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A Costly Resignation

by JAHANGIR SALEHIAN in London

21 Apr 2011 03:57Comments
96a76de3ebb827ca912632583b60_grande.jpgClash between president and Supreme Leader comes into clearer view.

[ comment ] The resignation of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet and the ensuing controversy are stark indications of a new chapter of rivalry and animosity among the Iranian regime's various factions. Moslehi, the second intelligence minister to serve under Ahmadinejad, defied the president by being more loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Moslehi's dismissal of a certain top deputy in the ministry also apparently sparked severe disagreements with the president's inner circle -- among them his highly controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Other motives might have also been involved. Under Ahmadinejad, the Intelligence Ministry has gone through a severe shakeup, and many high-ranking officials departed when they perceived that the ministry was being used primarily to promote Ahmadinejad's designs, rather than making Khamenei's wishes its top priority.

Moslehi's predecessor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, resigned in 2009 after challenging the president over his delay in withdrawing his appointment of Mashaei as his first vice president. That marked the first occasion in which Khamenei publicly asked Ahmadinejad not to give such a high-profile post to Mashaei. Again when the president last August named Mashaei as his special envoy to the Middle East, the Supreme Leader called the decision into question. Khamenei had sided with the view of then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that the work of the ministry did not need to be supplemented by independently operating presidential emissaries. Mottaki later became a victim himself, learning in a humiliating manner that he had been removed from his post -- while in the middle of an official trip abroad.

The removal of Mottaki set off alarm bells among the conservatives and ultra-conservatives. Khamenei's displeasure was also clear as he tried to strike a balance between supporting Ahmadinejad at all costs and reversing some of his decisions. Moslehi's resignation has made the situation even more tense. According to some sources, Moslehi decided to fire one of his deputies who coordinated the ministry's work with that of other government bodies. Within the ministry itself, this deputy was known to be a key player in promoting the policies of Ahmadinejad's circle. His firing by Moslehi is said to have brought the intelligence minister under intense pressure and led to the handing in of his resignation letter or, by some accounts, his direct dismissal by the president.

Whatever the immediate impetus for and manner of Moslehi's ouster, the Supreme Leader moved in very quickly to reinstate him. Ahmadinejad's clique countered by questioning reports of the ayatollah's order. As of this moment, there is still ambiguity surrounding who is in effective charge of the Intelligence Ministry: Moslehi or Ahmadinejad.

What is most important, as the next presidential election comes into view, is how these events may yield a new chapter in Iranian politics and government. It is already very clear that the conservatives have formed a strong front against Ahmadinejad and, in particular, Mashaei. The 2013 presidential election has become the main focus of political rivalries. The Majles (parliament) is already at odds with the administration over many issues, especially the budget. Mashaei's promotion -- with the president's support -- of the nationalistic concept of an "Iranian school of thought" has become a focal point of attack. The invitation to Jordan's King Abdullah II for the presidential celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, kept Mashaei in the critics' crosshairs (it was hastily announced that the king's trip had been "postponed").

Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, once seen as Ahmadinejad's chief mentor, has drawn an ominous connection between Mashaei's views and a supposed new wave of Freemasonry within Iran. Mesbah Yazdi now reiterates that support and friendships are not eternal. These sorts of statements reflect the conservatives' big worry -- that Mashaei and his backers may endeavor to keep the chief executive's seat under their control. With this in mind, it becomes easier to decipher what is going on. Mashaei was asked a few days ago about his plans to remain in politics, either by running for a seat in the Majles next year or entering the presidential race. He ruled out any interest in becoming a legislator, but left the door open to a presidential campaign, saying, "Ask me the question six months before the election."

Now the crisis over Moslehi is sure to push Ahmadinejad's critics into a stronger alliance, whose shared tenet is obedience to Khamenei's wishes. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 Revolution, there have been periods in which a new generation of politicians enters the Majles and the Presidential Palace, but whose members are suppressed once their terms in office end. The reformists and, before them, many other officials and even the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri were targeted in such purges. Moslehi's resignation and its aftermath give clear testament to the fact that Khamenei is increasingly distancing himself from Ahmadinejad, though he knows that outright rejection of the president at this point would be too costly after all the unrest and political upheavals since the June 2009 election.

If a purge as has happened before does loom on the horizon, Ahmadinejad and his circle stand very little chance of survival. They have little support among the reformist-minded public, who tried to oust him democratically, and little respect among conservatives and religious traditionalists who regard the president and his coterie as disdainful of the norms of obedience to the Supreme Leader. It has pained them to watch Ahmadinejad and the people around him readily ignore or even indirectly challenge Khamenei's wishes and, at times, explicit directives.

The Supreme Leader was perhaps slow to realize that he had gone too far in his expressions of support for Ahmadinejad, who sees himself as above tradition and entitled to a share of ultimate authority. No wonder he challenged Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's famous comment: "The Majles is at the top of everything." Ahmadinejad openly declared that the era to which the Imam referred had passed and that it is now he -- as head of the executive branch, having won the votes of the nation -- who is on top.

What likely lies ahead in the near term is a period in which the Islamic Republic is still governed as it has been during the past two decades, overlaid with a powerful clash of personalities, the Supreme Leader on one side and Ahmadinejad and his circle on the other. Some dare to put their money on one outcome: the Ahmadinejad group will be easily purged, even more easily than were the reformists.

The author writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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