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Ahmadinejad in the Crosshairs

by JAHANGIR SALEHIAN in London

05 May 2011 23:57Comments
1530.jpgGrowing array of forces takes aim at president and his controversial chief of staff.

[ comment ] Although it was predictable that the Moslehi affair would be costly for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his camp, the extent of the toll for his defiance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is only now becoming clear. According to the Etedaal newspaper and website, several people close to Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested by security services. (Etedaal originally reported that 25 people were arrested in the sweep, but later issued a correction indicating that the actual total was substantially lower.)

The widow of a former foreign minister under Mohammad Mosaddegh, the head of the Iran National Museum, and a man referred to as "Ghafari" are among those who have apparently been detained. Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said Ghafari is known to be involved with spirits and exorcism (jen giri).

Of those known to have been arrested, one name stands out: Abbas Amirifar, head of the president's cultural affairs office and a close ally of Mashaei's. The arrest of Amirifar, a cleric, is related to the recent film The Appearance Is Imminent (Zohoor Besyar Nazdik Ast), which has been distributed widely on DVD. In the documentary-style picture, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanon's Hezbollah are named as the primary figures paving the way for the Hidden Imam's long-awaited return from the Occultation.

The Supreme Leader never rejected the claim and, indeed, has never commented on the film at all. Ahmadinejad has likewise not commented on it to date. When Mashaei was asked about it, he said he had not seen it. But the growing notoriety of the free DVD, whose assertions are viewed by many as outrageous, prompted a few of the grand ayatollahs in the holy city of Qom to refute its claims.

The story seemed to be fading away when the row erupted over Heydar Moslehi, who was apparently forced by Ahmadinejad to resign from his post as intelligence minister and reinstated at Khamenei's insistence. The contentious film provided a good means through which to ramp up the pressure on Mashaei and, more indirectly, the president.

Another important figure in the judiciary's crosshairs is Ali Akbar Javanfekr, head of the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), which Ahmadinejad has brought under his near complete control. Javanfekr has been summoned to court over IRNA's handling of the Moslehi affair, in particular its resistance to covering Khamenei's order reinstating the minister.

Ahmadinejad's subsequent boycott of two cabinet meetings was seen as a disgraceful challenge to the Supreme Leader. Many deputies in the Majles called upon the leadership to exercise the parliament's power to question the president. A clause of the Iranian Constitution also gives the Majles the power to impeach and remove the chief executive from office. One of a group of deputies who met with Ahmadinejad reported later that when they advised the president that impeachment was a prospect, he responded, "Removing the president under that article requires good reasons. What have I done wrong?"

When the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps put its heavy weight behind the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad surely recognized that his position had become precarious. Khamenei's representative to the Guards, Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, warned Ahmadinejad that "resisting the Supreme Leader's orders is opposition to God and the Hidden Imam, Mahdi. All officials must obey the Leader." Ahmadinejad tried to close the gap, at least in public, by describing his relationship with the Leader as akin to that between a father and a son. But conservatives took issue with the comment, declaring that in this case nothing other than total obedience was called for.

7_9002150204_L600.jpgLast night, in an important religious ceremony at the Supreme Leader's residence to commemorate the martyrdom of Zahra, the Prophet Muhammad's daughter and the most revered woman in Shia Islam, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sadighi (pictured here), leader of Tehran's Friday Prayers, rebuked Ahmadinejad publicly for his defiance. "We did not expect someone whose election campaign headquarters were in the mosques would behave this way," Sadighi said in the presence of the Supreme Leader. "I am aware that even some close associates of Ahmadinejad are opposed to his conduct," he went on to say, referring to the Moslehi imbroglio.

In a warning or threat to the president, his critics have started to compare him to the Islamic Republic's first president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who fled Iran for Paris when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and conservatives established a united front against him. Now the news that the Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry are moving to arrest people close to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei is a sign that a campaign to weaken the president and isolate his closest political confidant has begun.

Some circles, now including the Supreme Leader's, want Ahmadinejad weakened as his style of leadership has infuriated them. To achieve that purpose, they have struck a balance between attacking Mashaei on the one hand, and carefully criticizing Ahmadinejad on the other, even mentioning his good works in other spheres. They have calibrated their campaign to eliminate Mashaei as a potential presidential candidate, but to keep Ahmadinejad in line with their demands.

Mashaei, widely thought to be planning a run for the presidency in 2013 when Ahmadinejad's tenure ends due to term limits, is being depicted as the driving force behind the president's misdeeds. The decision to remove Moslehi is seen as part of Mashaei's plan to gain control of the Intelligence Ministry and exploit its resources in the upcoming elections. Hossein Fadaei, the ultraconservative head of Jamiyate Esargaran Enghelab-e Eslami (Society of Islamic Revolution Devotees), said a "corrupt group that wants to expand its influence" in the ministry was behind Moslehi's dismissal. Hojatoleslam Mojtaba Zolnour, Saeedi's deputy, went so far as to say, "Today the real president of Iran is Mashaei."

As president, Ahmadinejad is unique in Iran's postrevolutionary history. He appears compelled to prove that he has the upper hand to anyone who stands in his way, whatever the constitutional and political obstacles. His cabinet has refrained from publishing statistics on the national economy, as required by law, and kept secret how much money is left in the Special Reserve Fund (Sandoghe Zakhire Arzi), which is supposed to hold surplus oil income for occasions when oil prices, and thus revenues, fall below the level demanded by the national budget. As for the latest budget itself, he brought it to the parliament well after the legal deadline.

The Ministry of Roads and Transportation is still being managed by a caretaker three months after its former head was impeached, and no replacement candidate has been put forward -- another violation of the law.

Recently, Ahmadinejad left Majles Speaker Ali Larijani little option but to make a formal complaint regarding his refusal to establish a Sports Ministry, as required by a parliamentary act. Ahmadinejad tried to circumvent the Majles by writing to Khamenei, apparently assuming the Supreme Leader would take his side as he has done so many times in the past. But Khamenei reportedly came down in favor of the parliament.

Mashaei and Ahmadinejad are already surrounded and beleaguered, and this is only the beginning. Conservatives, who have many ways to increase the pressure on the duo, will push to force Mashaei either to shut up and abandon the notion of an "Iranian school of thought" that he has been promoting or face a legal campaign that could well see him put behind prison bars. Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who was known as Ahmadinejad's religious mentor, has warned of a new Freemasonry movement in Iran, implicitly linked to Mashaei. Mesbah Yazdi has also repeatedly charged those who dare speak of an "Iranian Islam" with "betrayal." Others have accused the president and his chief of staff of trying to push the clerics (rohaniyat) aside so they can assume complete power.

Ahmadinejad will be tolerated for the time being if he falls back in line, obeys the Leader's wishes, and stops defying him so publicly. If he continues to resist, the Revolutionary Guards' top commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, warned Ahmadinejad and his circle that "in defending the Islamic Revolution, Sepah [the Revolutionary Guards] will not wait for instructions."

Removing Ahmadinejad from office would be a very embarrassing step for the Supreme Leader, who has afforded the president a level of support without precedent during his two decades in absolute power. Ahmadinejad's problem is that he has overestimated the weight of that one factor. Khamenei and his extensive network are taking into account many others as they decide how to run the country given the many challenges, both domestic and international, that the regime now faces.

The author writes under a pen name. Photo at top: two members of Ahmadinejad's cabinet after Wednesday's meeting.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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