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Iran after the Moslehi Affair

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

21 Apr 2011 06:50Comments
27_8908191689_l600.jpgRevolutionary Guards step back from Ahmadinejad, sap Intelligence Ministry.

[ analysis ] The ongoing skirmish over the Islamic Republic of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence reveals the latest alignment of forces in the country and exposes a hidden war between its intelligence services.

The Islamic Republic is famously a state where there is never a dearth of political surprises. The model has almost invariably been as follows: one spectacular event creates an enormous splash, followed by smaller ripples until things subside back to "normalcy."

Thus it is with more than a little bafflement that we must greet the staggering onrush of developments in the last few days. For in the row over who should head the Ministry of Intelligence, we are dealing with not one but several head-snapping twists and turns.

Following the first major events -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decree announcing the resignation of the intelligence minister and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's surprisingly forceful overrule of that decree -- there have been two other equally important developments: an attack of unprecedented vehemence by a newspaper subsidiary of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the presidential camp, and an equally unprecedented counterattack by a website closely aligned with Ahmadinejad on the Revolutionary Guards.

The first surprise

In the year-and-a-half-long tug of war between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader over ministerial positions nominally and partly under the sway of the Leader, the tussle over the Intelligence Ministry should be regarded as a mild sea change. For by overruling Ahmadinejad's effective sacking of Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi, Khamenei did what he had been reluctant to do in the recent past: he has stood his ground and fought back.

With one exception, in all the earlier skirmishes -- including those over the Culture, Interior, and Foreign Affairs ministries -- the Leader gave up more or less without a fight. The exception was the position of intelligence minister, arguably the most coveted post in the entire cabinet. In this case, as of a year and a half ago, Ahmadinejad knew he wasn't yet strong enough to exert full control. He thus agreed to a compromise candidate, the wily Moslehi, a cleric with links to the Leader's office but closer in both sensibility and vision to the up-and-coming young hardliners.

If the Supreme Leader had hoped that Ahmadinejad's insatiable appetite for power would be assuaged by having a broadly like-minded hardliner at the helm of the ministry, he was sorely mistaken. The post is too valuable an asset, and observers believe Ahmadinejad will not rest content until he has full control over the ministry.

This is not hard to understand given the pervasive presence of the Intelligence Ministry in every facet of life in the Islamic Republic and the incriminating information held in its vaults on one and every politician in the land.

Of particular interest to the presidential camp would be information on the top members of Ahmadinejad's coterie, starting with the president himself. For example, it is believed that the Intelligence Ministry is in possession of a thick file on Ahmadinejad's shenanigans when he was chosen as the right's favored candidate in the race for governor of Ardabil province nearly 20 years ago. Observers cite that engineered victory as the true start of Ahmadinejad's meteoric rise to national politics. Aside from that prize dossier, parliamentary elections are less than a year off and the files on aspirant candidates are in high demand by each contending faction.

The first skirmish

In the grand contest for control of the Intelligence Ministry, Ahmadinejad's first volleys were fired within days of the birth of the protest movement following the June 2009 presidential election. At the time, he claimed that the ministry under Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei had failed, dismally, to predict the outbreak of protests and then to finger the real culprits in the so-called "sedition." According to a speech by Safar Harandi, former culture minister and now an Ahmadinejad adversary, the president leveled three distinct charges at the Intelligence Ministry: (1) failure to predict the "sedition," (2) failure to produce evidence of a foreign link to it, and (3) failure to demonstrate the culpability of "certain elite members" (code language for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani). Ahmadinejad cited information from Guard intelligence to back up his charges, some of it apparently dating from before the 2009 campaign.

In retrospect, it was rather disingenuous on the part of Ahmadinejad and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards to claim they had warned of the outbreak of "sedition" in advance of the vote. The hardliners have been warning of plots and seditions from day one on the revolutionary calendar. It is even more ludicrous to claim perspicacity when they had done absolutely nothing in anticipation of those protests themselves. But the country's hardline leadership apparently went along with the charges of dereliction of duty after the spectacular flowering of the democratic movement, the likes of which had not been seen in Iran for decades.

On the basis of those alleged shortcomings, then, Mohseni Ejei was brusquely sacked in a particularly humiliating way and Moslehi was given the job after a short interregnum. A major purge subsequently took place among the ranks of the ministry's career officers including, according to the Iranian media, five vice ministers: Firoozabadi (vice minister for technology), Haj Habibollah (culture), Moiin (internal security), Mansoorzadeh, known as Mansouri (legislative liaison), and Kharazi (counterintelligence) -- their first names were not given. Their replacements came mostly from the ministry's lower ranks and in some instances from outside it. True to form, Ahmadinejad did not consult with the Supreme Leader either on the dismissals or the replacements, as had been the practice up until then.

