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The Man in the Shadow: Mojtaba Khamenei

16 Jul 2009 15:5617 Comments

Anon1245640760-MojtabaKhamenei270466_mdThere is much talk about Mojtaba in Iran. Is the young Khamanei being groomed to take over his father's position?

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 16 July 2009

Despite the transparency of your positions [regarding various issues], there have been reports that your respected son -- Mr. Sayyed Mojtaba -- has supported one of the candidates [in the presidential elections]. Then, I heard that a high official has told you that, "Your son has supported one of the candidates" [implying that he had carried out his father's order], to which you have reportedly responded, "He is his own man, not just my son," which made it clear that [his] support was his own personal view [and preference, and not yours].

At the same time there were reports about his [Mojtaba's] support for another candidate -- whose star suddenly dimmed three days before the elections and [the] kindness and support moved toward the other candidate -- and that he [Mojtaba] had even had an active role in the campaign of that candidate [before switching to the other candidate]. You are well aware that the unwise intervention of the relatives and aids of some religious and political officials in the past [elections] 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 [who passed away in 1977] had prevented them from contacting him, ordered, despite his [Mostafa's] intellectual and religious significance, that, "he [Mostafa] must not intervene in my affairs."

This is an excerpt from a letter that Mahdi Karroubi wrote to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in reference to the first round of the Iranian presidential election on June 17, 2005. Karroubi, who is a former Speaker of the Majles (parliament) and ran as a reformist candidate in June's presidential election, also ran back in 2005.

For several hours after the polls had closed, Karroubi had been trailing only one other candidate, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and an all-around powerful politician. So, in the early hours of Saturday June 18, Karroubi lay himself down to take a nap and continue to follow the vote count once he was a bit freshened up. But when he woke up a few 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 had gone to a second round between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad -- and the latter won.

In that letter, Karroubi was protesting the intervention of Ayatollah Khamenei's second son, Mojtaba, a mid-rank cleric, who had supported Ahmadinejad in the elections. The "other candidate" that Karroubi was referring to was Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf (Ghalibaf), a Major General, a pilot, and a former commander of the air force division of the IRGC, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Qalibaf, who is currently mayor of Tehran, was also a candidate in the 2005 presidential elections. It was widely believed at the time that Qalibaf was the preferred candidate of the IRGC's top command and also Ayatollah Khamenei. But, as Karroubi alludes to in his letter, as a result of behind-the-scene maneuvers, the IRGC's top commanders and Ayatollah Khamenei switched their support from Qalibaf to Ahmadinejad. It is believed that Mojtaba Khamenei played a leading role in convincing his father that Ahmadinejad was a more reliable candidate than Qalibaf, especially since Qalibaf had sometimes demonstrated his independence from senior figures in the leadership.

Ayatollah Khamenei responded with a terse letter, rejecting the accusations and even implicitly threatening Karroubi. In that letter, the Supreme Leader said that Karroubi's actions may trigger a national crisis and that, "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 responded by sending a second letter, calling the elections "the blackest page in the history of ideological struggle in Iran." He resigned from his post as a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, and from membership in the Expediency Council, a constitutional body that arbitrates over differences between the Guardian Council and the Majles. He was even put under house arrest for several days. Soon afterward, he also resigned from the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics, known in Iran as the Rouhanioon, an organization in whose formation he had played a leading role in 1988. Karroubi then founded his own National Trust Party.

Karroubi was certainly not the first senior figure to protest Mojtaba Khamenei's intervention on behalf of the extreme right. Before him, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, another former Speaker of the Majles and a close aid to Ayatollah Khamenei, had quietly protested the younger Khamenei's meddling in the political process. (Nategh Nouri, a mid-rank cleric, heads the Supreme Leader's Office of Inspection)

But, it was Karroubi's letter that caused a sensation in the country. For the first time, a son of the Supreme Leader was being accused of intervening in the affairs of the state, not even as a neutral figure, but as a supporter of a candidate. Such accusations never came up when Ayatollah Khomeini was the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khamenei had carefully cultivated an image of himself and his family that presented them as pious and uninterested in personal power or wealth. The accusations, particularly by Karroubi, a man who had always been among the top leadership in the political establishment, shattered that carefully cultivated image.

In the June 12, 2009 presidential election, Mojtaba Khamenei was again accused of intervening -- of leading the election coup that declared Ahmadinejad the winner for a second term. Mojtaba has also been accused of ordering the Basij militia, a paramilitary group controlled by the IRGC, to crackdown hard on the massive demonstrations that broke out after the election. The crackdown has resulted in hundreds of injuries, thousands of arrests and several dozen deaths (all those killed have reportedly been under 32 years of age).

