremost Marja Taghlid (source of emulation), but he did not receive the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of the assembly. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- the main power broker of the time -- proposed that, instead of selecting a new Supreme Leader, the assembly select a leadership council to oversee the country, consisting of himself, Ahmad Khomeini (the ayatollah's youngest son), Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (a close aide to Khomeini who is now aligned with the reformists), Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, and Hojatoleslam Khamenei. In the clerical hierarchy, a hojatoleslam is one rank below an ayatollah, and much less significant than a grand ayatollah. Khamenei is known to have stated repeatedly, "I am opposed to the Velaayat [guardianship] of a single person," presumably because he saw no chance to be Supreme Leader himself.
Due to his long friendship with Khamenei and the fact that he considered him weak on religious credentials and therefore pliable, Rafsanjani -- assisted by Ahmad Khomeini -- cooked up a quote supposedly uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini, indicating that he thought Khamenei was good enough to be the next Supreme Leader. No one else has ever claimed to have heard Khomeini offer any such view. I doubt the authenticity of the quote, given the tense relationship between the two men.
From hojatoleslam to God's representative on earth
With his appointment as Supreme Leader, Hojatoleslam Khamenei overnight became Ayatollah Khamenei. But when the leading grand ayatollahs of the time, Golpayegani and Mohammad Ali Araki, sent him congratulatory telegrams that referred to him as hojatoleslam, it became clear to Khamenei that he needed to expand his power base. His plan was to make the seminaries in Qom reliant on him for financial resources. He also recognized that he needed followers who recognize him as a legitimate Marja. At the same time, lacking any popular base of support and the sort of charisma and authority with which Khomeini was endowed, he began relying on the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence apparatus, and paramilitary vigilante groups to advance his agenda. When Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989 right after Khamenei's appointment as Supreme Leader, he proposed merging the Guards with the regular armed forces. The Guard commanders opposed the idea, and Khamenei took their side.
From 1989 to 1994, the conservatives tried to prop up Khamenei as a true Marja. They would send him religious questions, which they featured in their publications, along with his responses. The first opportunity to promote Khamenei to a Marja with the Qom seal of approval presented itself after Araki passed away in 1994. A new list of the recognized Marjas was supposed to be publicized. Much pressure was applied on the seminaries, including demonstrations by vigilante groups, to put Khamenei's name on the list of the seven Marjas.
Ever since, Khamenei has provided large amounts of funding to right-wing seminaries in Qom, including that of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the reactionary cleric and spiritual adviser of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has propped up reactionary clerics who, in turn, support him ardently and have promoted him to the rank of deputy to Emam-e Zaman (the 12th Imam of the Shiites, Mahdi, who is supposed to return, after being hidden for centuries, as the redeemer) and even someone who was picked by God and merely "discovered" by the Assembly of Experts. More recently, Khamenei has been comparing himself with Imam Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, the Shiites' First Imam, and a most revered figure in Iran and Shiism. He has compared Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to Talha and Zubayr, two historical figures and followers of the Prophet who rebelled against Imam Ali.
The reactionary clerics who are outspoken supporters of Khamenei include Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi, deeply corrupt member of the Guardian Council and former judiciary chief; Hossein Noori Hamedani, Mesbah Yazdi's son-in-law and the only Marja to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his "reelection"; Abolghasem Khazali, former Guardian Council member; Ahmad Jannati, powerful secretary-general of the Guardian Council; Aziz Khoshvaght, member of the Assembly of Experts and mentor of the Supreme Leader's second son and presumed successor, Mojtaba Khamenei (Khamenei's third son, Mostafa, is married to Khoshvaght's daughter); and Seyyed Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president), member of the Assembly of Experts and leader of Tehran's Friday Prayers. Others who owe their positions to Khamenei, such as judiciary chief Sedegh Larijani and Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani and Abdolnabi Namazi, both members of the Assembly of Experts, naturally support him. Most of them did not play any significant role in affairs of state when Khomeini was alive. None has any following in Iran. Many of them, such as Ayatollah Jannati, are widely despised.
