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Comment | Ahmadinejad v. The Islamic Republic

by CORRESPONDENT

28 Oct 2012 12:02Comments
LARIJANI AHMADINEJAD KHAMENEI2.jpg Clash with judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani latest front in mounting internal conflict.

[ comment ] With eight months to go until the end of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency, his clashes with hardline members of the Iranian regime have become a fixture of the Islamic Republic's political scene.

As he was giving his eighth and final speech to the U.N. General Assembly on September 26, agents of Tehran's prosecutor-general arrested Ali Akbar Javanfekr, Ahmadinejad's senior press adviser and head of the Islamic Republic News Agency. Javanfekr -- also managing director of Iran daily, which has been engaged in a war of words with the president's detractors over the past two years -- was taken to Evin Prison, where many Ahmadinejad opponents have been incarcerated.

Furious, Ahmadinejad held a press conference upon his return from the United States to announce that he would arrange a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ai Khamenei to discuss the issue of his counselor's arrest. Several weeks have now passed and Javanfekr remains at Evin, where the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, has barred Ahmadinejad from visiting him.

How could the forces that united to suppress millions of Green Movement supporters in the aftermath of the disputed June 2009 presidential election now place such extreme pressure upon Ahmadinejad? Of those who chanted "Ahmadinejad is not my president" and "Where is my vote?" dozens were killed and hundreds injured by security forces. At Friday Prayers the week after the election, Khamenei voiced his unambiguous support for Ahmadinejad. And the judiciary handed down lengthy prison sentences to many hundreds of officials of parties, journalists, and civil society activists who claimed that the president's reelection had been rigged.

To answer the question, we must go back seven years. From 2005 to 2009, Ahmadinejad worked diligently to attract support from the pillars of right-wing power in the Islamic Republic. In addition to Khamenei, he won over many others by clashing with liberal university administrators, emphasizing anti-Western rhetoric, and promoting Iran's nuclear program. He earmarked millions of dollars for the Basij -- the paramilitary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- named several military officers to ministerial posts in his cabinet, and developed a congenial relationship with the Eighth Majles. He attained the backing of conservative clerics by increasing the budget of the Qom Theological Center by tens of millions of dollars.

The rising of millions of citizens in protest against what was widely seen as a fraudulent vote count further unified the regime's various conservative factions. Ahmadinejad's presidency had yielded them substantial political and financial dividends during the previous four years. There was no reason not to expect that to continue over the next four.

The Moslehi affair and its aftermath

But Ahmadinejad turned the tables. By spring 2011, he had reduced the number of military officers in his cabinet, sought to replace them with new ministers of whom the hardline Majles did not approve, and reduced the Qom seminary's budget drastically. Yet he was careful to avoid direct confrontation with Khamenei, who thus continued to express his support for Ahmadinejad, despite disapproving of most of the new officials named by the president. Ahmadinejad recognized that the Supreme Leader's priority was to keep quarrels between the Guards, the Majles, and the executive branch to a minimum to uphold the regime's strength and legitimacy.

Then, in April 2011, Ahmadinejad's base of support within the political system crumbled when he boycotted his presidential post and stayed home for 11 days, after the Leader ordered the reinstatement of Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, whom Ahmadinejad had forced from office. Khamenei allowed the increasingly dissatisfied hardliners to take a measure of revenge against the obstreperous president. Several members of Ahmadinejad's office and political camp were incarcerated and reportedly tortured.

By fall, the wrangling had become even more public. In November, agents dispatched by the Tehran prosecutor's office assaulted the Iran offices, threw Javanfekr to the floor, and handcuffed him. Tear gas was used against newspaper staffers who came to his aid. On that occasion, Ahmadinejad was able to intervene in time to prevent the transfer of his counselor to the detention center, a feat he could not reproduce from New York last month. The effort to humiliate the president had succeeded.

Leader's pleas for "solidarity" ignored

Since Iran lacks a democratic framework and free elections, it doesn't have the capacity to resolve political fights by testing the opposing sides' popularity and appeal. In-fighting thus plays out with true belligerence.

The president, who had never asked for permission to visit prisoners at Evin, now wanted one in order to see his counselor there. But judiciary chief Larijani denied the request with the demeaning declaration, "Your visit is not suitable." He called on Ahmadinejad to instead spend his energies on trying to fix Iran's severely troubled economy.

This internecine conflict appears to have spun out of the control of the Leader, who continues to request that the various organs of government not publicize their disputes. In a recent trip to Bojnourd, he declared, "The responsibility of officials is the maintenance of solidarity and sympathy, coordinated planning, recognition of legal bounds, and to refrain from blaming each other.... The political roles of the Majles, the administration and the president, and the judiciary are distinctly delineated in the Constitution -- thus all officials must act according to their legal duties."

Fully aware of the depth of animosity that has developed within the regime, the Leader explicitly told Ahmadinejad and his enemies, "Be concordant in aims, approaches, and appearances." But the events of the past week seem to demonstrate that Khamenei will not be able to smooth over the frictions in the eight months between now and election day, undermining his authority as the Faslol Khattab, the "Ethical Mediator."

Ahmadinejad, infuriated that Larijani had barred him from visiting Evin, wrote an open letter to the Leader, published in an array of media outlets, in which he accused Larijani of "illegal acts," "meddling in election procedures," and "political" motives. He said that there was no indication that any judiciary action had been taken against certain "special persons" involved in illegal appropriations -- a clear reference to Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani's older brother, Javad Larijani, who heads the judiciary's human rights office. In June, the administration had published a number of documents online pertaining to the illegal appropriation of public and private land by the elder Larijani dating back to the early 2000s.

It has been widely reported that Ahmadinejad has gathered dossiers on a large number of senior officials in the Iranian government. Last fall, Majles deputy Mohammad Khoshchehreh said that a team from the president's office had removed numerous such dossiers from the Information Ministry. The Shaffaf News website referred to an article in Iran that stated the Ahmadinejad administration was in possession of 140,000 documents on 214 Islamic Republic officials. The daily threatened that the government would publish those documents if "necessary."

In a retort to Larijani's declaration that his presence at Evin would not be suitable, Ahmadinejad wrote, "Would it be acceptable that this servant find approving payments into the judiciary's enormous budget unsuitable?" The president thus flaunted his control over the government's pursestrings and threatened to cut off the judiciary's funding.

The day after Ahmadinejad's letter was published, the Majles passed a bill to call him in to be questioned, for what would be the second time this year. The following day, an open letter from Sadegh Larijani appeared on several websites. Adopting an unusually informal tone, Larijani wrote, "Your story reminds one of that of a sultan who would confiscate people's property and lands by force, while he warned them that they should respect the sultan's property and lands."

Lessons for the West

If predictions that Ahmadinejad will be impeached are overblown, still his position within the ruling system has been gravely weakened. And because of how he won reelection and the way in which the protests were suppressed in 2009, he has been unable to win any significant support among the people.

Only Khamenei can credibly call for negotiations with the Western powers. Any effort by Ahmadinejad to exert influence in international affairs would now face vehement attack and certainly be defeated. The animosity to Ahmadinejad runs so deep that many in the regime would readily accept the continuation of crippling sanctions so long as it keeps him from having any political success.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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