Who is Mojtaba Khamenei? Why does he command such loyalty among the right-wing reactionaries? And how is it that he can use the power of the state to advance what appears to be his own political agenda, and continue to do so with such impunity?

His full name is Sayyed Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei. One of six children of Ayatollah Khamenei, Mojtaba was born in 1969 in the holy city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran. His father is a cleric and so was his paternal grandfather, Sayyed Javad Hosseini Khamenei. His father, the current Supreme Leader, was active in politics and in the opposition against the Shah, both in Tehran and Mashhad, and had spent years in jail, as well as in internal exile, ordered by the Shah's government. In the last year before the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei and two other clerics, Abbas Vaez Tabasi and Sayyed Abdolkarim Hasheminejad, formed a sort of leadership ring that led most of the demonstrations and political activities against the Shah in Mashhad and the Khorasan province, which was Iran's largest province at that time.

Vaez Tabasi is now a powerful cleric who runs the shrine of Imam Reza (the Shiites' 8th Imam), in Mashhad. He is believed to be a Rafsanjani ally.

Hasheminejad was assassinated in Mashhad on September 29, 1981, by the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, an armed group in exile and listed by the U.S. State Department as terrorists. A nephew of Hasheminejad is Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a progressive cleric who served as a vice president to former president Mohammad Khatami. Abtahi was among the reformists arrested and jailed after the rigged election of June 12, 2009.

After the 1979 Revolution, Mojtaba and his family lived in Tehran, as his father was part of the new revolutionary elite. His father Ali Khamenei's first job in the revolutionary government was deputy defense minister. His son, Mojtaba, attended Alavi High School, a private religious school with a rigorous course load. (The school is located on Iran Street in central Tehran, where the author grew up.) Many of Iran's present leaders are graduates of this high school. Mojtaba graduated in 1987. During the last year or two of the war with Iraq, Mojtaba and his oldest brother, Sayyed Mostafa, also served in the armed forces.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were also the beginning of the transformation of Ayatollah Khamenei, who went from being a relatively progressive cleric to a right-wing one. After he was appointed by the Assembly of Experts as the Supreme Leader in June 1989, he began distancing himself from his past positions [including his initial opposition to the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (the guardianship of the jurist), which is the backbone of Iran's political system]. At first he moved toward the center, and eventually to the extreme right of the political spectrum.

The same Ayatollah Khamenei who used to defend the thinking of Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the distinguished sociologist and Islamic scholar who was opposed to a special role for clerics in society, began promoting Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the hard-line reactionary cleric. Mesbah Yazdi was vehemently opposed to Dr. Shariati and had even called him an infidel a few years before the 1979 Revolution. The accusations leveled by Mesbah Yazdi at Dr. Shariati even prompted Mahdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the Revolution, and Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, an important Islamic scholar and a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini, to sign a letter stating that while Dr. Shariati may have made some mistakes in his writings on Islam, he was not an infidel. (Motahhari was assassinated in 1979 shortly after the Revolution.) But Ayatollah Khamenei, Shariati's defender and supporter, has declared that Mesbah Yazdi is "the Motahhari of our era," a great compliment from the Supreme Leader, given how much Motahhari is revered in Iran.

It was in such an environment that the young Mojtaba began his theological studies after finishing high school. His first teachers were his own father and Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the current judiciary chief. Mojtaba was not a cleric yet. In 1999, he moved to Qom to study to join the ranks of clerics. He was taught there by conservative and ultraconservative clerics such as Mesbah Yazdi; Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, the first Secretary-General of the Guardian Council in the 1980s; and Ayatollah Sayyed Mohsen Kharrazi, the father of former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi. (Kharrazi's real name is Sayyed Mohsen Agha Mir Mohammad Ali and his daughter is married to Mojtaba's younger brother, Mohsen, a junior cleric.)

Mojtaba Khamenei is also very close to Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali, an ultra-conservative cleric and former member of the Guardian Council. Both Khazali and Mesbah Yazdi belong to the Hojjatiyeh Society, a right-wing religious organization that was founded in the 1950s, an organization that was banned by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1983 after it fiercely opposed Mir Hossein Mousavi, then the prime minister and the main reformist candidate in the recent presidential election.

Mesbah Yazdi and his followers do not believe in anything resembling democracy. They have no compunction about using coercion if people refuse to embrace their point of view. Mesbah Yazdi once said, "The prophets of God did not believe in pluralism. They believed that only one idea was right." Mesbah Yazdi apparently believes that he espouses Prophet Muhammad's ideas and is therefore on the right side of history. He has also said that common people "are like sheep."

