Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
11 Sep 2010 23:42
[ analysis ] In an article last year, I described the leaders of Iran's election coup of June 2009, their backgrounds, and their goals. As discussed there, the coup leaders were some of the top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and their aim is the expulsion of the clerics from the political power structure. In an article this past June, I described the rift between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters and Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Subsequent developments have confirmed the accuracy of my analysis and indicate a deepening rift between the two leaders.
Although Khamenei firmly supported the election fraud and recognized Ahmadinejad as the elected president even before the Guardian Council certified the returns, friction between the two men began to emerge almost immediately afterward. Khamenei overruled Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his first vice president (there are eight) in August 2009. The reason, never publicized, for Khamenei's decision was that in the 1980s, when Mashaei was an interrogator of political prisoners, he married a "repentant" former member of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization. In that era, Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, was known as Morteza Moheb Oldlia.
A source in Tehran reports that Khamenei's order for the firing of Mashaei was delivered to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) on the day he was appointed, but Ezzatollah Zarghami, IRIB director and a former Revolutionary Guard officer, refused to allow its announcement. Ahmadinejad waited one week to acknowledge the order and then sent the ayatollah a terse, very formal letter, devoid of the customary praises that his past letters to Khamenei had contained. He also referred to the Constitution as his basis for acceding to the directive, rather than the supremacy of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, as represented by the Supreme Leader), the hardliners' standard way of accepting such orders. In a further demonstration of defiance, Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei as his chief of staff and special advisor. Since then, he has named Mashaei to 18 additional positions.
Shortly thereafter, the president fired Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the hardline minister of intelligence. According to the Tehran source, Ejei was reporting to Khamenei without Ahmadinejad's permission. Ejei informed the ayatollah that the Intelligence Ministry had concluded that the Guard high command's accusations that the postelection demonstrations were linked to foreign powers and represented a "velvet revolution" were baseless. The ministry had determined that the demonstrations had neither been planned in advance nor could have been predicted. Ejei also told the ayatollah that both Mashaei and the cleric Hossein Taeb, then commander of the Basij militia, represented security risks -- Mashaei due to his marriage, and Taeb because he had played a leading role in the crimes committed against those arrested in the protests during their incarceration.
After prominent conservative Abdolhossein Rouh ol-Amini, a former Basij member whose son was murdered in Kahrizak, told Khamenei about the many crimes that took place at the detention center, the ayatollah ordered its immediate closure. Ejei had also complained to Khamenei that the Intelligence Ministry had lost control over the arrestees and that a Guard unit had taken control of the affair. In fact, as first reported by Tehran Bureau, Khamenei's original order was initially ignored by the Guards. Saeed Jalili, secretary-general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and a close ally of Ahmadinejad's, later confirmed the Bureau story. It is now widely believed that the Ministry of Intelligence is controlled by the Guards' intelligence unit. Minister of Intelligence Haydar Moslehi is another close ally of Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. Contrary to what some claim, reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself.
Thus, after defying the ayatollah by giving Mashaei a portfolio of multiple prominent positions and firing Ejei, Ahmadinejad appointed Saeed Mortazavi, the hardline former Tehran prosecutor who was sacked after the Kahrizak fiasco, to another important post. To firm up his support among the Revolutionary Guards, he handed Guard-linked companies contracts totaling $21 billion. Two large oil and gas contracts were awarded to two companies formed literally on the day they signed the agreements. The legally required newspaper advertisements announcing their formation were published after the signings.
Recognizing that normalization of relations with the United States is very popular in Iran, Ahmadinejad began asserting repeatedly that he is ready to meet and negotiate with President Barack Obama, even though the ayatollah has stated repeatedly that Iran will not negotiate with the United States and will not reestablish diplomatic relations. In addition, through his trusted ally, Saeed Jalili, Ahmadinejad reached an agreement with the Vienna group for the swap of part of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium for fuel for the medical Tehran Research Reactor. When the draft of the October 1, 2009, agreement was taken to Tehran, it was severely criticized by the ayatollah's supporters. Ahmadinejad eventually prevailed and -- after major concessions from the Iranian side -- the agreement was sealed with Turkey and Brazil.