There are lesser known ultra-reactionary ayatollahs, such as Adib Yazdi, Ayatollah Amjad, and Hossein Mazaheri, who resides in Esfahan. But it is the army of hojatoleslams that carry water for Khamenei. Many of them are former students of Mesbah Yazdi and graduates of the seminary that he runs in Qom, the Haghani School. Amazingly, every head of the Intelligence Ministry since it was founded in 1984 has been a Haghani graduate.
There are too many such hojatoleslams to name them all here. The more visible include Mohammad Panahian; Kazem Sedighi, one of Tehran's four Friday Prayer leaders; Hossein Taeb, deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence operation and former Basij militia commander, who played a leading role in the violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations after last year's rigged election; Haydar Moslehi, current minister of intelligence; Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative to the Guards; Mojtaba Zolnoor, Guard commander and deputy to Ali Saeedi; Ghasem Ravanbakhsh, close aide to Mesbah Yazdi; Mohammad Bagher Alavi Tehrani; Mohammad Taghavi; Jafar Shajouni; Elm ol-Hoda, Mashhad's Friday Prayer leader; Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, Esfahan's Friday Prayer leader and Majles (parliament) deputy; Ebrahimi Raeisi, one of the main figures in the execution of political prisoners in 1988; Ruhollah Hosseinian, Majles deputy and supporter of Saeed Emami, leader of the gang responsible for the Chain Murders; Mohsen Gharavian; Hamid Rsaei, Majles deputy; Hossein Ansarian; Haj Samari, Majles deputy; Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, prosecutor-general and former intelligence minister; Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, former intelligence minister; Morteza Agha Tehrani; Ali Mobasheri, head of Tehran's revolutionary court in Tehran; Asghar Mir Hejazi, who works in Khamenei's office; and Mostafa Pour-Mohammad, who also played a leading role in the executions of 1988 and was Ahmadinejad's first interior minister.
Then there is a group of non-clerics around Khamenei who support him strongly. First and foremost is Vahid Haghanian, or "Agha Vahid," the honorific by which he is widely known. He works in Khamenei's office. Little is known about him, but he is recognized to be the ayatollah's right hand and takes on the most sensitive issues. On the evening of June 12, 2009, when Abolfazl Fateh, the Mousavi campaign's press officer, delivered a letter by Mousavi to the ayatollah at his office, it was Haghanian who, according to Fateh, gave him the distinct impression that "the election was over." This was at 11:00 p.m., only two hours after the voting had ended.
Others around Khamenei include Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, and a medical doctor by training; Mohammad Hejazi, former Basij commander; Hossein Allah Karam, a leader of the vigilante groups that used to attack reformist and other opposition gatherings (see below); Masoud Dahnamaki, hardline filmmaker; Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former Majles deputy speaker; the Larijani brothers; Mohsen Rafighdoust, Guards commander and former minister of the Revolutionary Guards, when it had its own ministry; Masoud Sadr ol-Eslam (his true name is Taha Taheri); "Dr." Mehdi Kouchak Zadeh, Majles deputy; Masoud Soltanpour; Haji Bakhshi; and Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and now senior advisor to Khamenei.
All of these men have become very rich, though none is from a wealthy family. Allah Karam, for example, has a large travel agency. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the current Basij commander, has a construction company and an import-export company. Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline managing editor of Kayhan, has extensive agricultural holdings. Rafighdoust's wealth is legendary, Firoozabadi is fabulously rich. Velayati, a pediatrician, owns large hospitals in Tehran. They all have spacious mansions in the city's best neighborhoods. Thus, they all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.
The Revolutionary Guards' cultural war
When, in 1989, Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani was elected president, they both allowed the Revolutionary Guards to become involved in the reconstruction of the country after the Iran-Iraq War, a decision for which Rafsanjani has since expressed regret. In particular, the Guards' Khatam ol-Anbiya operation (its name, which means "the last prophet," refers to Muhammad), which had played a major role in the war efforts and controlled vast state resources, began carrying out projects to repair the damage caused by the conflict.
