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Entries in Muhammad Sahimi (2)


Iran: Or Is It the Supreme Leader v. the Revolutionary Guard?

The Latest from Iran (28 July): The Government Crumbles
Iran: Will the Supreme Leader Give Up Ahmadinejad?

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KHAMENEIJAFARIWe began this morning with an analysis of the relationship between the Supreme Leader and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking if Ayatollah Khamenei would stand by or jettison his President. Muhammad Sahimi of Tehran Bureau, drawing from a source, sees another, possibly bigger battle: the Supreme Leader v. the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Showdown between Khamenei and IRGC?

Two important developments over the past few days suggest a possible confrontation in the near future between Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, and the high command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

One development was the order issued by Ayatollah Khamenei overruling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as his First Vice President (Iran’s president has eight vice presidents). The second, firing ultra hardliner Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, the Minister of Intelligence.

A reliable source in Tehran told the author that both episodes were meant to be signals by the IRGC’s high command to Ayatollah Khamenei that they were in control, and that he should toe the line — their line. According to the source, Ayatollah’s Khamenei’s order to fire Mashaei was delivered to the Voice and Visage (VaV) of the Islamic Republic (Iran’s national radio and television network) on the day Mashaei was appointed by Ahmadinejad. The VaV was asked to announce the order on national television and radio, but Ezzatollah Zarghami, the director of VaV and a former officer in the IRGC, refused to do so.

As if to make sure that the Ayatollah got the message loud and clear, it took Ahmadinejad one week to relent and go along with the order. And it was only then that the VaV broadcast the Ayatollah’s order. When he did accept the order, Ahmadinejad sent the Supreme Leader a terse and very formal letter, devoid of the usual praises that his past letters to Ayatollah Khamenei have carried. The letter was considered by many supporters of the Ayatollah as a total insult; but also a clear signal. In order to further demonstrate his defiance, Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei, a close relative and friend, as his chief of staff and special adviser.

According to the source, Ejehei was fired because he was reporting to the Supreme Leader without first letting Ahmadinejad know. He had reportedly said that the Intelligence Ministry had concluded that the accusations by the IRGC high command, that the demonstrations after the election were linked to foreign powers and represented a “velvet revolution,” were baseless. He had also reportedly said that the demonstrations had neither been planned in advance, nor could they have been predicted. Finally, the Intelligence Ministry is said to have reported that Mashaei, as well as Hossein Taeb, a cleric who is the commander of the Basij militia, represented security risks. The report apparently countered all the accusations made by the IRGC high command.

There is a precedent that helps explain why Ejehei may have been put aside. In the spring of 2008, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Ahmadinejad’s first Interior Minister, was also fired after he submitted a report to Ayatollah Khamenei about the elections for the 8th Majles (parliament) without Ahmadinejad’s knowledge. In that report, Pourmohammadi reported irregularities committed by Ahmadinejad’s backers. When Ahmadinejad found out about the report, he fired Pourmohammadi almost immediately.

According to the source, Ayatollah Khamenei had also ordered the closure of one of the jails, one in which the demonstrators and some of the leading reformist leaders are being kept; but the order has been ignored by the intelligence and security unit of the IRGC, which runs the prison. Saeed Jalili, Secretary-General of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, confirmed the Ayatollah’s order for the closure of a jail. Apparently, after the initial order was ignored, it was sent to the Council. While the source did not specify the prison, it might be the Kahrizak prison on the southern edge of Tehran near the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery.

The prison is usually used to hold common criminals and narcotics traffickers, but there have been credible reports indicating that many people arrested in the post-election roundup have also been imprisoned there. Ejehei had apparently complained to Ayatollah Khamenei that the Intelligence Ministry had lost control over those arrested, and that the IRGC unit had taken control of the matter.

There is much speculation about Ejehei’s successor. According to Iranian law, the head of the Ministry of Intelligence must be a mojtahed (an Islamic scholar), and hence, a cleric. It will be interesting to see how Ahmadinejad navigates that one — finding a qualified cleric whose first loyalty is to him and the IRGC high command.

The author’s source also told him that the top commanders of the IRGC are firmly behind Ahmadinejad in his struggle to wrest full control of the government away from the clerics. But, the rank and file of the IRGC is divided into two main groups. The first group supports the reformist movement and remains silent for now (or perhaps it has been forced into silence). The second group is divided. One group is behind Ahmadinejad and the high command of the IRGC; they believe that the clerics should be purged from the government, and that Ayatollah Khamenei should be transformed into an ineffective and irrelevant figurehead. Others in the second group believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is Ma’soom (free of sin, from a religious perspective) and a deputy to Mahdi, the Shiites’ hidden 12th Imam who is supposed to come back some day to rid the world of injustice and corruption. Members of this group believe that obedience to Ayatollah Khamenei is their duty.

