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A Vice President Like No Other

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

11 Jan 2011 20:13Comments
5185809890_5d7e9e18cb_z.jpgRegime's internecine conflict heats up over Rahimi corruption charges.

[ analysis ] The criminal case against Iran's first vice president turns all other embezzlement cases in the history of the Islamic Republic pale in comparison.

For many years, there were rumors of a corruption ring in the upper echelons of the Iranian government run by an unidentified associate of the president. The first time the public officially heard of the existence of the ring was last March when the new head of the judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, said, "A large corruption racket has been operating at a state agency, where it has skimmed off billions of tomans from the state coffers."

The judiciary chief's studied silence on the identities of the suspects meant that the media were not allowed to mention any specific names. However, two ranking conservative members of the Majles (parliament) soon identified suspect number one. The name given by the two MPs -- former presidential candidate Ahmad Tavakoli and former Revolutionary Guard officer Elias Naderan -- was that of Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first vice president. They also christened the ring they said had lodged inside the National State Insurance Company the "Fatemi Avenue Circle," named after the headquarters of the alleged cabal.

For his part, Ahmadinejad called the accusation slanderous and announced that his vice president had sued the two MPs for libel and defamation. This meant that no one could raise the vice president's name in the context of the corruption charges without risking prosecution -- unless the accusing party was the judiciary itself.

A Favorite Son

Members of three groups make up virtually all of Ahmadinejad's inner circle: his cohorts at the Science and Technology University, where he taught; his associates from his time as mayor of Tehran; and his relatives. Rahimi is one of the few people around the president who comes from none of these groups.

They first met in the 1990s, when Rahimi was the governor of Kurdistan and the future president was the governor of Ardebil, though they were not quick to establish either a friendship or a political alliance. At the time, they evidently saw quite different routes toward fulfilling their political ambitions. Ahmadinejad was an avowed hardliner, while Rahimi professed allegiance to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's brand of pragmatism.

4583_257.jpgRahimi's former ideological position may seem hard to fathom given that he is now an outspoken foe of Rafsanjani, but at the time his role model enjoyed an unrivaled position in the Iranian political firmament. In 1995, Rahimi wrote a book in whose introduction he exalted then President Rafsanjani to the heavens. "Had I had a son, I would have sacrificed him at your altar," he wrote without a trace of irony, likening himself to Abraham. (In retrospect, had Rafsanjani not been forced to appoint a hardliner, Ali Mohmmad Besharati, as his interior minister, neither Ahmadinejad nor Rahimi would have become governors and he wouldn't likely be fighting for his own political survival today.)

Years later, as reformists came to power and both men were fired from their gubernatorial posts, Ahmadinejad wound up as mayor of Tehran, while Rahimi was appointed by then Majles Speaker Haddad Adel to head the Divan Mohasebat, the Majles's Bureau of Accounts (BA). The BA is a special outfit empowered by the legislature to act as a government watchdog. In the 2009 presidential debates, for example, all three candidates arrayed against Ahmadinejad made use of the BA's hard-hitting review of the government's finances, in which the bureau found that nearly one billion dollars was missing from the treasury.

When it was under Rahimi's control, however, the BA was a different sort of operation. On June 7, 2006, nine months before the end of the Persian fiscal year, the bureau issued the executive branch a clean bill of health. Instead of reporting on the government's fiscal performance as required by the BA bylaws, Rahimi said that day, "The directors of the ninth government are unimpeachable. That's why we are not publishing any financial reports [on the executive branch] this year." As if this weren't enough, after a religious pilgrimage, he made the following cringe-worthy remark about his future boss: "As I was traveling through Syria, I heard it said by one of the Muslims that if a prophet were to come after the Muslim Prophet, he would have to possess Ahmadinejad's personality traits." So much for the impartiality of a man leading a nominal oversight outfit. (At the time, Rahimi was using the title "Dr. Rahimi" in his resume and job descriptions. He claimed that he had obtained a doctorate from Oxford University. That was simply not the case.)

Before moving to the executive branch, Rahimi had another opportunity to provide a useful service via the BA. Later in 2006, the bureau sent a special investigative report on malfeasance and financial impropriety at the National State Insurance Company (NSIC) to the administration, rather than to the Majles. Based on the report, the president sacked the NSIC's chief executive officer and its entire board of directors. It didn't matter that most of those dismissed had been appointed after the period covered in the report. Danesh Jafari, then minister of economic affairs and a future Mohsen Rezai aide, reportedly rushed to the disgraced men's defense and they were reinstated, but there was more to the story than the official version. According to Mojtaba Vahedi, former editor of the reformist newspaper Aftab Yazd and an adviser to Mehdi Karroubi, the reinstatement of the NSIC executives came with a hefty price. "They were required to do what they were told henceforth," he said to a Voice of America interviewer. "Two hundred fifty million dollars was eventually siphoned up for fictitious individuals by the newly reorganized NSIC to the bank accounts of the so-called Fatemi Avenue Circle."

Years later, after news of the massive fraud became the buzz in elite circles and even the Supreme Leader had to intervene in the case, Rahimi reportedly said, "The money was used for the political objectives of the Osoolgarayan" -- the Principlists. It was after the NSIC coup that Ahmadinejad reinstalled Rahimi in the presidential palace. His new job title: vice president for parliamentary affairs.

