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Khamenei versus Khamenei: Will Ahmadinejad Be Impeached?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

10 Jul 2011 02:43Comments
MojtabaAndAliKhamenei.jpgA crucial shift of sentiment by the Supreme Leader's son.
Despite the transparency of your positions, there have been reports that your respected son -- Mr. Seyyed Mojtaba -- has supported one of the candidates [in the presidential election]. Then I heard that a high official told you, "Your aghazadeh [son of an influential person] has supported one of the candidates," to which you reportedly responded, "He is agha [a noble man], not aghazadeh," which made it clear that [his] support was his own preference [not yours].

At the same time there were reports about his support for another candidate -- whose star suddenly dimmed three days before the elections, and his kindness and support moved toward the other candidate -- and that he even had an active role in that [first] candidate's campaign. You are well aware that the unwise [electoral] intervention of the relatives and aides of some religious and political officials in the past has had very negative consequences for the political establishment and the nation. Therefore, due to my respect for you and my concern [for the country], I ask you with utmost sincerity not to allow another bitter experience to be added to those of the past. You are the successor to the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] who, when some people claimed that [his oldest son] the late Ayatollah Mostafa Khomeini had prevented them from contacting him, ordered, despite [Mostafa's] intellectual and religious significance, "He must not intervene in my affairs."

[ comment ] This is an excerpt from a letter that Mehdi Karroubi wrote to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei protesting the intervention of Khamenei's second son, Seyyed Mojtaba, in the first round of the Iranian presidential election on June 17, 2005. Karroubi ran as a reformist candidate in those elections, and for several hours after the polls closed he was trailing only one other candidate, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. So, in the early hours of Saturday, June 18, Karroubi decided to take a much-needed nap and then continue to follow the vote count. But when he woke up just a couple of hours later, everything had changed. Suddenly, a relatively unknown candidate, who had not been supported by any major group, had moved into second place. That candidate was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran's mayor at the time. Neither Ahmadinejad nor Rafsanjani got more than 50 percent of the vote, so the presidential election went to a second round from which Karroubi was left out. Former President Rafsanjani, bidding to reclaim the post he had previously held for two terms, lost in the runoff, and so began the Ahmadinejad era.

The "other candidate" to whom Karroubi referred was Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a pilot and former commander of the air force division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is now mayor of Tehran. It was widely believed that Ghalibaf was the candidate preferred by the Guards' top command and Khamenei. But as a result of behind-the-scenes maneuvers, the exact details of which are still unknown, the Guards and the Supreme Leader switched their support from Ghalibaf to Ahmadinejad. Mojtaba Khamenei played a leading role in convincing his father that Ahmadinejad was more reliable, especially since Ghalibaf had sometimes demonstrated his independence from senior figures in the leadership.

Khamenei responded to Karroubi with a terse letter, rejecting the accusations and implicitly threatening the former Majles speaker. Stating that Karroubi's actions could trigger a national crisis, he declared, "Feeling the full wrath of God and his power, I for one will not allow any individual to create a crisis in this country." Karroubi replied with another letter, in which he called the elections "the blackest page in the history of ideological struggle in Iran." He stepped down from his post as a senior adviser to Khamenei and from membership in the Expediency Discernment Council. He was even put under house arrest for several days. Soon afterward, he also resigned from the Association of Combatant Clerics, an organization in whose formation he had played a leading role in 1988. Karroubi then founded his own National Trust Party.

Now, six years later, there is another behind-the-scenes struggle. The question that the hardliners around Khamanei are grappling with is, Should Ahmadinejad be impeached and removed from the power hierarchy? Reports indicate that Mojtaba Khamanei, who played such a key role not only in Ahmadinejad's rise, but also in the violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstrators in the aftermath of the 2009 election -- to the extent that shouts of "Death to Mojtaba Khamenei" were heard loud and clear -- is now pressuring his father to allow the Majles to go forward with Ahmadinejad's impeachment.

The consequences of impeachment would be far-reaching, and there is no straightforward answer to the question. But one thing is certain. If impeachment does go forward, the most important loser will be none other than the senior Khamenei. It was he who supported Ahmadinejad at every turn. It was he who turned a blind eye to every gross mistake that Ahmadinejad made on the domestic front, particularly concerning his ruinous economic policy -- if it can be called a policy. It was Khamenei who supported Ahmadinejad's adventurous foreign policy -- if that can be called a policy -- which has isolated Iran and yielded several United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing severe sanctions on the country, accompanying other sanctions imposed independently by the United States and the European Union. It was he who told Ahmadinejad's cabinet in 2008, "Do not work as if you will end your work in one year. Work as if you will be working five more years, one plus another four years," clearly indicating his desire that Ahmadinejad serve a second term. It was he who prevented the judiciary last year from going after First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, after evidence surfaced of his involvement in a vast case of financial corruption.

Most importantly, it is Khamenei who has allowed the Guards to take a leading role in the affairs of the state. The corps' top commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, routinely intervenes in political, economic, and social matters -- including who is permitted to stand for election -- to the extent that Mohammad Reza Khatami, the former president's younger brother, wrote to him, "I do not know how I should refer to you: as the commander of Sepah [the Guards]; as the official in charge of the development of the country; as the official in charge of culture and morality of the society; as the head of the government, or as the head of a military junta? Your behavior as a military commander has only one implication, which is that it is the behavior of a coup government['s chief]. Because in the rule of a military coup the law is what the martial law ruler says, which everybody must accept."