Over the past year, the Guards' high command has been attacking the reformists savagely, accusing them of everything from being propped up by the United States and Great Britain to being anti-Islam. At the same time, Ahmadinejad's allies have been attacking Rafsanjani and his family. Such attacks, in fact, go back to the early 1990s.
When he was Iran's president, Rafsanjani resisted intervention by Guard commanders in national affairs, even though he was their commander-in-chief during the war. Khomeini was also fiercely opposed to military intervention in politics, which he explicitly banned in his political will. He always said that the military's role was solely the preservation of national security.
Rafsanjani's opposition to political activity by the Guards created animosity between him and hardline Guard commanders that continues today. In 1991, the Guards helped found Ansaar-e Hezbollah, a vigilante group led by Hossein Allah Karam. The Ansaar were the Republic's first unit of plainclothes security agents. They attacked gatherings of intellectuals, academics, and other groups deemed part of the opposition, set fire to many bookstores, and criticized Rafsanjani and his family relentlessly.
At the same time, the Guards quietly began to expand their sphere of influence. At first, they focused on cultural-religious affairs. One of their own, Ali Larijani, had been appointed in 1994 as head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), or the "Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic," as it is commonly known. He was appointed after his predecessor in the post, Mohammad Hashemi, the U.S.-educated younger brother of Rafsanjani, was removed by Khamenei. Larijani had joined the Guards during the war and had eventually risen to the position of deputy to the overall commander. He worked at the Guards' research center and tried to develop a modern theoretical foundation for the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), the backbone of Iran's political structure. There, he worked alongside Ezatollah Zarghami, another right-wing Guard officer, who succeeded him as head of the IRIB.
Larijani vastly expanded the national radio and television network, using it as a propaganda tool in the effort to consolidate the takeover of important state organs by the conservatives and ultra-conservatives, and ultimately the Guards themselves. An IRIB television program, Hoviyyat (Identity), was a vehicle for attacks on practically every single progressive intellectual, political dissident, and other critic of the Islamic Republic. The program and supporting articles published by the daily Kayhan, mouthpiece of the security and intelligence apparatus, often provided the basis for the prosecution and incarceration of opponents of the political establishment. Larijani launched another program, Cheragh (Light), which was also a vehicle for attacking the reformists and democratic groups. He also started and then greatly expanded the daily Jaam-e Jam, and used it to attack the reformists. Gradually, the Guards and their allies took control of all the cultural propaganda organs, though many continued to believe that they were under the control of hardline clerics.
The first direct intervention by the Guards in political affairs came in 1996 during the elections for the Fifth Majles. A group of technocrats around Rafsanjani had formed a new political party, Kaargozaaraan-e Saazande, or Executives of Reconstruction (EOR). The party put up its own list of candidates, independent of the traditional conservatives, which angered them. The Guards and their organs distributed the list of conservative candidates among the Basij and the military, giving the impression that they were explicitly supported by Khamenei. The EOR, together with the leftist clerics of the Association of Combatant Clerics, was still relatively successful, sending about 105 deputies to the Majles, but the Guards had established a precedent.
In the presidential election of 1997, the Basij, Ansaar, and other right-wing groups played the lead role in opposing Mohammad Khatami, who was accused, among various sins, of being liberal and pro-Western. Despite the propaganda campaign and the fact that the Guards opposed him as well, Khatami won in a landslide. During his first term, both the hardline clerics and Guard-affiliated organizations savagely attacked him and his progressive platform. Years later, Khatami said that they created a crisis for him every nine days.
