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Analysis | Ahmadinejad-Khamenei Rift Deepens into Abyss

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

07 May 2011 00:55Comments
7778_587.jpgA divide growing over time, and now, an escalating crisis.

[ news analysis ] In a series of articles that began in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election (see here, here, here, here, and here), I have been discussing the rift between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. When I first raised the issue, many people rejected the notion that there was any rift. After all, in their view, Ahmadinejad was "reelected" due only to Khamenei's strong support. So how could there be a split between them? The confrontation between the two men and their supporters that flared up once again when Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi was forced to resign by Ahmadinejad and then reinstated by Khamenei indicated that the rift between the two men is real. The questions then are,

(1) What is Ahmadinejad's goal in confronting Khamenei?

(2) Ahmadinejad is surely aware of the balance of power in Iran's ruling hierarchy and knows well that the high command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is, for now, loyal to Khamenei, even though I believe that in the long run the Guards would like to end the role of the clerics in the government. So, what is his social base of support that gives him the confidence to confront Khamenei and his supporters?

Beginning of the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei

Contrary to what many believe, the rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei goes back to at least 2007. That October, Ahmadinejad forced out Ali Larijani, the current Majles speaker, who was then secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. The significance of the move was not that Ahmadinejad had forced out someone who had run against him in the 2005 presidential election, but rather that Larijani has always been very close to Khamenei and has carried water for him for decades. More importantly, this was apparently done without prior consultation with Khamenei. In his place, the president appointed Saeed Jalili, a hardline ideologue and a close friend at the time. Ahmadinejad also fired Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, all of whom had been imposed on him. Thus, Ahmadinejad's practice of forcing out officials in charge of those organs of the government informally under Khamanei's control, namely, the Foreign, Intelligence, Defense, and Interior Ministries -- and, more generally, those in decision-making positions in the areas of security and foreign policy -- is hardly new.

We must first consider the important forces within Iran's current power hierarchy. The Green Movement is in the opposition and, therefore, is not part of this analysis.

The important players

Currently, the most important force -- militarily, economically, and in intelligence and security matters -- is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliated organizations, such as the Basij militia. As I have described elsewhere, beginning in the early 1990s, the Guards began their transformation from a purely military organization to one that has economic interests and intervenes in political/security issues. It was former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who began to open up Iran's economy during his two terms as president between 1989 and 1997, but although he allowed the Ministry of Intelligence to get involved in economic affairs, he kept the Guards largely out of the economy. To exert pressure on various political groups, the Guards first got indirectly involved in the political process by helping to found Ansaar-e Hezbollah, a vigilante group led by Hossein Allah Karam, in 1991. The Ansaar were the Islamic Republic's first unit of plainclothes security agents. They attacked gatherings of intellectuals, academics, and other groups deemed part of the opposition, set fire to many bookstores, and criticized Rafsanjani and his family relentlessly.

The first direct intervention by the Guards in political affairs came in 1996 during the elections for the Fifth Majles. A group of technocrats around Rafsanjani had formed a new political party, Kaargozaaraan-e Saazande (Executives of Reconstruction, or EOR). The party put up its own list of candidates, independent of the traditional conservatives, which angered them. The Guards and their organs distributed the list of conservative candidates among the Basij and the military, giving the impression that they were explicitly supported by Khamenei. The EOR, together with the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics, was still relatively successful, sending about 105 deputies to the Majles, but the Guards had established precedence.

In the presidential election of 1997, the Basij, Ansaar, and other right-wing groups played the lead role in opposing Mohammad Khatami, who was accused, among various sins, of being liberal and pro-West. Regardless, he won in a landslide. During his first term, both the hardline clerics and Guard-affiliated organizations savagely attacked him and his reforms. Toward the end of his second term, Khatami said that they created a crisis for him every nine days.

