Turnover and Turmoil in the Ahmadinejad Administration
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
22 Dec 2010 23:02
Ramin dismissed from press oversight post. Vice President Rahimi under new prosecution threat.
[ opinion ] The ouster of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the long-awaited implementation of the government's subsidy reduction plan have been grabbing most of the recent media attention, but other important political developments are also taking place in Tehran.
Deputy Minister Ramin SackedOne of the most controversial figures to have served in both administrations of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been Mohammad Ali Ramin (pictured). Formerly a senior presidential advisor, Ramin most recently was deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance in charge of the press, a post to which he was appointed in November 2009. On Monday, he was fired by Ahmadinejad. During his tenure as deputy minister, many of the remaining newspapers and other publications that published even very mild criticism of the government were shuttered and their editors and journalists summoned to court. Ramin claimed that he had to do this to create a "moderate environment" for the Iranian press.
In an interview with ISNA, the Iranian Students News Agency, Ramin confirmed that, though he has yet to be officially informed, he is to be replaced by Mohammad Jafar Mohammadzadeh, deputy chief of staff to Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Ahmadinejad's first vice president (Iran has eight VPs). Previously deputy chief of staff to Ahmadinejad for communications, Mohammadzadeh has also worked for the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic, the government-controlled national network of TV and radio stations.
Ramin, whose full name is Mohammad Ali Ramin-zadeh, was born in 1943 in Dezful, in Khuzestan province in southwest Iran. He lived in Germany for 20 years and was jailed there briefly in 1982. He was reportedly affiliated with German Neo-Nazi groups and was eventually forced to leave Germany. (His son still lives there and owns a company that does business with Iran.) Unconfirmed reports suggest that he is barred from entering Germany. Another report indicates that he can enter Germany, but is not allowed to deliver a public speech. He has claimed that his "German friends" have told him that World War II was imposed on Germany by the Zionists.
During the administrations of former President Mohammad Khatami, Ramin was one of the main critics of the Reformists. While he was still living in Germany, he published a monthly called Emaamat, a vehicle for many attacks on the Reformists. He is the founder of the ultra-reactionary militant group Hasteh Haaye Fadaeeyan-e Velaayat (Core of Devotees of the Velaayat) and frequently speaks at gatherings of Ansar-e Hezbollah (Supporters of the Party of God), another ultra-reactionary collective. Ramin also founded the Society for Defense of Muslims in the West, was secretary-general of the World Foundation for Holocaust Studies (headquartered in Tehran), secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Ummah, and the head of the Islamic Path Organization in Europe, all ultra-reactionary groups of Islamic fundamentalists. He has stated many times that the alternative to democracy in the world is the system of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by the Supreme Leader).
In 2006, Ramin founded Raayehe Khosh-e Khedmat -- the Sweet Scent of Service (SSS). Some of the main members of the SSS are former commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ahmadinejad's main base of support. The SSS publishes two daily newspapers, Khorshid (The Sun) and Vatan-e Emrooz (The Homeland Today), both of which have low circulations. A hallmark of the SSS was its attacks on the administrations of former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami. The publication claimed that neither man had done anything for the nation, and in fact had led the country to deviate from the "fundamental principles of the 1979 Revolution" -- an apparent attempt to justify the SSS's own failures. Despite its use of public resources, the SSS was defeated badly in the 2006 city council elections, receiving just 4 percent of the vote. Only three of the group's candidates for the Tehran council were elected -- and only after the vote count was reportedly altered. The SSS did just slightly better in the March 2008 elections for the eighth Majles.
It is Ramin who has advised Ahmadinejad to cast doubt on the Holocaust. He was also the primary force behind a conference on the Holocaust held in Iran in December 2006 and attended by many revisionists and denialists.
Charges against Rahimi
In an interview on Monday, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the prosecutor general and spokesman for the judiciary, declared that Rahimi (pictured), Ahmadinejad's first vice president, "faces charges of financial corruption. And after an investigation by the judiciary of the charges and what the rest of those accused in the same case have to say, he will be summoned to court." Ejei, who was Ahmadinejad's minister of intelligence until he was fired last year, did not specify a court date.The charges apparently stem from the so-called Fatemi Street ring (halgheh Khiyaban Fatemi). The first time that the subject was mentioned in public was last April, when Elyas Naderan, a hard-line Majles deputy and critic of Ahmadinejad, declared,
Those who in the debate on financial corruption defend Rahimi are not aware of his role in a network whose members have been arrested. When the subject was brought up in the Majles, 200 deputies defended Rahimi, but if they had been aware of what had happened, they would not have supported him. Rahimi is the head of the Fatemi Street ring and he was the one who made the decisions behind their [financial] corruption and how [the proceeds] should be distributed. Just because someone has an executive position [in the government] does not mean that he should be excluded from prosecution. It is neither fair nor the right thing to do.