At the height of the "Tehran Spring" of 1997-2000, when Iran had a relatively free press, the Guards began threatening the reformists. Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi -- then the top Guard commander, now a major general and senior adviser to Khamenei -- gave a speech in which he declared that the Guards would "cut the necks and tongues of those" in the reformist press who were revealing the vast web of corruption and other politically related crimes in the country. When criticized by the press, he responded,
The Guards have identified many of the elements of these groups [journalists and dissidents]. They [the Guards] have at this time let them freely set up their groups and newspapers, but we will go after them when the time is ripe.... The fruit must be picked when it is ripe. It is not ripe yet. We will pick it when it is.... We have thrown a rock inside the nest of snakes. They have received blows from our revolution, and we are waiting for the time when they stick their heads out.
After Friday Prayers at the University of Tehran one week in the summer of 1998, a Guard-organized mob attacked and injured Khatami's interior minister, the progressive cleric Abdollah Nouri, and minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Ataollah Mohajerani. Mohajerani was also impeached by the conservatives in the Fifth Majles, but held on to his office. That autumn, the infamous Chain Murders, committed by hardline intelligence agents, plunged the country into a deep crisis. It was only due to Khatami's vigorous pursuit of the problem that the murders stopped.
An uprising by university students in July 1999 then shook the foundation of the Islamic Republic. The dormitories of the University of Tehran were attacked by plainclothes agents and even the police. In response, the students staged demonstrations that spread quickly. Twenty-four high-ranking Guard officers, including Brigadier General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, now a major general and chief commander of the Guards, wrote a letter to Khatami that threatened strong action if he did not put an end to his reform program:
Your Excellency, Mr. Khatami, look at the international media and radio broadcasts. Does the sound of their merriment not reach your ear? Dear Mr. President, if you do not make a revolutionary decision today, and fail to fulfill your Islamic and national duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage will be more irreversible than can be imagined.... With all due respect, we inform you that our patience is at an end, and we do not think it is possible to tolerate any more if this is not addressed.
Even at that time, the Guard commanders were accusing Khatami and his group of being supported by the international media and foreign powers, an accusation that they now routinely make against Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Although a large number of army officers and former Guard commanders expressed their support for Khatami in another letter, it was the threatening communication from the Guard's high commanders that left a lasting impression.
In April 2000, a month after the reformists had swept the elections for the 6th Majles, Khamenei angrily ordered all of the important reformist newspapers closed. In just two days, 16 papers were shut down. The press never recovered from the shock, nor has it ever regained the freedom it had during the first three years of the Khatami era. It was probably then that the Guard hardliners were inspired to pursue direct political and legislative power.
Guards gain political power
In March 1995, the Guards had set up the Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees (SIRD). It was formally organized in February 1997 to oppose Khatami in his bid for the presidency. In Iran, the SIRD is known as the Isaargaraam. Isaar is an Arabic word for altruism, and an isaargar is someone who is willing to selflessly sacrifice for a sacred cause. The SIRD consists mainly of former Basij and Guard veterans of the Iran-Iraq War. Its secretary-general is Hossein Fadai, who was jailed during the Shah's reign for his political activities and worked with the Guards during the war as a combat engineer. He has repeatedly accused the reformists of being supported by the United States. Ahmadinejad himself was a founding member of the group. The SIRD issued many statements against Khatami and his administration, criticizing practically every one of his policies. Even though the reformists swept the elections for the Sixth Majles, about 40 candidates backed by the SIRD were also elected. This was the first open foray by the Guards into electoral politics.
Then came the elections for the city councils in early 2003. The SIRD formed a separate group called the Coalition of Islamic Iran Developers (ISDC), or Abaadgaraan. Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam -- then a Basij commander, now commander of the national police and brother-in-law of Ahmadinejad -- presented a list of Guard- and Basij-supported candidates to the SIRD for Tehran's city council, which was adopted by the ISDC as its slate. Aided by voter apathy -- only 12 percent of those eligible in Tehran went to the polls -- all 15 of the ISDC candidates were elected to the council, which in turn named a little-known SIRD member, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as mayor. Ahmadinejad, returning the favor, began awarding no-bid contracts to Guard-linked companies.
