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Iran Splits over Intelligence Chief


26 Apr 2011 03:11Comments
FarsCaricatureJavanfekr.jpg[ quote, unquote ] In an unusual public spat, Iran's top two leaders have split over the future of intelligence chief Heydar Moslehi. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly wanted him sacked and accepted Moslehi's resignation on April 17. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei overruled the president -- first in a letter to Moslehi and then in a public address -- effectively rebuking the decision and even announcing that he was praying for Moslehi.

The Supreme Leader tried to end the controversy in a speech on April 23. Khamenei said he does not intend to interfere in political disputes but with Moslehi's resignation "a greater good had been ignored." The Leader also criticized the media for inflating the story and for reporting a rift within Iran's leadership.

The public spat is important -- and unusual -- for several reasons. The first is that it reveals the conflict over the control of the Intelligence Ministry -- a critical ministry in dealing with both domestic tensions and Iran's escalating showdown with the outside world. The second is that the flap has been so public in normally secretive Iran, rippling into media splits as well. Pro-Ahmadinejad media outlets initially refused to report on Khamenei's rejection of Moslehi's sacking and it was only after Khamenei's official letter to Moslehi was published in other outlets that they acknowledged Khamenei's order. The third is a subplot centered around the president's controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Iranian media reports imply that Mashaei, a potential contender in the 2013 presidential election, had urged the president to fire the intelligence chief, at least partly over his assessments in the Intelligence Ministry. Mashaei is related to Ahmadinejad through the marriage of their children and is a major influence on the president.

In the past, Khamenei has provided critical support for Ahmadinejad. The Leader was decisive after the disputed election results of the 2009 vote, when the opposition charged massive fraud. The Supreme Leader sided with the president and allowed security forces to brutally repress street protests by millions of Iranians in several cities for six months.

Iran's Supreme Leader traditionally approves key posts, such as the Intelligence and Foreign Ministry posts. The Supreme Leader did not interfere when Ahmadineajd sacked Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in December 2010.

Parliament has even been sucked into the dispute, with more than 200 members signing a statement April 20 urging the president to adhere to the Supreme Leader's order. Senior ayatollahs also pressed the president to accept the Leader's instructions.

The political skirmish between Iran's top religious and political authorities comes at a particularly awkward time. The regime faces serious internal discontent on both political and economic issues as it nears the second anniversary of the disputed presidential election and with parliamentary elections looming early next year. The region is also in turmoil over pro-democracy protests; Syria, Iran's closest Arab ally, faces unprecedented internal unrest.

It is not yet clear how the president will manage his relationship with the intelligence minister. Moslehi did not accompany the president and the rest of cabinet ministers in the government's provincial trip to Kurdistan on April 20.

The following are public comments by key politicians on the Moslehi affair.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

"Look at the foreign media propaganda about this matter and how they have created a controversy; [They] claim that a split and dual government has been created in the Islamic Republic, and the president is not obeying the leader."

"I won't allow, as long as I'm alive, the slightest deviation in the great movement of the people of Iran toward its ideals."

"In principle, I have no intention to intervene in government affairs...unless I feel an expediency is being ignored as it was the case recently." Apr. 23, 2011

"I ask you to put more effort than before in carrying out important missions inside and outside the country.... Do not allow even the smallest weakness in carrying out the legal duties of that important organization. I pray for you...and all of my dear revolutionary children in the Intelligence Ministry." -- In a letter to the intelligence minister, Apr.19, 2011

The parliament's letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

"Replacing the intelligence minister...under the current sensitive circumstances is not at all in the country's interests. Thank God the Supreme Leader resolved the problem with his wisdom. To the parliament, Mr. Moslehi continues to be the (intelligence) minister. You are expected, in adherence to the Supreme Leader, to end the enemies' abusage by explicitly supporting of the respectable intelligence minister." -- Signed by 216 members of the 290-seat parliament Apr. 20, 2011

Ayatollah Abolqassem Khazali, a prominent conservative cleric

"Mr Ahmadinejad should follow the leader's orders and not allow certain circles to influence him." Apr. 20, 2011

Hussein Naqavi, member of parliament

"The parliament expects nothing but total obedience to...the order without any question. (The Leader) is above the three branches of power and the executive branch is defined under the Supreme Leader." Apr. 20, 2011

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami

"One of the usual accusations against the reformists was that of dual governance. [The hardliners] accused the reformists [in the administration of President Mohammad Khatami] of sending signals to the world that the positions of the Supreme Leader and the president were different.... The recent events...are more than ever an indication of dual governance -- from an administration that came to power through the slogan of support for the Leader." Apr.19, 2011


The Iranian leadership split over intelligence chief Moslehi also spilled over into the media, which has offered widely diverse accounts of his reported resignation -- and the political repercussions. The scandal became public on April 17 when Ahmadinejad reportedly dismissed his intelligence chief, who was then reinstated by the Supreme Leader.

