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Ahmadinejad Sacks Ministers; Mashaei to Remain Close

26 Jul 2009 17:02Comments
Image43923-1Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the controversial head of Iran's tourism office since 2005, will be Ahmadinejad's chief of staff after serving just one week as vice president.

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 26 July 2009

[TEHRAN BUREAU] With a little over a week remaining of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term, and with the legitimacy of his second term fiercely contested by a majority of the Iranian people, Iran's president sacked two key cabinet members: Minister of Intelligence Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei and Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Hossein Saffar Harandi, whose agency oversees the press, cinema, and the arts.

Last week, Saffar Harandi spoke nostalgically about his work, as if he would leave -- or be forced to leave -- his post soon. He made an oblique criticism of Ahmadinejad when he said, "I hope God will have mercy on the next minister."

Ejei, an extreme hardliner, accused the opposition -- in particular, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, the two reformist candidates in the recent presidential election -- of having links with foreign powers and trying to start a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

It is not clear why Ejei and Saffar Harandi have been fired. There is speculation that they vehemently opposed Ahmadinejad's appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as first vice president. (Iran has eight vice presidents.) He was the head of the government's organization for tourist affairs. Mashaei's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son; the two are very close friends.

After Ahmadinejad's comments about Israel and the Holocaust started a worldwide storm of protest, Mashaei, in his capacity as head of the national tourism organization, stated that the Israeli people are the friends of the Iranian people and invited them to visit Iran. This raised the ire of hardliners, who have apparently not forgiven him.

Mashaei has also reportedly argued that an Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran. It is claimed that he stated, "Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that these people [the clergy] are not horse racers." In a trip that he had made to Turkey three years ago, he refused to take the customary step that all Iranian officials take while abroad -- leaving an official dinner if it involves female singers or dancers. In sum, his relatively liberal outlook has provoked anger among some hardline clerics and politicians.

When Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei as his first vice president, the hardliners strongly protested the appointment. A conservative grand ayatollah, Naser Makarem Shirazi, even issued a fatwa against the religious legitimacy of the appointment. Last week, during a cabinet meeting presided over by Mashaei, most of the ministers stormed out in protest; Saffar Harandi and Ejehei reportedly led the walkout. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finally intervened and ordered Ahmadinejad to fire Mashaei. The president reluctantly complied.

The opposition mocked Ahmadinejad, saying that for a chief executive who supposedly received 24 million votes according to the official tally he still apparently lacked the authority to choose his own second in command, thus giving further credence to the image of him as Khamenei's puppet. It is widely believed that Ahmadinejad intended to groom Mashaei as his successor. Ahmadinejad has now appointed Mashaei as his chief of staff and special adviser.

Ejei has been one of the harshest critics of Iran's reformist leaders. Of Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, the principal reformist strategist who was left paralyzed after a March 2000 assassination attempt, he once said, "If I were a judge, and Hajjarian's case was before me, I would give him a death sentence." (Hajjarian was arrested after June's election fallout and remains in prison.)

Ejei is a disciple and former student of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the hardline reactionary cleric and the spiritual adviser to Ahmadinejad. He graduated from the Haghani seminary in Qom, which is run by Mesbah Yazdi, and has held a variety of positions in the judiciary and the government. He is said to have issued the fatwa for the assassination of some key intellectuals and dissidents from 1988 to 1998, although, given the secrecy surrounding Iran's political establishment, it is almost impossible to verify such charges. Ejei has claimed that the Intelligence Ministry has no great role in the arrest of hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of protesters, and in particular the leading reformist leaders. In a recent open letter to him, Mehdi Karroubi charged that the Intelligence Ministry has been transformed into an instrument for groundless arrests and indefensible torture.

Before being appointed to head the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Saffar Harandi was editor-in-chief and the deputy managing editor of Kayhan, the hardline newspaper that is the mouthpiece of the security and intelligence establishment. After his appointment, he declared that every official political party and group will be allowed to have an official publication. But, he did not carry out the promise. Instead, his four years in office mark the worst period of censorship over the past two decades.

Saffar Harandi, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, is a nephew of Reza Saffar Harandi. In 1965, the late Harrandi carried out the assassination of Hassan Ali Mansoor, Iran's prime minister, aided by Mohammad Bokharaei, Haaj Sadegh Amani, and Morteza Niknejad. The assassination was a retaliation of the Shah's brutal crackdown on demonstrations that erupted in June 1963 after the arrest of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (All four were later executed by the Shah's government.)

Several Iranian news agencies have also reported that two other ministers have been fired. One is Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mohammad Jahromi. His firing was expected, since he had intended to run against Ahmadinejad in the presidential election. It is believed that he changed his mind when Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a midranking cleric and former Majles (parliament) speaker, persuaded him not to run because he wanted to strengthen Mousavi's position in the campaign. (Nategh Nouri is widely believed to have supported Mousavi behind the scenes.)

The fourth minister who has reportedly been fired is Health Minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani. His firing might be due to the anger that he generated among Ahmadinejad's supporters when he spoke disapprovingly of the arrest of young demonstrators and protesters, and the murder of several of them.

The firing of these ministers can only complicate matters for the hardliners. It is clear that they have many disagreements among themselves. This can only help the cause of reformist and democratic groups in Iran.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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