The behind-the-scenes confrontation continued after the nuclear deal. In a previous article, I described the June 4 ceremony at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to commemorate the 21st anniversary of his death. The aftermath of the event demonstrated the friction between the two camps. In a completely unprecedented web article, an anonymous hardliner rebuked Khamenei by name and referred to Khomeini only as the "former leader of the Revolution." The piece accused Khamenei of preventing the uprooting of nepotism among the clerics and mocked the Bayt-e Emam (the Khomeini family). Anyone who can post such a scathing piece with impunity must have ties with the highest levels of the military-security establishment.
Khamenei responded to the rebellious president through two of his most trusted allies, two of the Larijani brothers. When the terms of some of the non-clerical members of the Guardian Council expired, Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief, did not re-nominate Gholam-Hossein Elham, a close ally of Ahmadinejad, and prevented him from continuing to serve on the powerful council.
Khamenei responded to the rebellious president through one of his most trusted allies, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, who complained that the administration has not implemented 130 laws approved by the parliament. Larijani added that appointing foroumaayegaan (uneducated lowlifes) to important positions did nothing to solve the country's problems.
In a nationally broadcast TV program, Ahmadinejad countered, "I do not implement any law that is against the religion." He then wrote a letter to the cleric-controlled Guardian Council that made the same declaration. The council quickly responded that the task of deciding whether a piece of legislation is anti-Islam is theirs, not his, and that his only responsibility is to implement the law. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the council's hardline secretary-general, said in an exasperated tone during his sermon at Tehran Friday Prayers, "How long should we be patient and not criticize the government, in the name of the expediency of the nezaam [political establishment]?" Others in the Majles staged relentless attacks on Ahmadinejad. During this entire time, the ayatollah was completely silent.
IAU has always been viewed by the hardliners as a base of financial power for the Rafsanjani family. Its assets are estimated to be about $250 billion, making it likely the richest educational institution in the world. Ever since he came to power in 2005, one of Ahmadinejad's primary objectives has been to take over IAU. He recently tried again to wrest control of the school from the Rafsanjani group: The Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution (SCCR), which he heads, issued an order demanding that IAU sack its president, Rafsanjani ally Dr. Abdollah Jasbi, and appoint a replacement acceptable to the SCCR.
In response, the school's board of trustees voted to vaghf (endow for religious purposes) all of the university's assets, angering Ahmadinejad and his supporters because they cannot control any such religiously endowed entity. The Majles approved the endowment and a Tehran court also ruled in its favor. At the same time, because IAU is a completely private university that has never received government funding, it is not beholden to SCCR resolutions or orders, or even to the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, which has jurisdiction over most institutions of higher education.
The endowment move set off another round of attacks and counterattacks. Hardline Basij students staged a demonstration in front of the parliament building, insulting Larijani, demanding his impeachment, referring to IAU as the "mafia," calling for Jasbi's removal, insisting that the Majles take back 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 parliamentary supporters of each side. Larijani declared the demonstrations an insult to the "Majles of Khomeini and Khamenei."
Just when Ahmadinejad seemed to be on the verge of victory, Rafsanjani stepped forward. He told Khamenei that if the ayatollah did not intervene, he and his allies would proceed as they thought best. He then convened a meeting of the IAU board of trustees. While he invited Mir Hossein Mousavi, a board member, to attend, he prevented Ahmadinejad's representative from doing so. The ayatollah received the message loud and clear, and ordered an end to the confrontation. This time Ahmadinejad was forced to back down.