Some media outlets have openly supported Ahmadinejad and his controversial chief of staff Esfandiar Mashaei, who is reportedly behind the intelligence chief's forced resignation. Other media have questioned or challenged the president over the firing because of the potential costs to his political relationship with the Supreme Leader.

Iran's media has become deeply engrossed in the political scandal, with daily reports for more than a week in most outlets. The press has been engrossed in the long-term implications of the split between the president and the Supreme Leader as well as on the controversial role of the chief of staff.

The main media outlet supporting Ahmadinejad and Mashaei is the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). IRNA has criticized other outlets for running their stories without proper sources and falsely suggesting a rift between the Supreme Leader and the president.

Media challenging Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff over the resignation include Fars, Mehr News, Iranian Students News Agency, Alef, and Kayhan. In various forms, they have warned the president about the dangers of a split with the supreme leader. These newspapers and wire services has also criticized IRNA for its limited coverage of Khamenei's decision to keep Moslehi.

In a speech on April 23, Khamenei said he intervened to reinstate the intelligence minister in the name of a "greater good." His public relations office later criticized IRNA for failing to properly cover the Leader's speech explaining the reinstatement. It asked media outlets not to use IRNA's coverage of the speech and said that the public relations office was the only credible news source about the Supreme Leader.

Since April 17, several websites have been hacked, filtered, or completely shut down, apparently because of their positions on the controversy over the intelligence chief and the chief of staff. A few websites close to the president and his chief of staff -- such as Dowlatyar, Mahramaneh News, Bakeri Online, and Rahva -- have been filtered.

In one case, the personal blog of Ali Akbar Javanfekr -- the managing director of IRNA, which supports Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff -- was hacked with a caricature of the director. It showed him holding a sign that said "Everyone is lying" -- but his own nose had grown as long as Pinocchio's. The post was first featured on Fars News, which criticized the president. Javanfekr's blog was shut down shortly after.

In a subplot to the political scandal, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the attorney general, runs the committee that decides which websites should be officially filtered. But Ejei has his own issues with the president, since he was also abruptly fired as head of the Ministry of Intelligence by Ahmadinejad in 2009. "What happened to me was similar to what happened to Moslehi," Ejei said as the scandal unfolded. "I did not understand why and how I was dismissed. Many officials were not aware.... I do not know whether the Supreme Leader, at the time, was informed of my dismissal, but he was not aware of Mr. Moslehi's dismissal."

In another subplot, conservative outlets such as Alef, Raja News, and Jahan claimed that Moslehi's resignation was linked to his dismissal of an intelligence deputy minister Hossein Abdollahi, who is an ally of Ahmadinejad's chief of staff.

The following are key quotes from the media.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

"Unfortunately the approach taken by some newspapers with regards to these remarks was suggestive of divide and dispute in the country instead of peace." Apr. 24, 2011

Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hardline Kayhan newspaper, appointed by the Supreme Leader

"The dismissal of Mr. Moslehi from the ministry of intelligence was done under the cover of 'resignation,' but then opposition from the exalted Leader of the Revolution returned him to the ministry.

"[The question people have] is that with what explanation can the imposed presence of this gang beside the president be justified and why doesn't Mr. Ahmadinejad, as someone for whom the people voted under the belief that he is an unquestioning follower of the leader, cut off the hands of this deviant gang of infiltrators?" Editorial in Kayhan, Apr.19, 2011

Ali Akbar Javanfekr, managing director of Iran's official news agency, which has supported the president

"For the politically informed it is evident that a change in such a strategic ministry as the Intelligence Ministry, cannot be carried out without coordination between the president and the Leader of the Revolution. And such a report that the president should take a decision that is overruled by the leader after two hours is not logical. It only aims at weakening the position of the president, the Leader, and the leadership." Apr. 18, 2011

Mahramane News editorial, website close to Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei

"Why has [Esfandiar] Rahim Mashaei become the sole political problem these days? Have our other problems been solved?... The Supreme Leader would have named this year that of 'battle with Mashaei,' not the year of 'economic jihad,' if Mashaei was the country's main problem." April 20, 2011

This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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