According to the source, Hossein Saffar Harandi, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and a former officer in the IRGC, belongs to this group and was forced to resign, after he protested the appointment of Mashaei as First VP. Officially, Saffar Harandi is still part of the cabinet, because if he is formally sacked, the Constitution requires Ahmadinejad to seek a vote of confidence from Majlis since he has replaced half of his cabinet during his four-year term. Since his first term will expire in about 10 days, however, Ahmadinejad does not want the issue before Majles for a vote.

According to a second reliable source in Tehran, seven of Ahmadinejad’s ministers, including Saffar Harandi and Ejehei, wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei last week complaining about their boss and supporting Khamenei to sack Mashaei. It is widely believed that Ahmadinejad intends to fire the remaining five after he begins his second disputed term. The author already reported on two of the five ministers to be fired.

That the IRGC high command may wish to purge the government of clerics is no surprise. In addition to the fact that the IRGC did the bulk of the fighting with Iraq and eliminated the internal opposition to the political establishment in the 1980s, the IRGC has also been guarding and protecting the high-ranking clerics for the past three decades. Therefore, the IRGC has full knowledge of their secret wheeling and dealings. Privy to information on these cases of corruption and nepotism among clerics, their relatives and aids, the IRGC it like the Sword of Damocles over their heads.

When last year, Abbas Palizdar, an ally of Ahmadinejad, spoke of 123 cases of corruption among the clerics and their families, many interpreted that as a clear attempt by Ahmadinejad and his supporters to push most of the clerics out of power. Palizdar was later jailed and Ahmadinejad disowned him. But he was recently released from prison after posting a $300,000 bail. My sources in Tehran told me that the joke there was that after Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s Friday Prayer sermon of July 17, calling for the release of political prisoners, the hardliners released Palizadar!

Ayatollah Khamenei himself has played a major role in the rise of the IRGC. When Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 by a landslide, a group of reformist leaders met with the supreme leader and asked him to heed the nation’s message of such a victory. In order to leave a credible legacy behind and save a political system in which had had played an important role, they advised the supreme leader to personally take a lead in the reform of the system. Not only did Ayatollah Khamenei refuse to do so, he more closely sided with the hardliners who were trying to gut the Khatami administration. It got to the point that when Khatami was president, he complained that the hardliners were creating a crisis for the country every nine days.

In 2005, after Khatami had to leave office after a second term, Ahmadinejad was elected president with the support of Ayatollah Khamenei. But practically from Day 1, Ahmadinejad began attacking many clerics in the name of fighting corruption. Ayatollah Khamenei continued to throw his support behind Ahmadinejad, presumably because he believed Ahmadinejad could force out his competitor Rafsanjani, his competitor in the power struggle.

Even when Rafsanjani wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei a few days before the election and warned him about possible fraud, the Ayatollah did not take any significant action. It is widely rumored that he told Rafsanjani that “Ahmadinejad’s defeat is my defeat.”

On Tuesday June 16, four days after the election, when the country was in deep crisis due to the huge demonstrations that had erupted, Ayatollah Khamenei summoned to his office representatives of all the presidential candidates, as well as members of the Expediency Council and the staff of the Interior Ministry, which supervises the election, in order to seek a solution to the crisis. Two people in that meeting, former Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri (representing Mahdi Karroubi, one of the two reformist candidates), and former Oil Minister, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, proposed that the problem be referred to the Expediency Council. But, Ayatollah Khamenei refused.

Instead, on June 19, during his Friday Prayer sermon, the Ayatollah threatened the Iranian nation and the reformists. When the next day demonstrations erupted again and many young people were killed, many Iranians held the Ayatollah (justifiably) responsible for the bloodshed. According to the author’s sources in Tehran, the high command of the IRGC recognized that the responsibility for the bloodshed would be squarely on the Ayatollah and therefore persuaded him to take a hard line. According to the same sources, the thinking of the high command of the IRGC is that, among conservative voters, Ahmadinejad is far more popular than Ayatollah Khamenei, and that therefore, the Ayatollah has trapped himself and has no clear way out of the difficult situation that he himself has created. This allows the IRGC high command to marginalize him.

What is not clear is the role of Mojtaba Khamenei, the Ayatollah’s son. Mojtaba is believed to be close to the high command of the IRGC. Will he be purged as well? Will the IRGC consider him as irrelevant, now that they have achieved their goal of “re-electing” Ahmadinejad? Or, does he have a role in any of this?

Ahmadinejad’s “re-election” is supposed to be confirmed by Ayatollah Khamenei on August 4, and he will take the oath of office in the Majles the next day. The next 10 days will be every bit as critical as they will be intriguing.

Iran: Scott Lucas Audio Interview with Fintan Dunne

The Latest from Iran (1 July): The Opposition Regroups

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Fintan Dunne, a freelance journalist who has already spoken with Professor Muhammad Sahimi of Tehran Bureau and with Professor Hamid Dabashi, was one of the most demanding interviews I've done recently but also one of the most rewarding, covering both the immediate and long-term conflicts and possibilities in the Iranian situation.