Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once said: “There are a thousand reasons to admire [Esfandiar] Rahim Mashaei. He is as pure as a spring. Whenever you sit and talk to him, you feel that there is no distance between you. For me, he is like a mirror. Unfortunately, the majority do not know him well.”
Today an overt battle is taking place in Tehran between the pillars of governance. News reports are conveying a sense of division between the Supreme Leader of Iran Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. The latter isolated himself [from the cabinet] for a week in protest at the pressure brought to bear by the Supreme Leader with regards the re-installation of former Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi [who had previously been sacked by Ahmadinejad]. A lot of the controversy is focused on the manner in which what is happening is being portrayed. Some observers believe that the Supreme Leader – with evident support from the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – has cut President Ahmadinejad down to size, especially after the Iranian president has recently become more determined to expanding his authority and popularity, at the expense of the conservative forces that supported his re-election. Whilst others believe that the latest developments reflect the discomfort felt by Iran’s jurists and scholars, with regards to the statements issued by, and the attitude of, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the President’s brother-in-law and Chief-of-Staff. Here we must refer to the displeasure of many conservative figures in parliament and the security apparatus towards Mashaei’s interference in their work, as well as his promotion of destructive ideologies and his exploitation of hadiths about the return of the Hidden Imam, “Al-Mahdi al-Muntathar” [the awaited Mahdi], and his attempting to link this [the return of the hidden imam] to the policies of President Ahmadinejad.
Mashaei has also issued controversial statements in the past, previously proclaiming that “there is no hostility of any kind between the Iranian people and both the American and Israeli peoples. The disagreement exists only with the governments.” On another occasion, he reported said “True Islam exists nowhere else except Iran. Without Iran, there is no Islam.” As for his statements relating to the imminent return of the Hidden Imam, there are countless examples of this, and the residents of Tehran can recall that Mashaei once proposed a construction project to welcome the return of the hidden Imam during Ahmadinejad’s term as Mayor of Tehran, where he served as his assistant. Mashaei’s controversial behavior compelled the Supreme Leader to twice ask President Ahmadinejad to dismiss him: firstly following the presidential elections in July 2009, when Mashaei was appointed First Vice-President for less than a week before being removed. The second request for his dismissal came last month, when contention reached its climax between Mashaei and a number of governors who believed that President Ahmadinejad is preparing to nominate Mashaei in the upcoming presidential elections – something alluded to by a WikiLeaks cable – in an exchange of roles similar to that between [Dmitri] Medvedev and [Vladimir] Putin. These events placed pressure on Ahmadinejad, who hunted down and imprisoned some of his closest aides on charges ranging from witchcraft to affiliation with the hard-line “Hojjatieh society” which rejects the Wilayat al-Faqih [Guardian of the Jurists] principle, as well as other accusations of financial corruption.
But is Mashaei the reason for the disagreement between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad? And is there actually a dispute between the two?
We don’t have to believe all the stories being broadcast by the media about the Supreme Leader or the conservatives who surround him. At first glance, it might seem there is some truth in what is being said. There might be an organized plan to remove Ahmadinejad, for some of the reasons mentioned above; however the reasons now being put forward for the distortion of Ahmadinejad’s image were clearly present as far back as two years ago, so why has this dispute exploded now?
There are three key observations:
Firstly, this is not the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic that a president has been accused of defying the Supreme Leader’s decisions, or trying to expand the powers of this elected office [the presidency] against the non-elected position of the Guardian of the Jurist. Whenever there is a political conflict in Iran, the president’s opponents and rivals always try to put him in a position of conflict with the Supreme Leader, and spread rumors about his defiance of the powers of the Guardian of the Jurist. In 1981, a campaign was launched against former Iranian President Abulhassan Banisadr on account of his planning to eliminate the power of the Wilayat al-Faqih and the mullahs, and in June 1981 Banisadr was stripped of his army command and then impeached and deposed. The same thing happened with Grand Ayatollah [Hussein-Ali] Montazeri, and we saw the conservatives – led by [Supreme Leader] Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Ahmed al-Khomeini – join together to prevent him from succeeding the then Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Whilst in 1989, then Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi was accused of hostilely opposing some clerics, before the post of prime minister was abolished in favor of the presidential institution. The same thing happened with former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was accused of compromising the principles of the revolution, and by mid-1993 many of his supporters were being pursued and eliminated, making it difficult for them to run for elected office later on. The same thing has also been said about [Sayyid Mohammed] Khatami, in his battle with the Supreme Leader’s supporters, following the infamous 1999 student protests. During this incident, the Supreme Leader made President Khatami choose between resigning or denouncing the students and criminalizing the protests, which is precisely what he did, denouncing the youth who were the main force behind his election.
Secondly, the Supreme Leader’s office has always served as the balance between rival powers within the governing establishment, although, in most cases, the Guardian of the Jurists has tended to side with the more conservative and hard-line powers within the establishment. The Guardian of the Jurists has always been keen to ensure that he was in control of the political scene; however some regarded his siding with Ahmadinejad following the 2009 presidential elections to be a great risk, namely the supporting of a president with hard-line fundamentalist tendencies who was rejected by the electorate. The apparent truth is that the Supreme Leader is primarily concerned with his status and prestige, and he will always bet on those who blindly believe in the concept of the Wilayat al-Faqih. What has now become clear is that the Supreme Leader is no longer so capable or eager to defend Ahmadinejad during this time when the conservative camp is witnessing sharp division. In fact, the Supreme Leader does not mind censuring or even forcing Ahmadinejad to resign, because ultimately his goal is to secure the conservative front and replace Ahmadinejad, who has now become a liability, in order to ensure that his allies do not lost the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2012, or the presidential elections scheduled for 2013.
Thirdly, we always have to remember that Iran, ever since the outbreak of the revolution in 1979, has been experiencing an atmosphere of political dissention and fierce competition between ambitious clerics on the one hand, and enthusiastic youths believing in an Islamic solution on the other. Those youths make up the backbone of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and political life, in general. Ahmadinejad might have achieved unparalleled popularity among the ranks of the devout poorer classes, but Iran is a country overwhelmed by a radical religious culture where the upper hand lies with supporters of the Islamist current and politicized Mullahs. For this reason, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s agenda may prove popular thanks to its exploitation of sectarianism, sense of patriotism, and provocative policies against the West and Gulf States, for in a country that is rife with superstitious ideas – in the same manner as the rest of the Sunni Arab states – where national prejudice against the “other” prevails, success is contingent upon one’s ability to play on the strings of populism. However, we must also not forget that the religious current in Iran is extensive and pluralistic, and internal clashes are common. There are extremists and ultra-extremists, even within the right-wing.
There can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad feels bitter that the Supreme Leader has turned his back on him. Ahmadinejad has been one of the Supreme Leader’s staunchest supporters, but he now realizes that his rivals in the conservative camp have managed to marginalize him and win over the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad is aware that they have convinced Khamenei to sacrifice him in the near future, and all the hard-line policies that he adopted, domestically and abroad, have not been able to certain.
What is certain is that Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, over the past three decades, has demonstrated a shrewd Machiavellianism. Politically speaking, he has been the most cunning, the most able of getting rid of his rivals and opponents at the decisive moment. He has stolen a march on all of them, never hesitating to sacrifice his own men should the political calculations force him to do so. This is what Ahmadinejad has failed to comprehend.