Just as it seemed president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s submission to the wishes of supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei would hold together the conservative factions currently in power in Iran, the conflict at the top reignited last week – proof of the depth of the political crisis facing the country.
On May 14 Ahmadinejad fired three key cabinet ministers and on May 16 declared himself ‘caretaker for the oil ministry’. The cabinet members – oil minister Masoud Mirkazemi, welfare and social security minister Sadeq Mahsouli and industry minister Ali Akbar Mehrabian – had been at the centre of a power struggle between parliament and the presidency.
On May 8 MPs had opposed Ahmadinejad’s plans to merge a number of ministries. Ali Larijani, the speaker of the majles (parliament) and a close ally of the supreme leader, dismissed them: “The government has no right to announce such policies before the majles approves them.” Ahmadinejad responded immediately, saying his cabinet had been charged with reducing the number of ministries from 21 to 17, which it has proceeded to do. He told Larijani he should inform himself about the country’s constitution and stop “creating unnecessary confusion”. However, the president was then rebuked by the powerful Council of Guardians. The council, whose members are selected by the supreme leader and which has the responsibility of overseeing government adherence to the Islamic constitution, rejected the plans for merging a number of ministries, leaving Ahmadinejad in even deeper trouble.
A lot has been said and written about spirits, sorcery, jinns (genies) … however, for all the references to supernatural beings, the conflict has its roots in a good, old-fashioned power struggle between, on the one side, landed old money, senior ayatollahs and their periphery and, on the other, what they call tazeh bedoran ressideh ha (the nouveaux riches or new rich) in the Ahmadinejad camp. This at a time when the Iranian state is feeling the pressure emanating from the major uprisings across the region and from the continuing protest movement inside Iran.
Over the last few years analysts and commentators have identified a new powerful military-bureaucratic group around the Pasdaran militia (revolutionary guards), which is answerable to Ahmadinejad and capable of taking power away from senior clerics. The events of the last few weeks have proved above all else the fallacy of such claims. Clearly military/revolutionary guard support for Ahmadinejad depended entirely on a nod from the supreme leader. Every time the president tried to negotiate a compromise regarding his responsibility in naming or dismissing ministers (a power clearly given to him by the Iranian constitution), everyone from Pasdaran leaders to clerics and civilian religious figures united in taking the side of the supreme leader. In more than three weeks of power struggle, not one leading member of the revolutionary guards came out openly for Ahmadinejad and his band of tazeh bedoran ressideh ha.
Iran’s Islamic Republic is no stranger to internal political crises. However, the serious differences and conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have sometimes seemed to paralyse the daily functions of government. The US administration is now talking of “structural crisis in the Iranian state”. The latest stand-off all started in April, when Ahmadinejad found out that a number of officials close to his office, including his former chief of staff and heir apparent Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, were under electronic surveillance by agents of the ministry of intelligence. According to one government official, “Top intelligence commanders of the revolutionary guard … bugged the office of Mashaei – as they must – and monitored his private and public political behaviour.”
Apparently, Mashaei, who is a former intelligence ministry official himself, discovered the electronic devices and promptly fired his deputy, Hassan Abdollahian, amid allegations of betrayal. On April 17 Ahmadinejad ordered intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi to hand in his resignation. The supreme leader overruled Ahmadinejad and all hell broke loose.
Under the Iranian constitution, the president clearly has the right to dismiss his ‘chosen’ ministers, but the problem is Moslehi was an appointee of the supreme leader. Khamenei and his supporters justify his interventions by referring to the principle of maslahat, the greater interest of Islam, implying it had been violated by Moslehi’s dismissal.
A cleric has always held the position of intelligence minister since the 1979 revolution and during the presidencies of both Mohammad Khatami and Ahmadinejad, the appointment has always been made in conjunction with the offices of god’s representative on earth, ayatollah Khamenei. Moslehi’s dismissal would have weakened the position of the clerics in keeping control of the unruly president and his controversial ‘advisor’, Mashaei. Over the last few years Mashaie has been blamed for spreading ‘nationalism’ (placing Iranian values above Islamic principles) and for the infamous claim that “Today, Iran is a friend of the United States and Israeli nations.” The ministry of intelligence was keeping tabs on Mashaei and others in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle under the direct orders of Khamenei’s office. Moslehi was reappointed by the supreme leader within a couple of hours after being told by Ahmadinejad to quit.