Leading up to the elections for the Seventh Majles, the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, rejected some of the best-known reformists. As a result, the Islamic fundamentalists, by then referring to themselves as the principlists, swept the engineered elections. Over 80 former Guard officers also won seats. It was after these elections that the people, and in particular the reformists, began to realize that a creeping coup by the Guards was taking place. The main reformist strategist, Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, warned that the country would be militarized.
There were several candidates in the presidential election of 2005 with ties to the Guards. The SIRD initially supported Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, former commander of the Guards' air force and now Tehran's mayor. It seemed strange that the group would support supporting a non-member over Ahmadinejad, one of their own. But many saw it as a Machiavellian maneuver. Indeed, after he did not make it to the second round of the elections, Ghalibaf bitterly complained about his supposed supporters. The move also created a fissure within the SIRD, as Deputy Secretary-General Ali Darabi and Abolhassan Faghih, a central committee member, joined Ahmedinejad's campaign, while another central committee member, Ali Ahmadi, headed the campaign of Mohsen Rezaei, former head commander of the Guards. Although he was the candidate of the traditional conservatives, Ali Larijani also had close ties with the Guards.
In the second round of the election, the SIRD was the only political group to formally support Ahmadinejad. Several of its members served in his cabinet, including Davood Danesh Jafari as finance minister. It also has a small faction in the Majles, including Mehdi Kouchakzadeh and Alireza Zakani, both fierce anti-reformists. The unofficial mouthpiece of the SIRD is Siyasat-e Rooz (Daily Politics), whose editor, Ali Yousefpour, is a member of the group.
It is widely believed that, in 2005, Khamenei suggested that the Guard and Basij commanders order their members to vote for Ahmadinejad, and to take with them to the voting stations as many family members and friends as possible. After Ahmadinejad was elected, he began a vast purge of the bureaucracy, appointing his allies to the opened positions. That indicated the extent of the Guards' secret network around the country, and gave clear meaning to the pronouncement by a key ally, Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, now a hardline adviser to the judiciary chief. Zolghadr declared that Ahmadinejad's election "was not an accident. It was a result of two years of complex, multifaceted planning." It is said that even Khamenei was surprised by the extent and depth of the network.In addition to placing many Guard commanders in his cabinet -- seven of them currently serve there -- Ahmadinejad replaced at least a third of the provincial and city governors with former Guard officers. Just as he had while Tehran's mayor, he began giving large, no-bid contracts to the Guards' Khatam ol-Anbiya and affiliated companies, totaling about $10 billion during 2005-9. Major oil and gas contracts, totaling $21 billion, were recently awarded to these firms. In 2007, he forced out Ali Larijani as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and appointed his own man, Saeed Jalili.
The trend of packing the parliament with former Guards continued in the elections for the Eighth Majles in 2008. Once again, the Guardian Council rejected the candidacies of a large number of reformists, many of whom had served in the government from the time of the 1979 Revolution. Thus, the bloc of former Guard commanders, again numbering about 80, controls the Majles together with other hardliners. Of course, the role of the Guards in the rigged presidential election of 2009 and its lead role in the violent crackdown against the Green Movement have been well-documented.
The Guards' economic might
The Khatami administration prevented the Guards from intervening in the official economy. To finance their activities, the Guards began illegally importing goods worth around $12 billion a year, making huge profits. During Karroubi's tenure as Majles speaker in 2000-4, he stated that 63 seaports were not under the government's control, but were being used by "others" -- the Guards -- for illegal imports. The Guards also wrested control of Tehran's new international airport from the Khatami administration, closing it by force and threatening to shoot down any aircraft that tried to land. It was also during this period that the Guards made their first attempt to enter Iran's lucrative oil and gas sector. It staged a helicopter attack on an offshore platform, terrifying the employees of a Romanian company that was working there.
With Ahmadinejad in power, there is no need for such operations. In addition to the Guards' import operation, now valued at $70 billion annually, he has allowed them to practically devour the national economy. Under the guise of implementing Article 44 of the Constitution, which mandates privatization of major industries, his administration has held fire sales of major national assets, including telecommunications, "selling" them to Guard-affiliated organizations and giving them contracts worth billions of dollars in fields such as oil, gas, and rail. According to a reliable estimate, the Guards control about 60 percent of the official economy, in addition to its tight grip on the black market.