According to Naderan, all of the ring's members have been arrested except for Rahimi. Aside from Rahimi, Naderan described Jaaber Abdaali, who used to work for Iran Insurance Company (the country's largest insurance firm) and Esmail Mas'oudi, former deputy governor-general of Tehran province, as the most important members of the ring. The latter has already been given a four-year jail sentence, 74 lashes, and a fine of nearly $12.4 million for other corruption charges.
Abdaali is reportedly the person who signed the checks for $5,000 that Mohammad Abbasi, then Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, presented to certain Majles deputies in November 2008 while the parliament was debating whether to impeach former Interior Minister Ali Kordan. (Kordan was impeached. He passed away last year.) Abdaali has already been convicted of narcotics trafficking.
Before Naderan made his accusation, Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary chief, had said that a ring had been discovered that, using fake executive and judicial documents, had robbed people of millions of dollars. He had said that in just one relatively minor case, the ring had stolen $6 million. The total amount of money that has illegally reaped is not clear. According to various reports, the staff of the Iran Insurance Company was involved in the corruption. Through collusion with others, they refiled settled cases with the company and received millions of dollars. The ring also reportedly arranged for a $700 million loan from Bank Melli to a company owned by a friend of Rahimi's and received a 5 percent "commission" or kickback. Of the $35 million, $18 million went to Esfandiar Rahimi Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's chief of staff; $10 million went to Ahmadinejad's son, who is married to Mashaei's daughter; and $7 million went to Rahimi. The Jahan News website, run by hardline Majles deputy Alireza Zakani, has reported many details of the case. See also here.
When Larijani told Ahmadinejad about the prosecution of his principal vice president, Ahmadinejad reportedly responded that the judiciary should begin its anti-corruption work by investigating Larijani's own older brother Mohammad Javad (Ardeshir) Larijani, the judiciary chief's advisor and deputy for human rights issues. According to the report, Larijani has taken possession of large pieces of agricultural lands, presumably illegally, between Varamin and Garmsar, east of Tehran. A reliable, independent source has confirmed the report, though he did not know how Larijani had gained ownership of the lands.
It was then reported that Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei had ordered the case to be set aside for the time being. All the talk about the corruption ring and Rahimi's possible involvement in it thus suddenly stopped; several Majles deputies made clear that they had dropped the matter due to the order. Naderan said, "Of course, we will pursue this, but the expediency of the nezaam [the political system] is paramount." Apparently the reason for the ayatollah's order was that Ahmadinejad told him that some of the $35 million kickback was spent on his campaign for president last year. If that fact were to be officially revealed, the entire election and hence the rule of the ayatollah, who ardently supported Ahmadinejad, would be cast in doubt.
Rahimi has filed a lawsuit against Naderan. When asked in a press conference Monday about Ejei's statement concerning his vice president, Ahmadinejad did not address the accusations, but instead demanded that the judiciary quickly take up Rahimi's lawsuit against Naderan because "that would create a sense of security for people." This is while in addition to Naderan and many other important figures that want Rahimi to be put on trial, even some hardline student groups have demanded the same.
As the largest producer of spaghetti in the Middle East, Rahimi was already a very rich man even before his alleged receipt of $7 million in the kickback scheme. And he was already a notorious figure. At the time of the 1997 presidential election, he was governor-general of Kurdistan province. When Khatami visited there to campaign, Rahimi greeted him with deep insults. He was accused of trying to rig the vote in Kurdistan in favor of Khatami's main rival, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri. In many towns, the number of votes tallied for Nouri was 50 percent greater than the total of eligible voters.
About a year after Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, Rahimi claimed that during a trip to Syria, someone there had told him, "If God were to send another prophet after Prophet Muhammad, it would be Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." Like Kordan, whose doctorate degree from Oxford University turned out to be fake, Rahimi has also been accused, by none other than Naderan, of fabricating his academic record.
Why the sudden interest in prosecuting Rahimi, nine months after Khamenei ordered the case set aside? Most Iran analysts believe that the threat to prosecute Rahimi is linked to Ahmadinejad's firing of Mottaki, the reason for which is still being debated. Ahmadinejad's supporters assert that the dismissal was well planned and Mottaki knew about it, a claim he contests. Some speculate that Mottaki was dismissive of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they both attended a reception hosted by Bahrain's crown prince. Ahmadinejad was reportedly angered, viewing Mottaki's behavior as squandering an opportunity to initiate a rapprochement with the United States. (Mottaki has denied that his behavior at the reception had any such effect.) As Dr. Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, a senior legal aide to Mir Hossein Mousavi, said of Ahmadinejad's attitude toward the West, he "has hot rhetoric in public, but tries to do horse trading behind the scenes."