In a huff
Ahmadinejad went into a huff, staying at home for eight days and boycotting cabinet meetings for almost two weeks, and he threatened to resign himself. He eventually returned to the cabinet in early May a much weaker president, forced to bow down after considerable pressure from the allies of the supreme leader in the majles, army and revolutionary guards. The president was also forced to accept the return of Moslehi as minister of intelligence and even tolerate his presence at cabinet meetings. Moslehi is well known for his obsession with conspiracy theories – he uncovers ‘foreign plots’ and ‘spy rings’ on a regular basis – and wasted no time after the death of Osama bin Laden denying that the US had killed him: “He died some time ago due to sickness … we have exact information to prove this.”
If the Iranian president hoped that his return to work and repeated confirmations of his allegiance to the supreme leader would end the crisis, he was mistaken. Opponents of Ahmadinejad in the clerical/conservative factions of the regime are adamant that he must be further undermined before next year’s majles elections and the presidential poll in 2013. Last week 216 MPs wrote a letter warning him, “You are expected to follow the supreme leader,” and threatening impeachment.
Security services have begun censoring pro-Ahmadinejad websites, accusing them of “endangering national security, espionage and leaks”. Abbas Ghaffari, described by the religious establishment as Ahmadinejad’s “exorcist” or “jinn-catcher”, was among a number of people arrested. The website Ayandeh described one president ally as “a man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with the unknown worlds”.
All this comes after the release of an Iranian documentary, The appearance is imminent, celebrating the expected ‘return’ of the Mahdi – the 12th or ‘hidden’ imam of the 9th century. Both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are praised for paving the way for this happy event.
Conservative clerics are of the opinion that the timing of the 12th Shia imam’s return cannot be predicted – and certainly not by a politician without the necessary religious qualifications. But Ahmadinejad’s obsession with the hidden imam is well known and this has given clerics the opportunity to talk about plots by a “deviant current” – referring to both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei. The president often refers to the Mahdi in his speeches and in 2009 said that he had documentary evidence that the US was trying to prevent the Mahdi’s return. In February this year he claimed the 12th imam was guiding protestors in Egypt.
The ideological differences at the heart of the Islamic republic go back to pre-revolution time and the foundation of a shadowy traditionalist Shia organisation, Hojjatieh, in 1953. Virulently anti-communist, this organisation opposed the establishment of a clerical republic on the grounds that it would bring god into disrepute. Orthodox Shias believe that human beings are powerless to encourage the return of the 12th imam, but Hojjatieh members believe that humans can stir up chaos in order to lay the necessary conditions. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banned the group in the early 1980s because it rejected one of the primary commitments of the Iranian revolution: the concept of vilayat-i faqih (‘guardianship of the jurist’ in the hands of a wise leader like Khomeini). In other words, Hojjatieh opposed the notion of an Islamic republic because it would delay or hinder the return of the 12th imam.
Throughout the last decade Ahmadinejad’s opponents have accused him of being a member (or former member) of Hojjatieh. The group is believed to be connected to Qom ultra-conservatives, such as Mesbah Yazdi. A number of cabinet ministers and the president’s confidant, Mashaei, are also rumoured to be Hojjatieh members. Over the last few days influential ayatollahs and politicians have referred to Mashaei in terms used for Islam’s worst enemies. According to them, the president’s closest ally, the man he was grooming as his successor for the 2013 presidential elections, is a foreign spy, a freemason and the leader of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic.
Ahmadinejad has fought hard to keep close allies in sensitive ministries. He has also striven to gain control over the country’s national security branches – his first move after the disputed elections of 2009 was to purge the intelligence ministry of those he mistrusted. However, in dismissing Moslehi he has clearly gone too far and that is why he has faced serious opposition.