There are two additional aspects of the Guards' business activities to keep in mind. By law, the military does not pay any tax. And, according to the Constitution, any organ of the state that is controlled directly by the Supreme Leader cannot be monitored or inspected by the Majles or other oversight organizations, unless the Leader orders it. Since the Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of Iran's armed forces, there is no effective monitoring of the Guards, which has allowed their affiliated firms to perform very low-quality work.
The projects carried out by the Guard-affiliated companies also suffer from chronic budget shortfalls, far exceeding what had been agreed to at the beginning of the projects. Although corruption is undoubtedly one reason, more important is the fact that the firms usually declare that they can carry out any large project at a price far below what its requirements dictate, providing the Ahmadinejad government with a ready excuse to award them the contracts. Once the contract is awarded, the budget shortfall surfaces. The development of phase 16 of the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, the largest in the world, is an example. Iran's share of the field, shared with Qatar, is supposed to be developed in 28 phases. Phase 16 was awarded to Khatam ol-Anbiya a few years ago. In January, Sadar Ghasemi, the organization's chief, declared that it needed an additional $1 billion to finish the project. The Ahmadinejad administration then allowed Khatam ol-Anbiya to receive the shortfall from the treasury without Majles approval.
Frictions begin to emerge
With all of its economic, political, and military power, one may think that the alliance between the hardline Guard commanders and the reactionary clerics is airtight. Both sides have benefited from it, with the main loser being the rest of the nation. But after last year's rigged election and the fact that only the Guards were able to control the Green Movement's massive peaceful demonstrations, evidence has begun to emerge that there is a behind-the-scenes power struggle between the clerics and the Guards. As I described in an article last year, the Guards' ultimate goal is to expel the clerics from power and play the same role in Iran that the military plays in Pakistan and Egypt, and used to play to Turkey. In this vision, a cleric may still nominally rule as Supreme Leader, but the Guards will hold the real power. The emerging evidence supports my analysis. Let us just look at what has happened over the past year.
First, an order was issued by Khamenei last August overruling Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiar Rahimi Mashaei as his first vice president (there are eight vice presidents). Mashaei's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son. The reason, never publicized, was that while Mashaei was an interrogator of political prisoners in the 1980s -- when he was known as Morteza Moheb Oladlia -- he married a "repentent" former member of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization. A reliable source in Tehran reported that Khamenei's order was issued on the day Mashaei was appointed. The national TV and radio network was ordered to announce it, but Ezatollah Zarghami, IRIB director and a former Guard officer, refused to do so. It took Ahmadinejad one week to go along with the order, and it was only after he did that the IRIB publicized it. In accepting the order, Ahmadinejad sent Khamenei a terse, very formal letter, devoid of the praises that had marked his previous communications with the Supreme Leader. The letter was considered deeply insulting by Khamenei's supporters. In a further demonstration of defiance, Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei as his chief of staff and special adviser.
Shortly thereafter, Mohseni Ejei, the hardline minister of intelligence, was abruptly fired by Ahmadinejad. According to the source, Ejei was reporting to Khamenei without the president's knowledge. He had reported that the Intelligence Ministry had concluded that accusations by the Guard high command that the post-election demonstrations were linked to foreign powers and represented a "velvet revolution" were baseless. He had also reported that the demonstrations had not been planned in advance, nor could they have been predicted. Finally, he had reported that both Mashaei and Hossein Taeb, the cleric then in command of the Basij militia, represented security risks. Mashaei was deemed a risk because of his marriage, while Taeb was centrally responsible for the many crimes that had taken place in jails and detention centers after the election.
Ejei's firing and the reason for it actually had precedence. In the spring of 2008, Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, Ahmadinejad's first interior minister, was fired abruptly after he submitted a report to Khamenei about the elections for the Eighth Majles without Ahmadinejad's knowledge. When Ahmadinejad found out about the report, which detailed irregularities committed by his supporters, he fired Pour Mohammadi almost immediately.