Many Iran analysts, including the author, believe that the firing of Mottaki is part of Ahmadinejad's effort to take full control of foreign policy, removing it from Khamenei's hands. Abolhassan Bani Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, seemed to agree when he told Deutsche Welle about his view of the connection between Mottaki's firing and the threat to prosecute Rahimi: "It is impossible for the two cases to be unrelated. Some within the Iranian regime believe that Ahmadinejad is becoming independent of the [Supreme] Leader. His group is trying to take over the elements that are most important in Ahmadinejad's view -- foreign policy, executive power, and the press." Note that it has been reported that Ramin was fired because he opposed Mashaei's proposal to transfer control of the press to the office of the president.
An anonymous political analyst in Tehran told Deutsche Welle, "The firing of Mr. Mottaki was very important, and the way it was done is also very important. The way it was done was intentional. It was not as if the president had momentarily lost control. There was planning for this. The goal of this decision was to warn the rest of the government to decide [on which side they stand]. The firing itself was very important. So far the diplomacy arena was controlled by the Leader. We had never had such a firing in the Foreign Ministry; this was the first time that this happened."
Rooz, the online daily, reported that according to some Majles deputies, "The reason for the firing of Mottaki while he was on a mission [in Senegal] was to show the power of Ahmadinejad, with the target being not Mottaki but Ayatollah Khamenei and the Principlists who are critics of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei." Rooz also reported that many influential Majles deputies, including Naderan, Ahmad Tavakkoli, head of the Majles Research Center of the Majles and cousin of the Larijani brothers, and Ali Motahhari, brother-in-law of Speaker Ali Larijani, had spoken about Khamenei's unhappiness at the dismissal of Mottaki.
Hossein Shariatmadari, the notorious managing editor of Kayhan, the mouthpiece of the hardliners, attributed the firing to a "ring" around Ahmadinejad. Though he named no one, he clearly meant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. As Bani Sadr told Deutsche Welle, "What I said are not hypotheses, but facts about this regime. Who is Kayhan? The Kayhan of Hossein Shariatmadari is linked to Mr. Khamenei's office, which at one time supported Ahmadinejad. Now, to whom is Kayhan attributing [the firing]? To Mr. Mashaei. Who is Mashaei? The closest person to Ahmadinejad. In reality, because Kayhan cannot attribute the firings to Ahmadinejad directly, it attributes them to Mashaei. It has been reported that Ahmadinejad would like Mashaei to be a candidate in the next presidential election. Ahmadinejad himself has said that it would be an honor to be Mashaei's vice president." Referring to how Vladimir Putin stepped down as Russian president in favor of Dmitry Medvedev, only to become prime minister, Bani Sadr said of Ahmadinejad, "He is imagining the Russian model for Iran."
The Tehran-based political analyst interviewed by Deutsche Welle agreed, saying of Mottaki's firing, "This decision was not what the Leader wanted and this has great importance. It means that there are efforts to transfer the center of gravity of Iranian diplomacy from the Leader to the president. Another implication is that Mashaei is effectively becoming the president, meaning in practical terms that he is making all the decisions for the president. This is what Kayhan is protesting."
In another development, Mehrdad Bazrpash, a close aide to Ahmadinejad and head of the National Organization for the Youth (NOY), was also fired. No official reason has been given, but Jahan News reported that Mashaei suggested to Bazrpash that he become Ahmadinejad's special envoy for Africa. According to the report, Bazrpash refused, saying, "This would be doing work parallel to the Foreign Ministry, which I am not ready to accept. If you do not want me to be involved with the NOY, state it more explicitly." He was referring to Khamenei's order of last September that forbade Ahmadinejad from appointing special envoys, calling it "parallel work." Mashaei has claimed that Bazrpash actually resigned two years ago, though he has been NOY chair for only 18 months.
Kaleme, Mousavi's website, has reported that another minister in Ahmadinejad's cabinet will soon be fired for opposing Mashaei. While speculations are rampant, the most likely to be dropped appears to be Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi. Reports indicate that a group of agents in the Intelligence Ministry put together a strong case against Mashaei. When Ahmadinejad and Mashaei became aware of what was going on, they demanded that the agents be demoted or fired. Moslehi has resisted the order.
The coming weeks and months are going to be extremely interesting. The power struggle within the hardliners' camp is intensifying. The struggle is another great achievement for the Green Movement and the people of Iran.
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