But the attacks and counterattacks between Ahmadinejad and the ayatollah have continued. Kayhan, the daily mouthpiece of the hardliners, which is under Khamenei's control, criticized the president for proposing to negotiate with the United States and for reaching the nuclear agreement with Turkey and Brazil. Larijani declared that "some were fooled by the Westerners during the nuclear negotiations." Ahmadinejad countered in a TV interview, saying that his critics were uninformed.
The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics. They also know that nostalgic feelings for pre-Islamic Iran have been used by some in the opposition, particularly in Europe and the United States, to provoke antigovernment activities. They are consequently trying to distance themselves from the clerics in this and other matters. Some time ago, Mashaei said that Iran has no quarrel with the people of Israel, prompting widespread outcry. Ahmadinejad wanted to have three female ministers in his cabinet and said that he did mind women going to sports arena and stadiums, inciting further outrage.
Then, at an August conference called the "Gathering of the Elite Iranians of the Diaspora" organized in Tehran by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, the latter spoke of presenting to the world not the Islamic school of thought, but the "Iranian school of thought." A storm of protest broke out. Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, even threatened to take Mashaei to court. Mashaei similarly threatened the general. Kayhan also attacked Mashaei for his "crime." Even Ahmadinejad's spiritual advisor, the ultrareactionary Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, criticized Mashaei. Mansoor Arzi, a notable supporter of Velaayat-e Faghih among the conservatives, likened Mashaei to "manure" and quoted Khamenei as saying that the office of the president, which Mashaei heads, is trying to disrupt the proper functioning of the political system's three branches. In a recent sermon before public prayers during the fasting month of Ramadan, Arzi asked people to sign a long petition harshly criticizing the government and accusing it of wasting the nation's resources. But Ahmadinejad has not backed down.
Perhaps it is due to his fear of Ahmadinejad and his supporters that Khamenei began talking about the "unity of the nation" and the necessity of bringing back at least some of the Reformists and democratic groups into the circle of power. Kazem Sedighi, a midranking cleric and leader of Tehran Friday Prayers, talked about the necessity of unity in a recent sermon. Mohammad Khosh Chehreh, a Principlist Majles deputy, has also supported the Ayatollah's proposal. (Iranian religious hardliners refer to themselves as Principlists to avoid the negative connotations of the word fundamentalist.)
Several other important Principlist figures have expressed support for unity, including Hassan Ghafouri Fard, a former minister in the Rafsanjani administration and a professor at Tehran's Amir Kabir University; Emad Afrough, a relative moderate and former Majles deputy; and Abolghasem Raoo'fian, a leading member of the United Front of the Follower of Imam and the Leader, a coalition of right-wing groups. Mohammad Nabi Habibi, secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party, an influential right-wing group with close ties to the ayatollah, has repeatedly spoken of the necessity of reaching accommodation with the Reformists.
In reaction, Minister of Intelligence Moslehi made the absurd claim that the United States had spent $17 billion in order to topple the Islamic Republic and that the Reformists and democratic groups had acted as American agents. Ahmadinejad's unhappiness with Khamenei's call for unity was one of the primary motivations for last week's attacks on the home of Mehdi Karroubi by Ahmadinejad supporters.
Two recent developments represent the most telling evidence of the deepening rift between the two men. One emerged when Ahmadinejad and his cabinet met with Khamenei last week. Ahmadinejad presented a list of his government's "achievements," but the ayatollah rebuked him, directly or indirectly, over each item, which is without precedent. The ayatollah had previously gone out of his way to exaggerate Ahmadinejad's "successes," but not this time.
When Ahmadinejad claimed that his government had spread "economic fairness," the ayatollah responded, "In order to assess whether fairness has been achieved, certain criteria must be set to see whether it has really happened in the various aspects of the society -- economical, social, cultural, and educational."
After Ahmadinejad stated that his government is "rapidly" achieving the goals set out in the Expediency Council's 20-Year Vision Plan, the ayatollah retorted, "The government must appoint some people to study whether the pace of progress has been good" during the period Ahmadinejad has been in office.
