Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

In Tehran the fight is over money | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Under the Khomeinist regime, Iran’s media have developed a grammar which, if understood, could provide a key to the understanding of one of the weirdest regimes in the modern world.

One rule of this grammar is that no phenomenon could be described in rational terms. Khomeinism, as an ideology based on esoteric mumbo-jumbo, cannot admit the role of reason in shaping events.

That grammar, in which reality is described by abstract labels, might have worked in a primitive tribal society with little scope for conflicting interests and aspirations. Applying it to a complex society such as Iran’s is naïve to say the least.

The newest label put in circulation is that of “deviant tendency.”

It first appeared in 2009 when the daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, used it to attack un-named “enemies of the Islamic Republic.” Readers were told that the “deviant tendency” was plotting against “the holy heritage” of the Imam, a title bestowed on the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

At the time, observers believed that the label was meant for the supporters of former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi who refused to accept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election as president.

Last year, however, the label was used to attack un-named “plotters” who were supposed to be trying to revive Iranian nationalism, along with monarchist traditions, as a rival ideology.

Soon, however, we learned that the “deviant tendency” was present “within the ruling elite, even inside the government.”

Early this year, the attacks became more precise. Readers learned that a “dangerous character”, identified only by his initial as E.M., was the leader of the “deviant tendency”.

That “dangerous character”, we were told, pursued a hidden agenda to push the clergy back into the mosques, purge the Persian language of Arabic words, and revive the Persian Empire.

It took the media controlled by the “Supreme Guide” another six months to identify the mysterious E.M as Esfandiar Masha’i, a charismatic figure regarded as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual guru.

Officially, Masha’i is Ahmadinejad’s Special Advisor and bureau chief. In reality, he seems to be the president’s top strategist.

Until this week, the Iranian media were reporting what looked like a power struggle between Khamenei and Masha’i.

Last Monday, Kayhan pulled the curtain further by referring to “Ahmadinejad’s deviant tendency.”

Although presented as an ideological fight, the conflict may be about mundane matters such as money.

Over the past five years, Ahmadinejad has tried to revive the structures of the state.

Since the revolution, these structures have been either sidelined or dismantled. Their place has been taken by informal structures built around powerful mullahs, sections of the military-security elite, and the so-called “foundations” controlled by the “Supreme Guide”. These informal structures have a clientele of millions and act as the regime’s base of support.

Ahmadinejad’s strategy, presumably worked out by Masha’i, is to circumvent these structures and gradually cut their access to public funds. The goal is to put the clock back to when Iran’s oil income was spent by the government rather than informal and thus unaccountable interest groups.

That the fight is over money is now quite openly reflected in the official media.

The media of the “Supreme Guide” cite a series of cases in which the “deviant tendency” is supposed to be trying to seize control.

In one case, the “deviant tendency” won control of the cultural budget, amounting to around $40 million and tried to use it to repair ancient monuments, organise art festivals, and finance film and theatre productions. After a big fight, the “Supreme Guide” managed to win control of almost half of the budget to be distributed among mullahs and spent on “furthering religious purposes.”

In another case, the “deviant tendency” shut companies controlled by Mojtaba, a son of the “Supreme Guide”, from a $100 million real estate and leisure project on the Kish island. Instead, Iranian-American investors were brought in to help the government realise the project.

In yet another case, the “deviant tendency” created a public-private partnership to gain control of Iran Khodro, the country’s largest automobile manufacturer. Not surprisingly, business circles linked to the “Supreme Guide” were furious.

Another case concerns a trans-national railway line from the Gulf of Oman to Central Asia. Again, the entourage of the “Supreme Guide” have failed to receive a share in the $30 billion project, slated to take a decade to complete.

The “deviant tendency” has also rattled nerves, especially among the 200 or so individuals who owe some $50 billion to government banks. Many of these debtors are powerful mullahs whose support is crucial for sustaining Khamenei’s claim of leadership.

Some mullahs have lost the gold seams they have been working for years.

One ayatollah who monopolised imports of sugar has seen half of his business transferred a government company. Another ayatollah has seen his quota for imports of wheat disappear as the government buys more wheat, at higher price, from domestic farmers.

Ahmadinejad’s most daring coup may be his attempt at gaining control of the oil industry.

He has started by abolishing the Ministry of Petroleum that, over the years, has become an empty shell. Iranian oil industry is controlled by a galaxy of 40 or so companies owned and controlled by powerful clerics and Islamic Revolutionary Guard commanders. The plan is to revive the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) as a state-owned concern dealing with all aspects of the industry.

The fate of such big projects as the gas pipeline to India, initially won by companies linked to the “Supreme Guide”, remains unclear.

At first, Ahmadinejad tried to win the backing of the military against the mullahs. Under an ambitious privatisation programme, he transferred public companies worth $18 billion to the military. More recently, however, the “deviant tendency” has been trying to limit the military’s economic power as well. This could lead to an alliance between businessman-mullahs and businessman-generals against the “deviant tendency”.

Ahmadinejad may have tried do bite more than he could chew. A fight over money is more serious than an ideological quarrel, especially when we are talking of serious money.