On Friday April 29, a hard-line cleric used his nationally broadcast sermon to indirectly warn Ahmadinejad that he would be moving into dangerous territory by continuing to challenge Khamenei and went as far as to tell Ahmadinejad that his wife would be haram to him (legally forbidden by Islamic law), if he continues to disobey the supreme leader. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami added: “Obedience to the supreme leader is a religious obligation as well as a legal obligation, without any doubt.”
Although religious differences have dominated analysis of the current conflict within the Iranian state, there are also plenty of political reasons to explain the events of the last few weeks. The conservatives believe Mashaei has made a series of contacts to start a dialogue with the United States. The US denies any meeting has taken place, although there has been no denial of the contacts. It is possible that Washington is wary of meeting a former chief of staff of a lame-duck president, ostracised by most of the senior ayatollahs and the supreme leader.
This news is not surprising, however. Iranians remember Ahmadinejad’s efforts in 2009, at the height of the last presidential election campaign, to seek a resolution of the nuclear dispute with the west, only to be rebuffed by Khamenei. The Iranian president would love to be credited with rapprochement with the west and the ending of sanctions.
The current power struggle in Tehran is also a reflection of the Arab revolutionary upsurge and the momentous events that are shaking the entire Middle East. After the euphoria of the collapse of old Sunni enemies – Mubarak and Ben Ali – came the unrest in Syria. The Shi’ite camp – Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, etc – is also facing a serious challenge. Hamas is now in alliance with Fatah, the Syrian government is facing a serious crisis and even the death of Shia’s longstanding enemy, bin Laden, has not helped.
Inside the country Iranian students organised a successful nationwide strike on May 15, closing down over 30 university campuses, while oil and petrochemical workers have won a major dispute, which can only encourage workers turning to militant action in other sectors. The Iranian economy is in trouble, with MPs warning of 40% inflation. All this is making Tehran very nervous.
On May 10 a new row broke out between the president and supporters of Khamenei. Iran’s parliament had approved a budget of 5,083 trillion rials ($480 billion) for the current Iranian year, which started on March 21. This is about 40% up on last year’s budget due to an increase in oil prices and the implementation of the government’s policy of abolishing food and fuel subsidies. However, on the day the budget was finally approved after months of delay Ahmadinejad’s deputy, Mir Tajeldini, claimed: “This budget approved by the majles has nothing to do with the one proposed by the government. The majles hasn’t passed our budget: they have written their own version.” One of the crucial issues of dispute is the way the state should apply the abolition of subsidies.
Whatever the reasons for the conflict, one thing is clear: Ahmadinejad tried to resist pressure from the supreme leader and lost. He has been badly weakened by recent events. Many have compared Ahmadinejad’s likely fate with that of Abulhassan Banisadr, the Islamic Republic’s first president who fell out with Khomeini and was forced into exile. Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency reported last week that several members of parliament had revived a bid to summon Ahmadinejad for questioning over “recent events”. Revolutionary Guard leaders, together with senior conservative clerics, have only tolerated Ahmadinejad because the supreme leader told them to do so. But Tehran’s power struggle has left Iran with an impotent president surrounded by strange allies and a supreme leader who, despite his ill health, looks more and more like the other dictators at the sharp end of mass protests in Arab capitals.
The working class, student, youth and women’s movements in Iran have not only Ahmadinejad in their sights and not only Khamenei, god’s representative in Tehran. They want to see the defeat of the whole, oppressive Islamic state.
1. See my article from earlier this year, ‘Ahmadinejad slapped as factions turn on each other’, January 27.
2. D Ignatius, ‘A quarrel in Tehran’.
3. On April 20, 10,000 Port Imam petrochemical workers ended their 11-day strike after reaching a settlement with management. The text of the settlement published by the Free Union of Iranian Workers claims that management asked for three months to end the use of contracting companies and transfer administrative work to Port Imam Petrochemicals and the oil ministry.