Ahmadinejad then told the ayatollah that the main focus of his government is "culture." Khamenei pointedly responded, "Showmanship in cultural affairs is not only not useful, but also damaging," a reference to Ahmadinejad's constant boasting of his accomplishments.
The second development concerns Ahmadinejad's recent attempt to take full control of Iran's diplomatic efforts. In the meeting of his cabinet with Khamenei, the president noted that he has made 81 trips to foreign nations and 70 foreign delegations have visited Iran during his tenure. He claimed that these figures indicated his government's activism and success in the international arena. The ayatollah responded, almost angrily, "More important than the trips is the spirit and content of the diplomacy," an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad's aggressive foreign policy and belligerent rhetoric.
Khamenei then emphasized that diplomacy must be led by the Foreign Ministry, that "parallel diplomacy is not acceptable," and that "weakening of the country's diplomacy, particularly under the current conditions, especially by members of the cabinet, is the same as sitting on a tree's branch while sawing it to cut if off." The ayatollah was clearly expressing his displeasure over Ahmadinejad's appointment of four special representatives for foreign affairs: Mashaei for the Middle East, Abolfazl Zohrehvand for Afghanistan, Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh for the Caucasus region, and Hamid Baghaei for Asia. As I reported last year, at the beginning of his second term, Ahmadinejad tried to replace Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki with his close ally Jalili, but was blocked by the ayatollah. The appointment of the advisors further confirms Ahmadinejad's dissatisfaction with Mottaki.
As Javad Mansoori, a conservative diplomat and former ambassador to China, pointed out, Ahmadinejad is evidently trying to control all foreign affairs through his own office, bypassing both the Majles and Khamenei. But Ahmadinejad's appointments have deeply angered the conservatives around the ayatollah. When Baghaei declared that the newly appointed representatives would work outside the Foreign Ministry and report directly to the president, and that two others would be appointed for Africa and South America, Mottaki accused him of naiveté.
The Research Center of the Majles had also declared the appointment of the special representatives unconstitutional. One hundred and twenty-two Majles deputies wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad, telling him that the only remedy is to fire the representatives. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the parliament's Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, declared that parallel diplomacy by Ahmadinejad's representatives was hindering the nation's diplomatic work. Boroujerdi, who is close to the ayatollah, said that foreign policy and diplomacy are under the exclusive control of the Foreign Ministry. Ali Larijani's brother-in-law Ali Motahhari, an influential Principlist Majles deputy, sternly criticized Ahmadinejad for his intervention in the work of the ministry.
The harshest criticisms were made by the website Alef, which is run by Ahmad Tavakkoli, chairman of the Majles Research Center. A cousin of the Larijani brothers, Tavakkoli accused Ahmadinejad of not heeding Khamenei's call to avoid parallel diplomacy, demonstrating that he does not believe in Velaayat-e Faghih.
Ahmadinejad has confronted the Majles head on. Ali Akbar Javanfekr, his close aide and advisor for public affairs, declared that if the parliamentary attacks continue, the president will not honor the oath of office that he took there at the beginning of his second term.
Ahmadinejad himself then abruptly declared that his administration wants to take back the legislation that he had submitted to the Majles for the implementation of Iran's current five-year development plan. That began another round of fierce arguments, with some supporters of the ayatollah accusing the president of trying to neutralize the Majles. Ismail Kowsari, a Principlist deputy, said that the administration cannot simply retract the legislation. Another Principlist deputy, Ali Aghar Yousefpour, told Mehr News Agency that the Majles and the administration have deep differences. Fourteen Majles deputies submitted a request to Larijani to summon the minister of economic affairs to the Majles to explain certain of Ahmadinejad's actions right before last year's rigged election.
The conservative political groups that are closely allied with the ayatollah have also recognized the deepening rift between him and Ahmadinejad. They realize that if Khamenei loses the power struggle, they too will be in danger. Early this summer, Ahmadinejad rejected the notion of political parties and factions, and claimed that there is only one political group -- his. He was essentially saying that only those loyal to him are true Principlists. This deeply upset the right-wing groups around the ayatollah.