In the first serious skirmish over the ministry, Ahmadinejad had clearly made a major score but he still had some distance to go.

A new beginning

For his part, Moslehi immediately set about "correcting" his predecessor's alleged mistakes. The Intelligence Ministry peddled the tired line that the Green Movement was a pawn in the hands of foreigners and that Rafsanjani was somehow its principal leader and strategist. Thousands of Iranians were hounded and subjected to brutal beatings and torture in search of the chimerical "information" that would corroborate these dubious allegations. The Intelligence Ministry also joined the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence division in a feverish race to prove who could better root out dissent.

So far, what Moslehi had achieved was the stated goal of the entire hardline establishment. The affinity between the intelligence minister and Ahmadinejad was more of an ideological than a factional nature -- both were for the establishment of an extreme-right dictatorship.

Significantly, though, Moslehi seems to have followed an independent line of his own. For example, wherever it benefited him, on a whole host of issues -- like the highly damaging imputation of corruption on the part of First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi or the questionable activities of the Office of the Affairs of Iranians Abroad, run from the president's office -- the Intelligence Ministry took a studiously neutral stance. In some other notable cases, like the so-called "Iranian school of thought" (maktabe Iran), pushed vigorously by Ahmadinejad's confidant and chief ideologue Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Moslehi sided with the president's detractors, thus raising the ire of his boss. Like Saint Sebastian defending the faith, Mashaei is taking the arrows meant for Ahmadinejad. In the president's eyes, the distinguishing mark of loyalty to him is ineluctably fixed on the question of his son's father-in-law.

The second skirmish

The president's latest foray into Khamenei territory was ostensibly precipitated by the ouster of an Ahmadinejad loyalist from the Intelligence Ministry's top ranks by Moslehi. It is not clear what excuse Ahmadinejad has used this time to axe an important minister with implications for his rivalry with the Supreme Leader. Still, as in the case of former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, the cabinet minister had little to show for his time in the post, while his personal and professional shortcomings were abundant. Since he took office, practically all of the intelligence coups were achieved by the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence division and even the single celebrated event for which he took credit -- last February's capture of Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi -- turned out to be the result of a diplomatic-military understanding between the governments of Iran and Pakistan in which Moslehi's role had been, at best, ancillary. Then in October, in his first-ever impromptu interview on Iranian television, and after much pre-event publicity, he gave an exceedingly lackluster performance that greatly disappointed pro-regime viewers and delighted the opposition.

Khamenei's turn

In this latest skirmish, Ahmadinejad seems to have committed a rare overshoot -- he was evidently not expecting a counterattack by Khamenei. This is a novelty in terms not only of the president's tactical faux pas but also the severity of the Supreme Leader's reaction.

Of course, it remains to be seen if this is a one-off incident or the beginning of a new phase in Khamenei-Ahmadinejad relations. An inkling into this came two months ago, when the Supreme Leader paid an unannounced visit to the Intelligence Ministry's headquarters. In that meeting, the Leader went out of his way to heap praise on the ministry's personnel and give his blessing to their work. This is during a period when there have been no reports of any such visits or speeches by Khamenei to Guard intelligence personnel anywhere. Things have changed from a year and a half ago when he elevated the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit to the highest institutional rank it has enjoyed in nearly three decades (see below). What we are witnessing is a gradual distancing of the Leader from his traditional bases of support -- like the Revolutionary Guards -- to newer centers -- like the military and the Intelligence Ministry.

Other surprises

On April 18, the Revolutionary Guard-run newspaper Javan (one of several outlets controlled by the Guards, each with a slightly different slant) entered the fray over the Moslehi affair by effectively accusing the Ahmadinejad faction of having nefarious designs on the Intelligence Ministry. The paper darkly warned of threats posed by what it termed "unsavory elements" intent on "taking political advantage of documents and information" kept inside the ministry "as a leverage for persuasion and coercion on certain currents and certain political personalities" -- claims likely not far from the truth.

The next day, Bakeri Online, a website connected to the Ahmadinejad faction, hit back. The website claimed that it was the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence service under Hossein Taeb that had designs on the ministry and that Moslehi had compromised his position and essentially sold out his command by hiring personnel directly from the Guards' rival intelligence organization -- claims, again, likely not far from the truth. (The website has been shut down since that date.)

Together, these two events are of great significance. Until now, differences between Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards have been completely disregarded or papered over by both sides. It is highly unlikely that the row between the two ascending power centers will spiral out of control anytime soon since both sides needs the other as a counterweight against their respective adversaries. Still, there is no denying that relations between the two sides have undergone a qualitative change unlike any seen in the years before the Moslehi affair.

Intelligence wars

Parallel with the latest head-to-head clash between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad lurks a second, no less critical, conflict among Iran's top power centers: the 30-year rivalry between the Intelligence Ministry and the intelligence operation of the Revolutionary Guards.