Rahimi continued to rack up accomplishments. In Autumn 2008, as executive liaison to the Majles, he was caught giving each MP a $5,000 check, ostensibly for development projects in their respective districts. The scandal became public knowledge after one outraged MP slapped a Rahimi subordinate in the face. Rahimi got off the hook as pro-administration MPs killed a motion to impeach him, opting to have the offending subordinate fired.

Finally, after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei moved to stop the appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as the new first vice president last year, Ahmadinejad appointed Rahimi to the coveted job instead.

Delicate Chess Game

Last December, Naderan delivered a blistering speech on the floor of the Majles in which he described Rahimi as the ring leader in the Fatemi Avenue scandal.

Ahmadinejad's appointment of Rahimi as first vice president last year had surprised many people, who asked how he could give someone with such a checkered past so much status and power. Though a famous risk taker, Ahmadinejad is not reckless. His gambles are nervy but calculated. In the case of Rahimi, he calculated that the Supreme Leader would not allow his government to fall under any circumstance. After all, Khamenei had staked his whole reputation on him and the two still had a cordial relationship. In fact, according to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former deputy speaker of the Majles, the Supreme Leader once specifically dissuaded the MPs from going after Rahimi with an impeachment order.

Which brings us to the question, What lies behind the recent attacks launched against Rahimi?

To find a satisfactory answer, it is necessary to step back and look more broadly at the current state of affairs. With the eruption of mass anger at last year's fraudulent election, the solid strategic compact between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader has given way to an alliance of convenience -- the two need each other primarily for their own survival. It has also meant a fragmentation of the hardline coalition cemented around Ahmadinejad. In short, the regime has become a Hobbesian arena of all against one and one against all. Ahmadinejad, who enjoys more power than most of his rivals, is now squarely posed against the Majles and the judiciary. (He tried briefly to challenge the Guardian Council as well last summer, but desisted in the face of an immovable obstacle.)

The president's increasingly adversarial approach began with the Majles -- he ignored several bills passed into the law by the MPs and even questioned the legislature's fundamental constitutional rights. He and his allies have also been encroaching on the power and prerogatives of the judiciary. The tacit alliance between the two branches under attack, symbolized by the Larijani blood fraternity (Sadegh's brother Ali is Majles speaker), is also implicitly sanctioned by the Supreme Leader himself. Khamenei knows too well how his own power and authority will soon be the target of Ahmadinejad's predations if he is not stopped.

However, none of the constituent members of the new anti-Ahmadinejad front are ready to countenance a head-to-head confrontation with him just yet. Hence, the provisional and tentative nature of the attack on the first vice president. In fact, there seems to be a division of labor between the two branches, with Naderan in the role of the bad cop and the judiciary representatives in the role of the good. For instance, in each of the five instances over the past two months that judiciary members have publicly addressed the case against Rahimi (one television appearance and four press conferences by the three top judiciary clerics -- Larijani, Pour-Mohammadi, and Ejei), they have emphasized that it is still pending and that files are being prepared for a "possible trial." By contrast, Naderan minces no words in referring to Rahimi as the "chief culprit" and "center of the corruption ring."

Moreover, the timing of the attacks on Ahmadinejad's first vice president invariably coincide with major moves by the administration against the interests of its institutional adversaries: as when Ahmadinejad allies capitalized on the failure to bring the leaders of the Green Movement to trial by asking for the heads of certain influential judges, or when the government pushed for a revision of key Majles prerogatives.

In true form, not only has Ahmadinejad not backed down from his lines of attack against the other two branches, he has maintained unrelenting pressure. Once again, the Rahimi issue is a focal point of the conflict.

When on December 27, Rajanews, a far-right site allied with Ahmadinejad, opined that the "president is believed to have welcomed a trial for his vice president," Ahmadinejad personally attacked the site as an "irresponsible mouthpiece" and angrily blasted all those casting aspersions on his deputy. He upped the ante by declaring that he was fully behind Rahimi and would not accede to "bullying."

In the latest skirmish, the following day, Naderan introduced a motion on the Majles floor to review the performance and activities of the Bureau of Accounts under Rahimi. The motion was defeated 104 to 94, but it is worth recalling that a letter to Rahimi last year congratulating him on his vice presidential appointment was signed by 215 MPs. When asked about the cause of the defeat, Naderan said that the government had called a yes vote a point of no return.

Clearly, most MPs had correctly assessed that it was still premature to initiate a full-scale confrontation with Ahmadinejad. The close margin nonetheless indicates that the Majles is sending him a stark warning: If you continue on the present course, we can bring down your vice president and, by implication, your entire government. This is all the more significant because until Naderan's latest revelations, many people assumed that Rahimi would be Ahmadinejad's choice for the 2013 presidential election in a Putin-Medvedev-style political arrangement.

Judging from his past record and his modus operandi, it is unlikely that Ahmadinejad will heed the Majles's warning now or down the road. If anything, the real fight for supremacy in Iran has just begun.

Hamid Farokhnia is a staff writer at Iran Labor Report and covers the capital for Tehran Bureau. He writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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