Majles deputy Asadollah Badamchian, an ICP member who has been implicated in several high-profile crimes, accused Ahmadinejad of not believing in Velaayat-e Faghih and the maraaje' (religious sources of emulation, meaning the grand ayatollahs). Echoing Badamchian, Habibollah Asgar Oladi, the ICP's former secretary-general and a very influential conservative, said, "I am afraid that Velaayat-e Faghih is becoming weaker within the government." He added, "It is not just some of the Reformists that are extremists; there are also some among the Principlists," an indirect reference to Ahmadinejad's supporters.
Last month, Asgar Oladi and the ICP's Habibi met with Ahmadinejad. They told him bluntly that he was the biggest reason for the rise of the Green Movement. They also said that he was effectively the first to chant "Marg bar Velaayat-e Faghih" (death to clerical supremacy), when -- in his televised debate with Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 campaign -- he equated the fate of the 1979 Revolution with his own, putting himself above all others, including the Supreme Leader.
An Ahmadinejad aide subsequently declared that his supporters are developing a "manifesto" for the Principlists, in effect deciding who is entitled to the label. Influential ICP member Maryam Behrouzi responded that it is not the administration's right to decide who is or is not a Principlist. She reminded Ahmadinejad, "It was the Principlists that brought the government to power." Secretary-General Mohsen Yahyavi of the Islamic Society of Engineers, who is closely affiliated with the ICP, also rejected the notion that Ahmadinejad can determine who really is a Principlist. Motahhari likewise decried the manifesto scheme and declared that the goal is to eliminate Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, an Ahmadinejad rival and former Guard commander, and Mohsen Rezaei, secretary-general of the Expediency Council and former top commander of the Guard. Various sources report that many grand ayatollahs have said that meeting with Ahmadinejad and members of his cabinet is haraam (deeply sinful).
There are other signs that Ahmadinejad wants to do away with Khamenei and the clerics. He and his team have repeatedly visited and talked about Jamkaran, the site near Qom where people can supposedly make contact with Mahdi, the Shiites' 12th Imam who is supposed to return from hiding one day. Many people interpret this as an example of Ahmadinejad's demagogic exploitation of superstitions. I believe it his subtle way of saying, "If we can directly contact with Imam Mahdi, we do not need the clerics to do that for us."
Two events that took place this month confirm the deepening of the rift. On September 3, Quds Day, Ahmadinejad spoke to the crowd in attendance at the University of Tehran for Friday Prayers. He departed immediately after finishing the speech, before Ahmad Khatami, leader of the prayers and a close associate of Khamenei's, began his sermon.
The tension between the two camps is also evident in how the case of the three American hikers jailed since last year has been handled. To please the Obama administration, Ahmadinejad has been trying for some time to arrange their release, but the judiciary has resisted. It had been announced that one of the hikers, Sarah Shourd, would be released on Saturday. But then the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the administration's deputy chief of communication saying it would not happen. Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi blocked the release on the grounds that "judicial procedures have not been done." Note that the judiciary is headed by Sadegh Larijani, brother of the Majles speaker.
The Revolutionary Guards' top commanders have remained silent throughout the entire conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Perhaps they are waiting to see who will get the upper hand.
As I have emphasized in the past, I believe that the power struggle will benefit the Green Movement. The struggle and the gaping fissures that have emerged among the conservatives led by Khamenei, on the one hand, and Ahmadinejad and (presumably) the Guard hardliners, on the other, will bring their eventual downfall. This prospect is magnified by the administration's utter incompetence and corruption. The price of everything is soaring. Electricity bills for many in Tehran and elsewhere have risen fivefold. Lamb is more expensive in Iran than in the West, even after currency conversion.
The Green Movement has to stay calm and patient, and spread its wings. Its time will come sooner rather than later.
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