Iran Special: Decoding Ahmadinejad --- Did He Just Declare the "Final Confrontation" Within the Establishment?
Over the last 48 hours, reports have emerged of an extraordinary speech by President Ahmadinejad to a group of his backers, the Supporters of Islamic Revolution Dialogue, in Tehran.
Our initial reaction was "Did he really say that?" And that as the reports built in their detail, we began to consider, "If he did say that, what does it mean for the conflict inside the Iranian system?"
For --- if the reports are true --- the President's speech was no less than a proclamation of all-out political conflict with his rivals, including a showdown with some in the camp of the Supreme Leader. That would explain why "mainstream" Iranian outlets only published parts of the statement, leaving out the most provocative challenges.
We are still cautious. Did the pro-Ahmadinejad website, Dolat-e Ma, which has published the transcript of the speech, get it right through its reporter on the scene? Is there exaggeration for effect, perhaps to scare Ahmadinejad's opponents?
Then again, no one from the President's camp or amongst his media backers has denied the remarks. So --- using the translations provided by Muhammad Sahimi --- we assess the significance of Ahmadinejad's declaration of a "final confrontation":
Someone in my position of serving [the nation] as I do can only express 10 percent of his thoughts, and perhaps another 25 percent in the future; but cannot talk about the remaining 60 percent because there are more important [national] interests [that necessitate silence]. We have not come to this position to protect ourselves, but [to display] the flag and glory of the Islamic Republic. They [the opposition] say I have become perverted. If the straight [non-deviant] path is what the opposition to the government is talking about, I was always a deviant and said, "We reject what you say."
Ahmadinejad's clear and present threat --- he reportedly said last month that he had documents that could bring embarrassment and/or the political demise of 314 of his opponents, giving substance to his warning that no one should cross the "red line" of attacking his Ministers or closest advisors.
Two EA readers, in separate messages, raise an important point: this spring the President tried to take control of the Ministry of Intelligence with the dismissal of the Minister, Heydar Moslehi. He was rebuffed by the Supreme Leader; however, in the period when Moslehi was "fired", did Ahmadinejad allies have the chance to copy sensitive information on Iran's leading political and clerical figures?
The only limit above is Ahmadinejad's assessment that "more than 60 percent" of his information cannot be revealed because it is so damaging, not just to individuals but to the Islamic Republic. What "red lines" is he imposing on himself? Beyond the general reason, one might suggest that the revelation of some of that material would bring an open showdown with the Supreme Leader
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 9
In 2004 someone from [the present] opposition met with me and said that we were thinking about supporting another person for the Presidency [in the 2005 elections], but realized that he cannot do it [because he is not qualified]. Are you ready [to run for President]? I said, "Do you realize what you are saying? If someone from the ranks of people with bare feet [the poor] becomes the President, it will represent another revolution, and will end aristocracy, royalty, nepotism and embezzlement. Will you be able to tolerate that?"
Ahmadinejad's standard rhetorical strategy of presenting himself as a "man of the (common) people", standing up to wealthy and corrupted elites who have left those people behind. The interesting question for Iran-watchers is: "Who is the 'non-qualified' person who was set aside for Ahmadinejad's candidacy?"
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 2
Without any advance planning I visited a village in South Khorasan province [on the border with Afghanistan in eastern Iran]. When we arrived, I wished that the earth would open up and devour me. We are in charge [of the nation] and [there is] so much poverty? Some are exploding because they have "eaten" [stolen and embezzled] so much, and...
A double ploy here --- Ahmadinejad repeats the "corrupted elite" line while absolving himself of responsibility for Iran's troubled economic situation.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 4
They-have forgotten 2004 in which a man who did not have the courage to defend the martyrs [a reference to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani] had said that the era of Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] has ended and has become part of the museum of history. No one uttered a word in protest.
Ahmadinejad's bitter hostility to Rafsanjani, whom he defeated for the Presidency in 2005] is no secret --- in the 2009 campaign, he made sweeping allegations about Rafsanjani's wealth and corruption.
But this is a step far beyond, if "they" does refer to members of the Supreme Leader's camp. The President appears to be striking against a possible alliance between Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khamenei's people.
The former President has sought that alliance since the disputed 2009 election. While he has pulled back from a public challenge to Ahmadinejad's legitimacy, he has repeatedly approached the Supreme Leader's office --- going as far in autumn 2010 as to present Ayatollah Khamenei personally with claimed evidence of the "torture" of political prisoners.
The Supreme Leader rebuffed Rafsanajni on that occasion, but the discussions have continued.