Khatami did not allow the Guards to get involved in the official national economy. But they were already involved in the underground economy, importing all types of commodities and breadbasket items through 63 jetties and airports that were outside the control of Iran's custom service. Moreover, the Khatami era was also when the Guards began intervening more directly in the political process. At the height of the "Tehran Spring" of 1997-2000, when Iran had a relatively free press, the Guards began threatening the reformists. Brigadier General Yahya Rahim Safavi -- then the top Guard commander, now a senior military adviser to Khamenei -- gave a speech in which he declared that the Guards would "cut the necks and tongues of those" in the reformist media who were revealing the vast web of corruption and other politically related crimes in the country. When he was criticized in the press, he responded,

The Guards have identified many of the elements of these groups [journalists and dissidents]. We have at this time let them freely set up their groups and newspapers, but we will go after them when the time is ripe.... The fruit must be picked when it is ripe. It is not ripe yet. We will pick it when it is.... We have thrown a rock inside the nest of snakes. They have received blows from our revolution, and we are waiting for the time when they stick their heads out.

The Guards then sent a letter to Khatami that was signed by 24 top commanders (including many who currently hold important positions) in the aftermath of the July 1999 uprising by university students. In it, they declared,

Your Excellency, Mr. Khatami, look at the international media and radio broadcasts. Does the sound of their merriment not reach your ear? Dear Mr. President, if you do not make a revolutionary decision today and fail to fulfill your Islamic and national duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage will be more irreversible than can be imagined.... With all due respect, we inform you that our patience is at an end, and we do not think it is possible to tolerate any more if this is not addressed.

Khamenei reevaluates his base of support

But the Khatami era also forced Khamenei to reevaluate the political landscape and realign himself with the military/security/intelligence establishment. The 1980s were dominated by groups that referred to themselves as Peyrovaan-e Khat-e Emam (Followers of the Imam's -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's -- Line), named after the Islamic leftist students that took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.

After Khomeini's death and Khamenei's rise to power, the right wing became the dominant political force. Khamenei gradually purged all the Islamic leftists from the political system and appointed his conservative allies. He relied on the traditional conservatives, both clerical and nonclerical, for support. They included some reactionary clerics, but more importantly the right-wing Islamic Coalition Party (ICP), one of the oldest political organizations in Iran, and its allies such as the Islamic Association of Engineers, the Islamic Bazaar Association, and the Society of Zeinab, an organization for conservative women (Zeinab, granddaughter of the Prophet and Imam Hossein's sister, is a highly revered figure in Shiism). They formed a coalition called Jebheh Peyrovaan-e Khat-e Emam va Rahbari (Front of the Followers of the Imam's and [Supreme] Leader's Line, or FFILL), to distinguish themselves from the Islamic leftists of Peyrovaan-e Khat-e Emam who became reformists and now belong to the Green Movement. The FFILL represents the interests of the powerful bazaaris, the merchants who have supported the traditional clerics over the past 100 years. During Rafsanjani's second term as president, the Fourth and then the Fifth Majles were dominated by the ICP and its allies, and they imposed most of his cabinet's ministers on him.

But, in three consecutive elections -- the presidential election of 1997, the first city council elections in the fall of 1998, and the elections for the Sixth Majles in late February 2000 -- the reformists and Islamic leftists soundly defeated the conservatives and hardline supporters of Khamenei. He realized that his traditional base of support could not defeat the left if the elections were even slightly open and the left's better known figures were allowed to run. Khamenei developed a two-pronged strategy: to block Khatami's and the left's attempts to reform the system in order to frustrate the people, so that they would either stay home at election time or vote for the rightists, and to firmly support the emerging coalition of hardliners that consisted of the reactionary right and the officers and rank and file of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij.

ahmadi+mashaei+whisper.jpgThe strategy paid off in two years. In the city council elections in 2002, the people, frustrated by the slow pace of Khatami's reforms and Khamenei's efforts to thwart them at every turn, stayed home. Only 11 percent of eligible voters in Tehran cast votes in those elections compared with over 65 percent in the Majles elections two years earlier -- and those who did vote were largely the hardliners' supporters. Ahmadinejad's group, the Abaadgaraan (Developers), a coalition of former Guard commanders and midranking officers, easily won the elections. Ahmadinejad, his star starting to rise among the conservatives, was appointed Tehran's mayor. He brought with him a little-known man named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and put him in charge of the city's cultural affairs.