Much has been said about the control that Mojtaba Khamanei exerts on the Basij militia and other paramilitary groups that are used to crackdown on street protests. What are the links between Mojtaba Khamenei and such forces?

One link is a mysterious figure not known to most Iranians. His name is Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaght, who is a great supporter of Mojtaba Khamenei. Ayatollah Khamenei's third child, Mostafa (Mojtaba's older brother), is married to Khoshvaght's daughter. He is a member of the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader. Khoshvaght ran for the presidency of the Assembly in July 2007. He had been put up as a candidate by the extreme right faction in the Assembly, led by Mesbah Yazdi, in order to oppose Rafsanjani. But Rafsanjani defeated him.

Khoshvaght is the prayer leader of a large mosque in northern Tehran, and a radical hardliner. Saeed Emami, the notorious figure who was responsible for the infamous Chain Murders in the fall of 1998, which resulted in the murder of six Iranian dissidents (and the murder of close to 70 other dissidents from 1988-1998), was a follower of Khoshvaght. Mojtaba Khamenei was apparently a friend of Emami. He traveled with him to Britain in 1988. Khoshvaght is also close to and influential in the affairs of Ansar-e Hezbollah, a radical right-wing group often used to quell demonstrations. But this is a group that remains shrouded in secrecy as well.

Another link between Mojtaba Khamenei and the paramilitary groups is Brigadier General Sayyed Mohammad Hejazi, a former commander of the Basij militia, and widely considered to be an ultra-hardliner. He now works in the office of the Supreme Leader, and is believed to be the mastermind behind many violent crackdowns on university students and protesters. Hejazi has been a close aid and supporter of Mojtaba Khamanei.

The third link between Mojtaba Khamenei and the paramilitary groups is Hassan Taeb, the current commander of the Basij. A hardliner and cleric, he is also linked with Mesbah Yazdi and his followers.

So through these three links -- Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaght, Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi and Hassan Taeb -- Mojtaba Khamenei is connected with the forces that crack down on protesters and demonstrators. Though little is officially known about the political views of Mojtaba Khamenei, it would not be a stretch to put him in the radical right-wing camp hellbent on advancing the agenda of extremists such as Mesbah Yazdi and Khazali to establish the so-called Islamic government, as opposed to an Islamic Republic, where the views and votes of the people matter.

Mojtaba has always been around the ultraconservatives. He has been educated by them, and has been close to radical right-wing groups. He has had close friendships with notorious figures such as Saeed Emami, and reactionaries such as Mesbah Yazdi, Khazali and Kharrazi. He is known to be fiercely opposed to the reform movement and its leaders. In particular, he has expressed his disgust at Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, a top strategist for the reformists who was left paralyzed after an assassination attempt in 2000.

Though it is widely believed that Ayatollah Khamenei is grooming Mojtaba to succeed him, it is mere speculation at this point. What, however, are the reasons to believe there is some truth behind it?

Attempts by Ayatollah Khamenei's allies among the radical right, led by Mesbah Yazdi, to fill the ranks of the Assembly of Experts by younger clerics who are loyal to him and Ayatollah Khamenei, is one indication. These young hardliners are Mesbah Yazdi's former students in the Haghani Seminary, which is still run by him, and also those who work in the Imam Khomeini Educational Institute in Qom, also controlled by Mesbah Yazdi.

One of these young clerics is Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami (no relation to former president Mohammad Khatami), who sometimes acts as the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, and is a member of the Assembly of Experts. It was Ahmad Khatami who threatened the reformist leaders and their supporters with execution during the Friday prayer sermon of June 26, 2009. According to him,

The Supreme Leader is the deputy of the hidden Imam [Mahdi, the Shiites' 12th Imam who is believed by them to be hiding and will reappear some day] and, therefore, disobeying his [Ayatollah Khamenei's] orders [that the demonstrations and protests against the rigged election must end] is disobeying the hidden Imam, and that would be tantamount to waging war against God, which is punishable by death. Anybody who fights against the Islamic system or the leader of Islamic society, fight him until complete destruction.

Other relatively young radicals and disciples of Mesbah Yazdi include Mohsen Gharavian and Ghassem Ravanbakhsh. The former always attempts to present a moderate and reasonable image of Mesbah Yazdi and his thinking, whereas the latter who is the editor-in-chief of Partow Sokhan, the weekly published by Mesbah Yazdi, is virulently opposed to the reformist-democratic movement.