When Abdolhossein Rouh ol-Amini, a prominent conservative and former Basij member whose son was murdered in Kahrizak detention center, told Khamenei about the crimes committed at the facility last summer, the Supreme Leader ordered its immediate closure. It had been used for common criminals and narcotics traffickers, but after the election many of those arrested in the protests were imprisoned there. Ejei had complained to Khamenei that the Guards had usurped authority over the detainees from the Intelligence Ministry. In fact, Khamenei's original order was initially ignored by the Guards, as was first reported by Tehran Bureau and confirmed by Saeed Jalili, secretary-general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Apparently, after the order was ignored, it was referred to the council, indicating yet another rift between the two sides. It is widely believed that the Ministry of Intelligence is now controlled by the Guards' intelligence unit.
Recent developments have shed further light on the power struggle. On June 4, there was a ceremony at Khomeini's shrine to commemorate the 21st anniversary of his death. Ahmadinejad was supposed to speak first, followed by Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, the late ayatollah's grandson, and then Khamenei. Instead of his scheduled 30 minutes, Ahmadinejad spoke for nearly 50 to deny the younger Khomeini his full time. The hardliners have been angry at the Khomeini family, because they have clearly taken the side of the reformists and the Green Movement. Hassan Khomeini had refused to participate in the ceremony marking the beginning of Ahmadinejad's second term.
As he spoke, the president's supporters chanted, "Ahmadinejad, break the great bot." Bot -- literally, "idol" -- is used to refer to a dictator, or someone who illegitimately holds a position of power. To whom were they referring? Ayatollah Khomeini or his successor? If the target was either one -- and it is hard to imagine any other figure who could be considered a present or potential bot -- the chant was telling.
When the younger Khomeini finally took to the stage, the hardliners who had packed the shrine began shouting insults to prevent him from speaking. Referring to the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, they chanted, "The true grandson of Ruhollah [Khomeini] -- Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah." Hassan Khomeini, forced to leave the podium halfway through his short speech, observed of his grandfather, "It is only 21 years since the Imam has passed away." As his walked to his seat, Khamenei kissed his face in a traditional sign of affection. Mohammad Ali Ansari, who is in charge of the organization that publishes the speeches and books of Ayatollah Khomeini and manages the ceremonies at his shrine, explicitly accused Ahmadinejad and the Guards of staging the attacks on Hassan Khomeini, which were widely condemned by people across the political spectrum. When a son-in-law of Ayatollah Khomeini died soon after, Khamenei sent his and Khomeini's families personal message of condolence, apparently deepening the rift with the Guards.
In a completely unprecedented article that appeared on the Daneshtalab website, the hardliners criticized Khamenei both for kissing Hassan Khomeini's face and sending the condolence messages. Remarkably, the anonymously written article criticizes Khamenei by name and refers to Ayatollah Khomeini only as the "former leader of the Revolution." It accuses Khamenei of preventing the uprooting of nepotism among the clerics, and mocks what is usually referred to as the Bayt-e Emam (the family of Ayatollah Khomeini), asking sarcastically, "Who are we referring to when we talk about Bayt-e Emam? It is now 21 years since he passed away. His wife passed away. He has no male child left. Even his chief of staff [Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Tavassoli, who died of a massive heart attack in 2008 while giving an emotional speech in defense of Ayatollah Khomeini to the Expediency Council] passed away. But, people are still hearing about Bayt-e Emam." Anyone who could post such a scathing attack on the clerical leadership must be linked with the highest levels of the security-military establishment.
Two days after the episode at the Khomeini shrine, plainclothes agents and right-wing vigilantes ransacked the homes of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a moderate cleric who has supported the Green Movement and was a close aide of Khomeini's. The attacks were widely condemned.