Mashaei, who was born in 1960 in the town of Ramsar by the Caspian Sea, was an intelligence agent in the 1980s and later an interrogator of political prisoners (his professional name was Morteza Moheb ol-Olya). The friendship between the two men goes back to the 1980s, when they both were working in Iran's Azerbaijan region. Ahmadinejad did not accomplish much as mayor, despite claims to the contrary by his supporters, to put him on the path to even higher office. I have described elsewhere how he was elected president in 2005.

Thus, Ahmadinejad came to power through the support of Khamenei and the hardline coalition that supported him, particularly the Guards and the Basij. He had no social base of support of his own. Once he became president, however, he began taking steps aimed at winning him support among various strata of Iranian society.

Ahmadinejad's base of support

Beginning in 2005, Ahmadinejad began purging the bureaucracy on a vast scale and appointing his allies. That indicated the extent of his secret network around the country, and gave clear meaning to what a key ally, Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, an ultra-hardliner in the Guards, said after he took office. He declared that Ahmadinejad's election "was not an accident. It was a result of two years of complex, multifaceted planning." It is said that even Khamenei was surprised by the extent of Ahmadinejed's network.

In the first year of his administration, Ahmadinejad was under the illusion that he really was supported by the common people and had his own independent social base of support. In 2006, he and his inner circle founded a political group called Raayehe Khosh-e Khedmat (Sweet Scent of Service, or SSS), with former Guard commanders and officers in central positions. Its secretary-general was Mohammad Ali Ramin, a close ally of the president's who used to work at Kayhan, the mouthpiece of a faction of the security/intelligence establishment. An SSS hallmark was its attacks on the former Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, claiming not only that they had done nothing for the nation, but that they had led the country to deviate from the "fundamental principles of the 1979 Revolution" -- an attempt to justify the SSS's own failures.

Just 18 months after his election, the people taught Ahmadinejad a sobering lesson in December 2006. Despite taking advantage of public resources, the SSS was soundly defeated in the city council elections. It was not willing to form a coalition with other right-wing groups, and its candidates received a mere 4 percent of the votes nationwide. Only three of their candidates in Tehran were elected -- and that, after the vote count was reportedly altered. In contrast, four reformist candidates were elected in the capital, and credible reports indicated that the number would have been eight if the vote count had not been manipulated. At the national level, the reformists received 60 percent of the votes in the city council elections. The SSS did only slightly better in the March 2008 elections for the Eighth Majles. These defeats taught Ahmadinejad the necessary lesson: He needed his own base of support.

So, under the guise of implementing Article 44 of the Constitution, Ahmadinejad began throwing money at key figures in the Revolutionary Guards and the government bureaucracy. The article stipulates,

The economy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to consist of three sectors: state, cooperative, and private, and is to be based on systematic and sound planning. The state sector is to include all large-scale and mother industries, foreign trade, major minerals, banking, insurance, power generation, dams and large-scale irrigation networks, radio and television, post, telegraph and telephone services, aviation, shipping, roads, railroads, and the like -- all these will be publicly owned and administered by the State. The cooperative sector is to include cooperative companies and enterprises concerned with production and distribution, in urban and rural areas, in accordance with Islamic criteria. The private sector consists of those activities concerned with agriculture, animal husbandry, industry, trade, and services that supplement the economic activities of the state and cooperative sectors. Ownership in each of these three sectors is protected by the laws of the Islamic Republic, in so far as this ownership is in conformity with the other articles of this chapter, does not go beyond the bounds of Islamic law, contributes to the economic growth and progress of the country, and does not harm society. The scope of each of these sectors, as well as the regulations and conditions governing their operation, will be specified by law.