Mesbah Yazdi is 75 years old. Therefore, there is not much prospect of him becoming the next Supreme Leader. However, he and his followers hope that by filling the ranks of the Assembly of Experts, eliminating Rafsanjani from the political scene, and promoting Mojtaba Khamenei, they can exert great influence on the selection of the next Supreme Leader, when the opportunity presents itself.

It is probably due to such considerations that Mesbah Yazdi has certified that Mojtaba Khamenei is a mojtahed (a learned Islamic scholar), which is the necessary credential for being eventually recognized as an ayatollah and marja' taghlid (source of emulation). However, many clerics in Qom dispute Mojataba Khamenei's religious credentials.

There are also other obstacles to Mojtaba Khamenei's rise to the position of Supreme Leader. The democratic movement in Iran appears to be gaining strength by the day and has not shown signs of dissipating; this itself a major obstacle to the continuation of the political structure in its present form. Aside from that, the following elements present other important obstacles:

One is that many important clerics in Qom have never accepted Ayatollah Khamenei as a true ayatollah, a marja' taghlid, and an Islamic scholar of note. He was not even the first choice for Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Khomeini passed away. The first choice was the late Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1895-1993), but he did not receive the required two-thirds of the vote. The most, and perhpas the only, important reason that Ayatollah Khamenei was appointed as the Supreme Leader by the Assembly of Experts was a quote attributed to Ayatollah Khomeini raised by Rafsanjani in a meeting of the Assembly of Experts: "Ishaan liyaaghat-e rahbari daarand [He (Ayatollah Khamenei) is competent enough to be the (Supreme) Leader]." So, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Ayatollah Khamenei to impose his son as his successor because, like his father, he lacks stellar religious credentials.

Another obstacle is renewed debate among many senior clerics that there should not be just one Faghih (Supreme Leader), but a council of Foghahaa (many Faghihs). This idea has always been supported by some important clerics. The most important proponents of this idea have been Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, a conservative but respected cleric (and a maternal uncle of Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majles). When Ayatollah Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the idea of forming the Council was brought up by Rafsanjani, but shot down during internal debates of the Assembly of Experts.

The third obstacle is that while important lay conservatives are seemingly loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, they are strongly opposed to Mojtaba Khamenei, particularly the idea of him ascending to the position of Supreme Leader.

It has been widely reported that Mojtaba Khamenei is close to the top commanders of the IRGC. Not much evidence has emerged yet to support this. But even if is true, it is not clear at all whether they would actually want the younger Khamenei to be their commander-in-chief. (According to Iran's Constitution, the Supreme Leader is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces). There have been persistent rumors that Brigadier General Ali Fazli, who lost his left eye in the Iran-Iraq war, the commander of the IRGC forces in the Tehran province, has been opposed to the harsh crackdown on the protesters and demonstrators (reportedly ordered by Mojtaba Khamenei). Both he and Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the top commender of the IRGC, are said to be opposed to Mojtaba Khamenei's meddling and power plays.

Although Ayatollah Khamenei has tried to create the impression that he and his family are not interested in enriching themselves, it appears that at least Mojtaba Khamenei has been using the resources of the state for his political agenda. Immediately after the June 12 election, the British government, at the behest of the European Union, froze a bank account in a British bank worth approximately $1.6 billion. The account was said to belong to the Iranian government, but it was widely reported to be under the control of Mojtaba Khamenei. The account has apparently been used for purchasing equipment for the Basij militia. (That Mojtaba Khamenei was the true controller of the account has not been confirmed with 100 percent certainty, though.)

Another way that Ayatollah Khamenei and most clerics try to spread their influence and assure loyalty is by marrying members of their families to other influential people. The practice is very widespread among the clerics and the senior leadership in Iran. In the case of the Khamenei family, Mojtaba Khamenei is married to a daughter of Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a university professor and former conservative Speaker of the Majles. After he was elected the Speaker of the 8th Majles in 2004, Haddad Adel once said, "We were told [by Ayatollah Khamenei] to be here [in the Majles to control it for the Ayatollah]," for which he was widely mocked by the reformists. But this statement indicated how the Ayatollah was putting his loyalists everywhere. Ayatollah Khamenei's oldest daughter is married to Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, his chief of staff.

So while is it clear that Mojtaba Khamenei is playing a leading role in driving the agenda of the extreme right in Iran, whether he will eventually rise to hold a powerful official position is a matter of debate. The jury is still out on that issue.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Thnaks again for an excellent article; I didn't know much about Mojtaba (SRL Jr?) except that he was very far right. He seems to be the very embodiment of the short-sighted and suppressive politics coupled with an over ripe sense of self-entitlement the reformists are trying to fight.

vodoqc / July 16, 2009 12:25 PM

Very good reporting. I do have a question. What is your thoghts on Friday Prays? This seems to be shaping up to be a Historic one for Iranians.