The only reason why this rating is not 10 is because we do not know how Ayatollah Khamenei's people will react.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 9
The West has mobilized all of its forces to attack and finish us. It is as clear as day that NATO is very thirsty to attack Iran. The conditions are not normal. We are approaching the final confrontation. It will not necessarily be a military one, but possibly political....We are reaching the height [of the confrontation]. If we are not prepared, we will suffer so greatly that we will be set back for 500 years. They [NATO] wanted to attack Syria. I said to the Secretary-General [of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon], "Tell them if they attack Syria, the entire region will explode."
A break from the internal tensions here --- if there is any significance, it is in Ahmadinejad's continued attempt to show that Iran's foreign policy, including the senstive subject of Syria, is in his hands.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 1
There is no shortage of problems and dissatisfaction in the country. In the [Presidential] election of 2009, 14 million voted for the opposition [Mir Hossein Mousavi]. We were saying the same things [as they were], but the people felt that they [the opposition] are not honest. Before the elections, through the Hezbollah guys who had penetrated their campaign, we became aware that a very complex movement wanted to topple [the system]. They had prepared [secret] houses for their teams, and even had weapons. I warned the overseeing organs that they [the opposition] want to topple the government. On Thursday night before the elections, I said, "Whether we win or lose tomorrow, we will be out on the streets tomorrow."
On the surface, Ahmadinejad's statement is part of the official line of the "sedition" of the opposition during and beyond the 2009 election, combined with the assurance that the majority of Iranian people saw through the deception and supported the President.
There is a sting in the last sentence, however. Ahmadinejad's message is not to those who have vanquished but to those within the establishment who attack him: I have my supporters and, if you press me and them, we will come out against you.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 5
I was told in 2005 that if I do not withdraw from the elections, they will not allow me to work. After the elections I met with some of my competitors and told them that if they know any good people, they should introduce them to me to serve [in my administration]. One of them, Mr. Q. [presumably Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who also ran for president in 2005], said, "I have no one."In my cabinet of 21 Ministers [in 2005], 11 belonged to them [the opposition camp among the hardliners and conservatives]. Many of my supporters and friends protested to me [about the 11 ministers], but you must know that if I had not done that, they would have uprooted [my] government right at the beginning.
In 2009 many were ready to congratulate them [Mousavi]. Ten percent of Tehran's votes were counted [recounted?], which added 8000 votes to my tally.
They are planning for the next Presidential election [in 2013], but have hit a huge obstacle [to their plan] and that is the relation between the people and [my] government. The path that will continue [after] this administration does not reach them. They have held many meetings to change the esteem with which the public views this government and [concluded], "If we cannot elevate ourselves, we will bring them [the Government] down."
One of them protested to me [about not obeying the Supreme Leader]. I told him,"Show me one case in which I did not follow the Leader's fatwa." He responded, "The case of allowing women into sports arenas. I said, "I asked the Leader for permission and he responded that I did not allow it in the past, but because you want to reform the country, I will allow it." Then, after the protests [by Khamenei's supporters], the Leader said this issue does not have priority.
The same man said that Mashai [the President's Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai] has given money [bribes] to the Friday Prayer Imams. I responded, "First of all, I did it, not Mashaei. Second, bring just one Imam who has not asked for money." The Friday Prayer Imams are in public view and need some resources.
Setting the "historical" background to today's conflict --- Ahmadinejad is showing how his offer to work with his rivals was rejected, but how he played the bigger man and continued to seek consensus. At the same time, he is also saying that this was part of his tactical wisdom. So if the hope for consensus is long gone, he can be trusted to wage the political battle which is now necessary.
Ahmadinejad then adds a jibe at Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, who supposedly congratulated Mir Hossein Mousavi on Election Day, before looking to the future. The contest is not just about the 2013 Presidential election but about next March's vote which will determine who controls Parliament.
So the President puts out a campaign speech: I am the one who is with the Supreme Leader, even if he may have people who try to mislead him. I am the one who is upright, even as others make unfounded allegations against my closest advisors.
There is a big unknown here: who are the "they" trying to topple Ahmadinejad? Sahimi inserts the assumption that the President is referring to those close to the Supreme Leader. There is no support for that in the translation, however.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 7
I recognize the danger in my trips to provinces. Dozens of groups have wanted to assassinate me, but they were neutralized and arrested. [Abdolmalek] Rigi [leader of the terrorist group Jundullah, arrested and executed in June 2010] said that they wanted to assassinate [me] several times. But it's worth losing [to assassination] even ten Presidents in order to preserve the popular base of the state, because the state's power emanates from the people.