In 2004, Article 44 was amended to allow for the privatization of the Iranian economy. Ahmadinejad began implementing the amended article, except that it was not a true privatization. Thousands of supposedly private companies sprang up that were linked one way or another to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its mid- and in some cases high-ranking officers, elements in the Basij, and certain reactionary clerics, led by Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who were supporting him. Large state-owned enterprises were sold to this "private" sector. At the same time the Ahmadinejad administration began granting large-scale projects to the Guards' engineering arm, the Khatam ol-Anbiya, and its affiliated companies, worth billions of dollars, and without any formal bidding. The net result has not been a true private sector, because this is not a true capitalist system, but what is usually called crony capitalism, in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials, exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, and so on. A new social stratum was also created in the society that consisted of the people who were benefiting from Ahmadinejad's largess.

Next, the Ahmadinejad administration approved a plan to offer shares to low-income families, starting with the poorest, with villagers and nomads having priority. According to the so-called Justice Shares plan, millions of families were to receive shares in state-owned firms, the value of which was supposed to be reimbursed in 20 years from the dividends generated by those shares. The poorest were supposed to receive the Justice Shares at 50 percent discount. By February 2008, the Ministry of Economic and Financial Affairs estimated that about 15 million rural people out of 23 million are entitled to Justice Shares by the next Iranian year, and by November 2008 it was claimed that 22.5 million people had received the shares. But in early 2009 labor leaders complained that workers had received hardly any shares.

Thus, as the 2009 presidential election approached, Ahmadinejad believed that he had developed a strong base of support for himself.

Separating from Khamenei

As I have discussed repeatedly in previous articles, I believe that the 2009 election -- in which Mir Hossein Mousavi challenged Ahmadinejad's bid for reelection -- was fraudulent, for which there is considerable evidence. The evidence revealed most recently is what Ahmadinejad reportedly told the staff of IRNA, Iran's official news agency, which is headed by Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a close presidential aide. As Tehran Bureau reported, in a meeting with the agency's staff after the Moslehi episode blew up, Ahmadinejad said, "Mr. Khamenei kept me as the president to preserve his own forces, because [he knew that] if Mousavi were elected, he would eliminate his office." In the same meeting, Ahmadinejad reportedly told the staff that he believed that he received 35 million, not 24 million, votes in the 2009 elections, but that his vote was undercounted. This, of course, is in contradiction with his statement regarding Khamenei's support but, regardless, he began pulling away from the Supreme Leader.

9da78edb8bc11e13b1a3cb0990c1acbe-280x199%5B1%5D.jpgBut Khamenei, in turn, had also sensed that the man he had supported was not going to be obedient. On the day he certified Ahmadinejad as president, as part of the constitutional process, he publicly qualified his support. Then he blocked the appointment of Esafandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's close friend, adviser, and father-in-law of his son, as first vice president. Kayhan, the hardline daily that often expresses Khamenei's view, had already demanded Ahmadinejad expel Mashaei from his cabinet> He ignored the pressure and resisted Khamenei's order to remove Mashaei from the post for one week. He wrote a terse, purely formal letter to the Supreme Leader and fired Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Hossein Saffar Harandi, who had criticized him for not carrying out the Supreme Leader's order immediately. Khamenei also imposed Moslehi as intelligence minister and Mostafa Mohammad Najar, a Guard brigadier general with whom he has good relations, as the interior minister, and blocked Ahmadinejad's bid to fire then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

In separating themselves from Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have developed a four-pronged strategy.

First, a little noticed fact is that Ahmadinejad and his inner circle have been essentially silent about the Green Movement. Two days after the 2009 election, at a rally of his supporters, Ahmadinejad referred to the Green Movement as khas-o khashak (dust and trash), but since then he and his inner circle have let Khamenei and his faction lead the attack on the movement, hence redirecting people's anger toward them.

Second, Ahmadinejad, Mashaei, and their inner circle began invoking symbols of Iranian culture's glorious history, in an effort to appeal to Iranians' fierce nationalism. The government made arrangements to bring to Tehran in September 2010, for the first time since the 1979 Revolution, the Cyrus Cylinder, which is held by the British Museum. The Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus the Great (circa 600-529 BCE), is considered by some to be the world's first human rights charter. That angered the ultra-conservatives and reactionaries, because for the first time since the 1979 Revolution a senior official was paying tribute to the history of pre-Islamic Iran. Moslehi publicly labeled Ahmadinejad's appeal to nationalism a policy perpetrated by Iran's enemies. Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi said, "Just because there have been kings in our history does not mean that we should be proud of them." He also rebuked the president's chief of staff: "Mashaei pays more attention to the Cyrus Cylinder than to the pious people."