While rivalry among intelligence services is common in every country (the conflict between the CIA and the Pentagon's intelligence service, for example, is well-documented in Bob Woodward's books on the Bush White House), due to the power that these organizations wield there are usually safeguards against openly hostile attacks by one service on the other. These rely either on the force of the law or the presence of a powerful autocrat. Not so in the Islamic Republic.

In autumn 2009, Khamenei approved a series of crucial -- some might say momentous -- personnel and structural changes affecting the Revolutionary Guards and the country as a whole. In appreciation of the successful work done by the Revolutionary Guards and the paramilitary Basij force against unarmed civilians in the streets of Tehran that summer, he elevated the Basij by combining it with the ground forces of the Revolutionary Guards, effectively making it the Guards' fifth branch. He also did something else that for intelligence watchers in Iran was of a historic nature. He raised the status of the Guards' intelligence unit from "directorate" (moavenat sepah) to full-fledged "organization." In so doing, he single-handedly contravened both the spirit and the letter of a major law that had Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's imprimatur. The August 1983 Law on Intelligence is one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted in postrevolutionary Iran. Ratified after a bruising battle with the Revolutionary Guards and their supporters, the law specifically forbade the Guards to operate an intelligence "organization," as it previously had. The Law on Intelligence promulgated the creation of an Intelligence Ministry under the control of the elected government.

As is clear from news reports of the time, Khomeini and factions operating under the "Imam's Line" rubric were of the conviction that a military outfit like the Revolutionary Guards should not be accorded intelligence capabilities beyond what was absolutely necessary for its military needs and functioning. Understandably, Mohsen Rezaei, then head of the Revolutionary Guards, and Reza Saifollahi, then Guard intelligence chief, strongly opposed the new law. In the end, they lost as over two-thirds of the Majles deputies voted in favor of the legislation.

It is ironic that the same Khamenei who has peremptorily broken the 1983 law was in fact one of the central backers of the legislation when various factions were lobbying the Majles over it. According to Saiid Hajarian, then Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi's legislative representative (who later paid with an assassin's bullet for this and other infractions), Khamenei, president at the time, argued for the bill because he felt that without the executive exercising control over intelligence and budgeting, nothing could be accomplished in the country.

Blow to the Intelligence Ministry

Aside from the legal and political niceties, the 2009 change bode ill for the Intelligence Ministry. In the Hobbesian world of Islamic Republic politics, where gains made by one group do not come ex nihilo, the new power and prerogatives bestowed by the Supreme Leader on Guard intelligence meant a corresponding diminution of the Intelligence Ministry's power. Today, as the Iranian media report great confusion and consternation among ministry personnel, moral at its rival organization is reportedly running at an all-time high. According to analysts, there have been countless cases in the past two years where the two outfits have clashed over operations and responsibilities, and the Guards have taken the upper hand, leaving their weaker rival in the dust.

The Revolutionary Guards' intelligence organization has been grabbing bigger budgets, broader jurisdiction, and greater official accolades since Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997. With Khamenei's blessing, the trend has accelerated to the point that, despite its much smaller size, it now rivals and even eclipses its civilian competitor in many regards. (After his landslide victory, Khatami undertook a purge of some Intelligence Ministry personnel guilty of murder and torture, and brought a semblance of legality to the largely unaccountable ministry -- thus prompting the hardliners to raise the profile of an alternative intelligence outfit.)

Historians would no doubt have a field day examining Moslehi's role in the ministry's decline. In his acceptance speech on the Majles floor in 2009, he said he wanted to "use the experience of the Sepah [Revolutionary Guards]" for his ministry. Aside from the illegality of the suggestion -- the Law on Intelligence strictly forbids either service to interfere in the affairs of the other -- it was a severe blow to the morale of those serving in the ministry. Moslehi could hardly have been unaware of the Law on Intelligence's prohibition against tampering with each service's independence. Bakeri Online's claim that Moslehi has directly recruited from the Revolutionary Guards' intelligence unit is credible, especially given the fact that he served for years as the Leader's representative to the Basij. The claim is also in full accord with the general cannibalization of valuable assets by the Revolutionary Guards.

There is no knowing what the immediate future holds for the badgered ministry, but one thing is for certain: Given the prevailing conditions -- a lame-duck and apparently disliked minister at the helm, a ruthless and power-hungry rival, its emergence as a target for factional political abuse, and the general degradation of its duties per the dictates of an unpopular and brutal regime -- the Intelligence Ministry will witness only further erosion and decline. On April 20, several hardline Majles deputies introduced legislation to change its status from a "ministry" to a mere "organization," thus proposing to do away with the 1983 law altogether.

Hamid Farokhnia writes under a pen name.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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