A straightforward passage --- I am brave and stand with you against those who try to bring down the Islamic Republic.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 0
They say, "You have become popular and [thus] your views are influential about the next President.' I asked, "Is [my popularity] due to my work or propaganda?" They say, "Work". I responded, "Do you want me not to work?" At the same time, they accuse me of being both a member of Hojjatiyeh Society [banned by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s] and a Bahai [a religious minority not recognized by Islam and subject to harassment and repression by the regime]. These two are contradictory [as Hojjatieyeh is anti-Bahai].
They wanted to begin destruction [of the government] in November, but fortunately they began earlier. They accused the government of having links to geomancers [sorcerers]. At the end, it turned out that geomancers have links with everyone, but the government. Then, I said, "now that you have arrested all of them, but do not have the courage to admit that you are wrong, at least say that the accusations made against the government were not true."
A judiciary official made accusations [against First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, suspected of involvement in a major fraud], and the press said that it was meant to be Rahimi. I met with the Leader and told him, "If they can prove an iota of it to be true, I'll appear on national television, apologize to the people and resign. But they could not [prove it]."
Then they said that Mashai has embezzled $4 billion. I responded, "You have all the documents and information on the bank accounts, prove it." In the recent embezzlement case...they forced the CEO of the Bank [Saderat, Mohammad Jahromi] to say in an interview that the government was involved in the embezzlement. But all that had happened was that the CEO had approved a line of credit to the culprits in the embezzlement on 3 July.
They have arrested the deputy governor of the Central Bank, telling him that he did not do his job of overseeing [the banking system] and thrown him in jail. He responded that he only oversees the directors [not the entire banking operations]. But when it is the CEO of Bank Saderat's turn [Jahromi], they say [it is not his fault], it happened in a branch of the bank. [Jahromi is a close relative of cleric and former Speaker of Parliament Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, who heads the inspection arm of the Supreme Leader's office.] The thief [culprit behind the embezzlement of nearly $3 billion] is in jail. They do not ask him about it, but question the deputy Governor of the Central Bank.
A long, convoluted passage which can be understood as Ahmadinejad upholding his virtue and commitment against the campaign of his enemies, while clearing himself of any blame for the $2.6 billion bank fraud that is threatening the core of Iran's establishment.
For all of Ahmadinejad's tough words, this is mainly a defensive passage. Sahimi again makes the unsupported assumption that the President's "they" come from the Supreme Leader's camp --- the only clear target for the President above is Iran's judiciary. With his reference to "geomancers" --- the prayer leader in his office, who was arrested this spring for "sorcery" --- he is again trying to draw the "red line" against prosecutions.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 5
When I realized that they [the embezzlers] wanted to found a bank, I told the Central Bank Governor that they have illegal support, investigate this, and then cancel their permit [for founding a bank]. I know who supports them, but this is a part of that 50-60 percent [of the issues about which I cannot speak publicly.
They thought that only 4-5 people support me. The next target [for arrest or pressure] is the oppressed [Mojtaba] Samareh Hashemi [Ahmadinejad's senior adviser]. Can those who accuse us of being anti-Velayat-e Faghih [clerical supremacy] announce [how much they have in] their bank accounts and [reveal] their assets? I announce my assets and belonging and publish them in the press. If anyone can identify anything else [other than what I announce], they can have it, on the condition that they do the same and if someone found anything else [other than the announced assets], they can take possession of it. People's pain and dissatisfaction are due to their [dirty work. Barefooted people from the lower strata of society have become billionaires.
And now Ahmadinejad tries to bring together the current financial turmoil, centred on the $2.6 billion bank fraud, and the political challenge. He signals to his opponents that he knows they are implicated, even if he cannot reveal his evidence for fear of bringing down the system. Doing so, he tries to turn pressure on his camp back on his challenges, reiterating his theme of his virtue and their corruption.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 8
[Several months ago] I said that my relation with the Leader is like that of a son and a father, just as the Prophet said. Then, in a gathering they said that the relation is like a landowner and his peasants. I told the dear Leader that with such friends he does not need enemies. When someone goes on vacation 2-3 months a year with his wallet [full of money] and has fun there all the time, and then [comes back and] claims to support the Leader, this is not in the Leader's interest and hurts him. The rights of many supporters of the government all over the country have been violated, and they [Khamenei's "friends"] are after a new "sedition".
The man [who?] is stupid. He says on television that they [Ahmadinejad's supporters] have laundered money. Money laundering has a definition. It is money from narcotics and used for terrorism. I said, "Allow me to put these people in their place in only for one month, using the Ahmadinejad method. Even if Europe and the U.S. work together, they cannot bring down this government, let alone these people."
One of the sharpest passages, because Sahimi is now right to say "they" may refer to allies of the Surpeme Leader, even if Ahmadinejad is not clear about whether these "friends" are well-placed.