William / July 16, 2009 12:50 PM

This is a big problem - a group of families dictate, decide and basically run Iran. "Share and conquer".

If you are not for them, or not part of this family, you are automatically enemy according to the fanatics around Yazdi, according to "god". And they speak what "god" wants to happen.

Iranians have become slaves of this system.

Corruption happens everywhere, but I for one am glad that I do not live in such a society. I dont see any change happening either - why should they give up their power and money?

mark / July 16, 2009 3:32 PM

Actually, everything they do is related to power and money. The money of the Iranian people of course. They are all millionaires. Why would they give up such a regime and favor the "sheep". Very sad, very cruel, very true. I don't see how the opposition, meaning the people in the streets, can win and reverse such a complicated theocracy. Persia should deserve better.

Monique / July 16, 2009 4:30 PM

great information- so it sounds like a kingdom, but a minority, when money is power. This has nothing to do with religion, it is all about power. Reading this I almost thought that I come from this background, and I know I don't. This a small group and can not last very long.

merry / July 16, 2009 5:19 PM

I pray & pray & pray...Rafsanjani...will say the right words...that Khamenei is a mind of the past & that Iran needs to move into the future alive & with a cleansing of its spirit & its heart!

v.gerrard / July 16, 2009 5:36 PM

Very interesting article. I think that for anybody not Iranian but who is interested in Iran, its people and its politics this article is a must read.

thank you.

@ v.gerrard

btw. I also hope that Rafsanjani will say the right words, that his words will help Iran to move forward away from Ahmadinejad, bad economy and into better future but...........

ella / July 17, 2009 12:48 AM


shetty / July 17, 2009 9:51 AM

This is precisely why peaceful protests will not work in Iran. These people are well entrenched and like where they are. They also have nowhere else to go, and will not give up their grip. They can only be removed by force. The sooner people figure this out, the less innocent blood will be shed in the streets as peaceful protesters march to the slaughterhouse.

Daryoosh / July 17, 2009 11:02 AM

Wow. A whole article based on hearsay and unsubstantiated rumours.

anonymouse / July 17, 2009 12:46 PM

Once again, thank you for the article. A MUST READ.......

Babak / July 17, 2009 2:24 PM

General Fazli has denied the claims that he was under arrest:

He has said: "Whenever the Islamic nation achieves a victory, the global arrogance will attempt to spoil the epic,"

"Eight Basij members have been killed and about 300 of them have been wounded to protect the people of Tehran in the country's latest unrest," he explained.


A. Soroush / July 17, 2009 3:06 PM

Very well written article Mr. SAHIMI. I believe Merry shares my same thought; They have essentially formed a kingdom with Khamenei as king, followed by all his little court jesters. The difference being that 100 Khamenei's and 1000 Nejad's don't have one twentieth of the WISDOM that King Solomon had. In their greed they would rather slay the children than share with them their riches. You can't buy your way to any God, it is in your good deeds and fairness that gives one eternal peace. The souls of murderers and rapist will never have peace.

TheVeni1 / July 17, 2009 5:45 PM

During my student days in 1979 and the 80s, I and my Muslim friends were enthused by the Islamic Revolution and supported & organised talks & so on for our Iranian friends. It gave a new meaning to our understanding of Islam & the civilisational possibiilities that it has. We felt that the Shi'ite institution of marjaiiyat would guide us to a brave new world until the Imam of the time reappears. If all that is written in this article is true then God save Iran. When men of religion abuse their powers in the name of God then who else can save the people? Let us pray the Mahdi comes soon.

rezvan / August 16, 2009 6:13 AM

Our manifesto & constitution for a Democratic nation of Iran

Jamshid / November 9, 2009 3:34 AM

i have deeply studied history.
i have found differences and debates between government in history and find out that if an issue is on debate you as a bystander must think completely and decide if following a belief could hurt my future.
so some thing that has no base and is full of revenge and may be feelings of daily hardship must be ...... .
hey iranians!!! i have studied your leader speakings.i think he is doing better than obama.if obama was there there wasnt any iran till know!

peter / April 18, 2010 11:01 AM

I fear much of the reported development are in the mode of:

1. likely
2. reportedly
3. without concrete evidence.

While the article creates a picture of Khamnaei as some thing like KIM SUNG Jr of North Korea; his links with IRGC according to the article are still an unproven fact.

Editors need to look at the content; otherwise the Bureau can create doubts about it being an impartial observer.

Naqi Akbar / November 26, 2010 9:50 AM