In addition, in March 2010 Ahmadinejad and Mashaei began publicly celebrating Nowruz, the beginning of the Iranian New Year -- a tradition that goes back thousands of years. This year they invited several heads of neighboring states to a Nowruz celebration planned for the ancient city of Persepolis. That again angered the hardliners, who likened it to what Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi did in 1971, when he hosted a lavish event in Persepolis commemorating 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy, which was attended by dozens of heads of state. Ahmadinejad was forced to move the celebration to Tehran.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei also began talking about an "Iranian school of thought," seemingly pitting it against Islam -- or more precisely, the reactionary interpretation of Islamic teaching espoused by Khamenei and his clerical support that has provided the ideological backbone of the Islamic Republic. Last August, at a conference of Iranian expatriates in Tehran, Mashaei said,

Some people criticize me and say why do you not speak of the Islamic school but rather the Iranian school of thought. I responded, there are many interpretations of the Islamic school, but what we understand about the truth about Iran and Islam is the Iranian school of thought that we must introduce to the world.

He was fiercely criticized by the reactionary clerics, such as Mohammad Yazdi and Ahmad Jannati. Even Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, criticized him. Khamenei said that he did not agree with his chief of staff, but also that he believed Mashaei did not intend to pose Iran in opposition to Islam. Mashaei did not back down. He asserted, "What I said was not new, but was what the Imam [Khomeini] said. Today there are varieties of thinking about Islam. Do we accept them all? [No,] we accept the Islam that exists in Iran." The clerics who back Khamenei feel threatened by such language, which they perceive as indicating that Ahmadinejad and his supporters wish to eliminate them from the power hierarchy. Their anger was fueled when Mashaei declared, "Some people do not understand music, and therefore declare it haram [religiously forbidden]."

Discussing the great Iranian scientist Abu Ali al-usayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sinaa, commonly referred to as Bu-Ali Sina -- in the West, Avicenna -- Mashaei said in January 2010, "Perhaps he stood tall among his contemporaries and was a source of pride. But he is not supposed to be a source of honor 1,000 years later, because that goes to show the [subsequent cultural and scientific] poverty of the nation. Noah lived for 950 years, but could not manage well. If each prophet had managed his work properly and had created a just society, there would have been no need for the next prophet. This is not what I say, but what the Holy Qur'an says." That enraged the conservative clerics, to the point that some called on him to "repent."

Back in August 2008, when Mashaei was a vice president and head of the Organization for Cultural Heritage and Tourism, he said, "I proudly declare that the people of Iran are not the enemy of anyone and have no enemy anywhere. Our people are friends with the people of the world, even with the people of Israel." In a political system in which a central pillar of foreign policy is opposition to Israel, talking about friendship with the Israeli people is a grave violation of taboo. Two hundred Majles deputies wrote a letter to Ahmadinejad condemning what Mashaei had said, and asked the president to take action against him. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei paid no attention to the protests and pushed forward.

Third, the two men began talking about expanding social (not political) freedom for the youth, letting women into sports arenas, and similar steps. Mashaei once said, "In Iran, the use of the hejab is voluntary, and the government does not pressure anyone to use it." Since then, hardly a day passes in which a conservative does not complain about how Iranian women are not wearing proper hejab. When the commander of the national police, Brigadier General Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam -- Ahmadinejad's brother-in-law -- was recently asked why the police do not confront women with "bad" hejab, he responded, "Mr. President asked us not to bother the young people." Mashaei also said, "To obstruct people from happiness is insulting Islam, and use of black [clothes] is makrouh [to be avoided]." Mashaei was talking about the fact that the police often raid private parties and arrest young people, and that many conservatives wear black outfits. These statements are all meant to attract at least a part of the middle class that desires primarily more social freedom.

Fourth, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei began invoking the Mahdi, Shiism's 12th Imam, who disappeared over 1,000 years ago. Shiites believe that he will return some day to make the world a just place. But the two men do not invoke the Mahdi in a way that is to the clerics' liking. One of Ahmadinejad's early pronouncements as president was that the Mahdi would return "within two years." Since then he has claimed that the reason the United States invaded Iraq was that it wanted to prevent Mahdi's return and that he has documents which prove his assertion. He subsequently asserted that the United States is the most important impediment to the return of the Mahdi. In a speech in Mashhad, he declared, "It is Imam Mahdi that runs the world."

What is the objective of Ahmadinejad's many declarations regarding the Mahdi? According to Khamenei's supporters, the Supreme Leader is the Mahdi's deputy in his absence, and it is through him that people can connect with the hidden Imam. But if Ahmadinejad can constantly give people news about the hidden Imam, which means that he is directly "linked" with him, why would he need the Supreme Leader, or the clerics in general for that matter? A few months ago, Ahmadinejad said in reference to Khamenei, "Hazrat-e Agha [His Excellency] is a good man and leader, but there are other people who are in constant and direct contact with Emam-e Zaman [Imam Mahdi]." He was clearly referring to himself and perhaps Mashaei. The recent distribution of a documentary film, The Appearance Is Imminent, which claims that the Mahdi will soon reemerge and that Ahmadinejad will be one of his key aides, is another facet of this effort.

(A little known fact: Dr. Ebrahim Fayyaz, a member of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Tehran, may be the behind-the-scenes "brain" of many of the ideas that Ahmadinejad is testing out publicly. We will hear about him more in the future.)

By advancing these views, Ahmadinejad has divided himself from many of his formerly ardent supporters. When Mesbah Yazdi criticized him for supporting Mashaei, Ahmadinejad said, "Mr. Mesbah does not remember that before we took over [the presidency], no one took him seriously." Mesbah recently countered that "the Freemasons have penetrated the government"; he has also accused Ahmadinejad's inner circle of "betrayal" by speaking about an "Iranian Islam." In another attempt to discredit Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, Khamenei supporters such as Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari -- the Guards' top commander -- Mesbah Yazdi and Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel -- former Majles speaker and father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei -- have accused Ahmadinejad and Mashaei of exploiting people's superstitions. A man named Abbas Ghafari, who is said to be involved with spirits and exorcism and is apparently linked to the president's circle, has been arrested. When, in their nationally televised debate, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of running "the most superstitious government," many including Khamenei himself criticized the reformist candidate. Two years later, accusations similar to Mousavi's are being made against Ahmadinejad by the hardliners.

Interestingly, the same group that is attacking Ahmadinejad for exploiting superstition has spread fantastic tales about Khamenei in an attempt to elevate him to godly status. Mesbah Yazdi has said many times that Khamenei's saliva can cure diseases. Mohammad Saeedi, the Imam of Qom's Friday Prayers, claimed that when Khamenei was born he immediately said, "Ya Ali" -- Oh Ali, Shiism's First Imam. Alam ol-Hoda, Mashhad's Friday Prayer Imam, claimed that angels with trays of food greet Khamenei's guests. The members of the Basij kiss his feet.

Can Ahmadinejad and Mashaei succeed? The two men's calculations are based on the assumption that Ahmadinejad does have his own electoral base, independent of Khamenei and his supporters, whose members they can bring out whenever necessary. For example, the elections for the Ninth Majles are to be held in early March 2012. The two men believe that if the elections are competitive and the reformists do not run -- and it appears that they will not -- they can win and control the Majles. This assumption is faulty, however, because despite all of their efforts, Ahmadinejad's independent social remains minimal. Many of the people who voted for him did because of their support for Khamenei, and the events of the last few weeks indicate that a large share of them are angry at, and abandoning, the president. Most importantly, in the confrontation with Khamenei, not a single military, intelligence, or security official backed Ahmadinejad -- they all supported the Supreme Leader.

Perhaps the two men recognize the shortcoming. They recently began publishing a daily, 7-e Sobh, and hired a number of journalists who used to work with the reformist publications. In effect, they are trying to replicate what the Islamic leftists of the 1980s did, when they turned reformist in the 1990s and succeeded in attracting the popular vote and trust. As described above, Rafsanjani's supporters did the same in 1996, when they broke away from the right wing, founded Kaargozaaraan-e Saazandegi, and joined forces with the Islamic leftists and the reformists. There is, however, a fundamental difference between Ahmadinejad and his supporters, and the Islamic leftists and reformists. The former group has no credibility among much of the society. Not only has repression increased dramatically since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, and particularly since the 2009 election, but the economy is in a terrible shambles.

It is possible that even Ahmadinejad recognizes that he has major problems with a large segment of the population, despite his belief that he actually received 24, or even 35, million votes in 2009. His attempt to control the Ministry of Intelligence ever since he entered office appears to be part of his solution. The ministry has vast amounts of information about the depth of corruption among Khamenei's supporters, political assassinations, torture in prisons, and what happened behind the scenes prior to and during the 2009 election. Perhaps Ahmadinejad wanted to use the information at a pivotal juncture to discredit his opponents. Khamenei and his supporters also recognize the possibility, which is why they have begun speaking about removing the ministry from the executive branch of government and transforming it into the "Organization for Intelligence and Security," which would be controlled directly by Khamenei.

All of this makes it clear that, at least as for now, the confrontation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and their respective supporters is not one between the people and the ruling elite. The root causes of the confrontation between the two camps are their views about governing a nation, which are the same and which are backward and reactionary. The confrontation is strictly between two factions of the conservatives and hardliners. In Khamenei's camp are the top leadership of the military/security/intelligence establishment, reactionary clerics, and part of the Basij forces. They are worried about Mashaei, believing that if he ever becomes president, he will eliminate the clerics from power, which is why they refer to him and his inner circle as the "perverted team." A cleric close to Mashaei, Abbas Amirifar, who has strongly criticized supporters of Khamenei and declared that Mashaei is completely qualified to be the next president, was arrested on Wednesday.

In the opposite camp, Ahmadinejad is supported by those who have benefited directly from his largess -- a large number of them midranking Guard officers -- a segment of the very poor population whose extent is difficult to estimate, and perhaps some who agree with him that the clerics should get out of politics.

%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C+%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%87.jpgWhere is the confrontation between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei headed? The Supreme Leader's supporters have begun arresting the inner circle of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, just as they have done to many associates of Mousavi, Khatami, Mehdi Karroubi, and even Rafsanjani. They may well arrest most or all of their allies who occupy important positions, or purge them, and then try to tolerate Ahmadinejad until his term expires in 2013.

But at the same time, the hardliners have raised the intensity of their threats against the president. It is possible that the confrontation will turn into a war of attrition between the two camps.

Regardless of the outcome, and no matter what happens to Ahmadinejad, Khamenei will be the major loser. He is the one who supported Ahmadinejad to the hilt, authorized the violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators in the wake of the 2009 election, and cut off relations with some of his oldest and most loyal friends to demonstrate his "authority." The political wounds that Khamenei has taken are too numerous to count.

Most crucially, the taboo of a president standing up to the Supreme Leader has been broken. Khamenei himself tried to do this to Khomeini over Mousavi's premiership in 1985, but was quickly marginalized. Ahmadinejad has yet to be marginalized, although that process might have begun with the arrests of members of his inner circle. But Ahmadinejad has demonstrated that he does not like to be used as a tool by Khamenei, and that it is the Supreme Leader who may actually need him. He is well aware of all the corruption, as well as all the fraud that has been committed in past elections, and recognizes that Khamenei created too many enemies for himself in every strata of the society to keep him around as the president. He has also made it clear to Khamenei that he is not his president, but Imam Mahdi's.

Given the volatile nature of Iranian politics and the unpredictability of Ahmadinejad's decision-making process, anything is possible. The confrontation between the two camps is by no means over. The Green Movement may benefit if it patiently watches, and lets the two camps destroy each other.

All photos archive.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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