In supporting Ahmadinejad and keeping him in power, Khamenei sacrificed not only those reformists who had served the nation for a long time, men like Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and their associates, as well as an entire segment of the population. He also had to choose between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, his friend and ally of five decades. It was Khamenei who said in his Friday Prayer sermon of June 19, 2009, at the University of Tehran that Ahmadinejad's views "are closer to mine than those of Mr. Rafsanjani." It was Khamenei who allowed, or at least kept silent about, the attacks on Rafsanjani's family. And it was Khamenei who, as recently as November 2010, unequivocally defended Ahmadinejad when leading clerics in Qom protested his performance, saying that he is obedient and that when he travels abroad, there is no worry about him exhibiting any split with the religious leadership.

If Khamenei allows Ahmadinejad to be impeached, he will thus, at least implicitly, be admitting that he made a gross error of judgment. But how could a man described by his supporters as the deputy to Imam Mahdi, a man whose appointment as Supreme Leader they claim came directly from God and was merely "discovered" by the Assembly of Experts, be so wrong? Just before the 2009 vote, did he not describe the characteristics of his "preferred president" in a trip to Kurdistan province in terms universally taken to mean that he favored Ahmadinejad?

On the other hand, there are also perils in keeping Ahmadinejad around, as Mojtaba Khamenei and the Guards' high command, particularly Jafari, are reportedly arguing. At least since the Khatami era began in 1997, the hardliners have been saying that Khamenei is the faslol khatab, meaning that he has the last word and what he says goes. If Ahmadinejad can resist the faslol khatab, fire people without telling Khamenei in advance -- such as the Supreme Leader's loyal servant Ali Larijani from his posts as secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, former Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, former and current Ministers of Intelligence Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei and Heydar Moslehi -- ignore for one week Khamenei's order to remove Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as first vice president in and subsequently give him even more influential posts, and stay home for 11 days to protest Moslehi's reinstatement -- if the president can do all this without paying any price, then the credibility of Khamenei as the faslol khatab is ruined.

So the foundation for possible impeachment is being laid. As reported by Tehran Bureau, Hamid Reza Taraghi, influential member of the Islamic Coalition Party, reported that Khamenei has appointed a commission to investigate the reasons for "the government repeatedly breaking the laws." According to Taraghi, the Supreme Leader cannot allow the trend to continue, because it will hurt the political system and the people. He added, "The friction between the different branches of the system has never been higher than at present -- it is more severe even than during the era of [Abolhassan] Bani Sadr," the first president of the Islamic Republic, who was impeached in 1981. If Ahmadinejad does not back down, if he refuses to become obedient, the impeachment process is set to move forward.

Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, said recently that the next presidential vote may be held simultaneously with the Majles elections next March 2. (The election in which Ahmadinejad's successor will be chosen is supposed to be held in June 2013.) As Tehran Bureau reported, Mojtaba Zolnour, who just retired as the deputy to Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative to the Guards, said in a long speech last week that if Ahmadinejad had stayed home one more day after the Moslehi affair he would have been impeached immediately. Jafari has been loudly threatening the so-called "perverted group" -- Mashaei and his inner circle -- and responded angrily when Ahmadinejad accused the Guards of importing goods through wharves outside of the customs office's control. And 100 Majles deputies, led by Ali Motahari, moved to summon Ahmadinejad to parliament to respond to seven questions, a plan that has been temporarily set aside.

The Absar News website, which supports Ahmadinejad, recently warned those aghazadeh haa -- sons of influential people, meaning Mojtaba Khamenei -- who are "looking to find new political leaders" to "wake up." Absar was evidently reacting to reports that Ghalibaf has obtained the support of Mojtaba Khamenei and the Guards' high command to run in the next presidential election. As reported by Tehran Bureau, Gahlibaf's administration of Tehran was recently praised by Basij commanders, while Ahmadinejad-aligned websites have staged fierce attacks on the mayor. Ghalibaf has been lauding the senior Khamenei profusely, saying that he holds leadership in an era with tougher challenges than those faced by Khomeini. There are also reports indicating that Ghalibaf's team has been working with former hardline supporters of Ahmadinejad in the Basij and the paramilitary vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah, and that he has received Khamenei's blessing to participate in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

However, while Ghalibaf is widely perceived as the Khameneis' favored candidate, a well-positioned source told the author that a more likely prospect may be Major General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds division, the Guards' elite force. According to the source, Soleimani -- who was recently promoted to his current rank, held by very few military commanders in Iran -- is being talked up in hardline circles in part due to his intimate involvement in all the work that the military and intelligence forces have been doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere abroad and because he has proven consistently loyal to the senior Khamenei, in contrast to Ghalibaf's reputed independent streak. In particular, Soleimani was deeply involved in the help that Iran provided the United States when it invaded Afghanistan, aid that received American acknowledgment. Thus, although Soleimani has been sanctioned by the United States, if an opportunity for rapprochement with the West arises, Soleimani will be in a position to negotiate from a position of familiarity, knowledge, and strength.

The confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is by no means over. It may be entering its final phase, with far-reaching implications for the country.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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