The appeal to Ayatollah Khamenei is clear. Back me and let me get rid of the threat posed by your "friends" who try to hide their corruption and sedition by making accusations against me.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 10
A gentleman was making extreme comments. One time he said, "These [Ahmadinejad and his supporters] are the greatest enemy [of Islam] since the time of the Prophet." The following week the same man said, "These people are nothing". I sent him a message saying that I was worried for him [for making totally contradictory statements]."
If someone thinks that he has brought the administration to power, God will make him very unhappy and reveal that he was not the one. I swear to God that, even if people view us as belonging to one of the last lines of pious people, we will still be so happy. In the Parliamentary election [in March], people will vote for those who support the government. If we are allowed to speak [bluntly to the nation] for 30 minutes, the price of a mouse's hole [for my opponents] will go up.
I gave the list of financially corrupt people to the judiciary. They said this [list] is political. In the meeting with the heads of the other two branches of the political system [Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani and head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani, I said, "Is this political? Should I publicly respond to this?"
I asked the judiciary to seize the 700 hectares [1 hectare is 10,000 square metres] of land around Tehran that someone has taken over [illegally] and return it to the national treasury. If every square meter of the land is worth 100,000 toomans [about $800], it will be worth $600 million. [Ahmadinejad is talking about reports that a third Larijani brother, Mohammad Javad Larijani, has taken the land.]
Ahmadinejad builds up his assault. Beyond his "mouse hole" soundbite --- a repetition of the line throughout the speech that he can easily bring down his enemies --- he offers specifics. He puts out the defiant line to the Larijani brothers, both his partners and rivals in Government: work with me, not against me, because I can cause you pain. To back that, he puts out the specific threat that he can implicate Mohammad Javad Larijani, a high-ranking official in the judiciary, in claims of fraud and illegal business.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 10
I swear to God that we have deviated from you. Are you the exact and original version of Islam [from which we have deviated]? I know what is going on. The day of remorse is close. Come forward and say that you have been wrong in accusing the government.
And there you have it --- Ahmadinejad tells his opponents to back down. Now.
Indeed, not just back down but ask for forgiveness. This is the President's boldest declaration that the situation of his faction and its enemy both sitting within the establishment is not tolerable. Someone has to give away, and the someone is not him.
CONFRONTATION RATING (out of 10): 10
[Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki was not my candidate for the post. When we attended the United Nations [in September 2010], there were 3-4 people whose appointment to diplomatic posts I was opposed to [but who had been appointed anyway], defected.
In a meeting, which I cannot say who attended, the decision was made to replace him [Mottaki]. From the day that the decision was made we could not find him because he was always traveling. [Finally] one day we found him and had a meeting. I told him, "In my view you are no longer [Foreign] Minister." You can be appointed as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran [and hence be] a Vice President.
He said that he was going to Senegal. I said, "I did not ask you to go on this trip," because he never coordinated his trips with me. He said, "I'll go to Senegal and will be back on Monday. " I ordered [his removal] on Monday afternoon. Then I said to stop it momentarily because he had not returned, but they [his staff] said that it was too late, as the press had reported it. He had extended his meetings in Senegal and had even asked the Foreign Ministry to arrange other trips for him. But I cannot tell you who told me to remove him [Mottaki]. During the entire five years [that Mottaki was Foreign Minister], I ran the Foreign Ministry. He was not using the experts of the ministry.
They mess things up, and then ask me to correct things. That man [Nategh Nouri] writes in a newspaper that Bahrain belongs to Iran, go and take it over, and then they tell us that our diplomacy is weak.
A footnote, but a telling one. Ahmadinejad is setting out his side of the story over the firing of Mottaki in December 2010, indicating his concern that there are still some critics who want to use the case against him.
The most telling part of the lengthy absolution is Ahmadinejad's contradiction: while presenting him --- defiantly --- as the real power behind Iranian foreign policy, he indicates that the order for dismissal came from someone with more authority than him.
Which, presumably, is the Supreme Leader. And which brings us all the way around this speech: Ahmadinejad's "final confrontation" is not with Ayatollah Khamenei. Rather, this address --- and its dissemination by pro-Ahmadinejad outlets --- is the boldest attempt by the President to date to get the Supreme Leader's support in a showdown with the other heavyweights in the Iranian system.
Those heavyweights include former President Rafsanjani, current Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, and current head of judiciary Sadegh Larijani.
So the final mark is not quite a 10 because, contrary to Sahimi's assumption, this is not Ahmadinejad v. Khamenei. But it is as close as you can get without that final, final confrontation.
OVERALL CONFRONTATION MARK: 9