In another development, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani complained that the government has not implemented 130 laws approved by the parliament. Ahmadinejad, whose animosity toward Larijani is well-known, countered in a nationally broadcast TV program, "I do not implement any law that is against religion." He then wrote a letter to the cleric-controlled Guardian Council, and made the same complaint. The council quickly responded that the job of deciding whether a piece of legislation is anti-Islamic is theirs, not his, and that his only task is to implement the law.
Yet another sign of friction between the reactionary clerics and the Guards appeared recently during Friday Prayers in Tehran. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the hardline secretary-general of the Guardian Council, publicly asked, in an exasperated tone, "How long should we be patient and not criticize the government, in the name of the expediency of the nezaam [political establishment]?"
Then there is the issue of the Islamic Azad University (IAU). After the 1980 cultural revolution that resulted in the closure of all of the country's universities, Rafsanjani proposed the establishment of the IAU, which began accepting students in 1982. The goal was to educate and train loyal cadres for the clerical-dominated government, since the clerics had recognized that they could not dominate the existing schools. The IAU's original board of trustees included Rafsanjani, Mousavi, and Khamenei, among others. But it has always been viewed by the hardliners as a base of financial power for the Rafsanjani family. Over the years, the IAU has expanded both in Iran and abroad; now with hundreds of thousands of students, it is one of the largest universities in the world. The total value of its assets is estimated to be about $250 billion, presumably making the globe's richest educational institution.
Ever since Ahmadinejad came to power, one of his primary goals -- which he shares with the Guards -- has been to take control of the IAU. After years of attacks and counterattacks, Ahmadinejad recently succeeded in having the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution (SCCR), which as president he officially heads, issue an order demanding that the school sack its president, Dr. Abdollah Jasbi, an ally of Rafsanjani's. The SCCR, established in 1980, is essentially an illegal council, whose basis for existence can be found nowhere in the Constitution. Nonetheless, it has been used over the years by conservative clerics to control many of the country's cultural activities. Now, Ahmadinejad and the Guards want to use it to take control of the IAU -- the order to sack Jasbi also demands that his replacement be acceptable to the SCCR.
To prevent Guard-linked organizations from taking control of the university, its board of trustees had already voted to vaghf (endow for religious purposes) all IAU assets. This move had angered Ahmadinejad and his supporters because they could not control any such religiously endowed entity. In its order, the SCCR also demanded the reversal of the vote for the endowment, which was approved by the Majles and received a favorable ruling from a Tehran court. At the same time, because the IAU is a completely private university that has never received any government funding, it is not officially governed by SCCR resolutions or orders, or even by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, which has jurisdiction over publicly supported institutions of higher education.Thus another round of attacks and counterattacks began. Hardline Basij students staged a demonstration in front of the Majles building, insulting Larijani, demanding his impeachment, referring to the IAU as the "Mafia," calling for Jasbi's removal, demanding the Majles to retract its approval of the endowment, and threatening to shell it. This was a reference to the Constitutional Revolution, when the Persian Cossack Brigade led by Colonel Vladimir Liakhov, part of the counterrevolutionary forces, shelled the Majles on June 24, 1908. There were fierce verbal arguments, and some physical altercations, between the supporters of both sides in the Majles. Larijani declared the demonstrations an insult to the "Majles of Khomeini and Khamenei." The matter is still unresolved, but it is clear that things are moving toward a fierce confrontation.
A fierce power struggle between the clerics and traditional conservatives on the one hand and the hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards on the other is coming into full public view. The struggle, which has been taking place for many years, began to surface with Ahmadinejad's election in 2005. Two weeks after his election, I traveled to Tehran. A well-known reformist, a friend of several decades who worked in the administrations of Mousavi, Rafsanjani, and Khatami, told me, "Khamenei does not realize what he has created. This will come back to hit him." We are now seeing just that.
I believe that the power struggle will be beneficial to Iran's democratic Green Movement. The struggle and the gaping fissures that have emerged between the conservatives and the hardline Guards, coupled with the total incompetence and corruption of the Ahmadinejad administration, will help bring about their eventual downfall. The democratic movement needs to be patient.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau