Although the Iranian presidential election campaign is not due to open until the end of May, two things are already certain. The campaign has started; and it is unusually dirty. One could expect piles of dirty laundry to be washed in public, affecting major figures of the regime. Even “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi, hitherto kept outside the mud hole, is being dragged in.
The first shot was fired last December when the official Islamic New Agency, controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published a 5000-word article attacking Muhammad Khatami, the former president who has since declared his candidacy in next June’s election.
The article, signed by Payam Fazli-Nejad, claimed that Khatami is at the centre of an international conspiracy to bring the Khomeinist revolution to an end and transform the Islamic Republic into a secular state.
According to Fazli-Nejad, the so-called «Bilderberg Group» hatched the “conspiracy” when Khatami attended one of their annual gatherings in a Portuguese resort. According to Fazli-Nejad, the group is part of the global Freemasonry and represents financial interests and political circles that use it as a “secret government of the world.”
Although Fazli-Nejad’s claim could be dismissed as pure nonsense, they claims found an echo in Iran partly because mullahs have a long history of association with Freemasonry. The Islamist reformer Jamaleddin Asssad-Abadi, known to Arabs as al-Afghani, founded the first Freemason lodge in Iran in the 19th century. Sayyed Hassan Imami, Tehran’s Friday Prayer Leader between 1955 and 1979, presided over another Freemason lodge known as “The Brothers.”
Obviously encouraged by the Office of the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenehi, the author of the article went on to publish a whole book about what he claims are “secret plans to topple the Islamic Republic through soft subversion.”
The book, titled “Knights of the Cultural NATO”, includes a number of photographs and photocopies of supposedly confidential documents revealing the alleged “conspiracies” in which the government of the United States is supposed to have played a major part.
It names most of the active figures of the internal opposition of being involved in the “conspiracy” and, in effect, working for US and other NATO intelligence services. The list of those accused amounts to a who-is-who of politicians, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists who try to oppose the system without breaking with it.
The message of the book is clear: the so-called “reformist” camp is an American Trojan horse, brought in to destroy the Khomeinist system.
Last week, the official news agency in Tehran reported that the book, published by the Kayhan Group, which is controlled by Khamenehi, has run into its 10th edition, becoming a major best seller.
Tehran sources claim that the book’s best-seller status has been engineered by the government with the purchase of thousands of copies for free distribution among civil servants and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In an introduction to the book, Kayhan’s Editor in Chief, Hussein Shariatmadari, claims that it contains “irrefutable evidence of contacts between the bridgeheads of this group with foreign intelligence services”. He seems to ignore that his claim raises a crucial question: if there is “irrefutable evidence”, why haven’t the authorities have brought no charges against those named in the book?
The response of the accused came last week during a meeting at the home of Ayatollah Abdallah Nuri, a former Minister of the Interior and generally considered as the regime’s most serious critic within the Khomeinist establishment. During the meeting, attended by more than 200 “reformist” figures across the board, speaker after speaker denounced the campaign of vilification orchestrated by Khamenehi’s office. One speaker, Hashem Aghjari, a hero of the war against Iraq, went further by denouncing Khamenehi by name and calling for the abolition of the post of “Supreme Guide”.
A few days later, an even graver charge against Khamenehi came a few days later in an attack by Muhammad Sazgara, a former aide to the “Supreme Guide” and one of the first generation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Accused of working for US intelligence, Sazgara claimed that Khamenehi himself has a history of contacts with the KGB, the former Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, and its East German branch known as Stasi.
In an open letter addressed to Khamenehi and published in “reformist” websites, Sazgara claims that his allegations are based on top-secret Stasi documents, made available by the German government for research purposes. According to Sazgara, these documents are being studied by a “young Iranian researcher”, and, once fully analysed, could show that Khamenehi acted as a Soviet agent of influence during a crucial phase in the power struggle in the early years of the revolution.
Sazgara’s allegations may be as fanciful as those of Fazli-Nejad. After all, that Khamenehi was in contact with Soviet officials was no secret at the time. As Deputy Defence Minister at the time, Khamenehi was charged with the task of securing weapons from the USSR at a time that the United States, Iran’s main arms supplier, had imposed an embargo.
The accusations from both sides are important not because they might reflect the truth. They certainly don’t. Khatami is no CIA agent and Khamenehi was not working for the Soviets.
These accusations are important for two reasons.
First, they show that the power struggle may be heading into new and more dangerous directions in which the Marques of Queensbury’s rules would no longer apply.
Secondly, they show that the two camps are unable to fight on the basis of concrete political and economic plans and are using Middle Eastern style personal attacks, and charges of “betrayal” and “working for foreign intelligence” as a substitute. This campaign would see a lot of mud flying. However, what Iran needs is a serious debate about its future at what may be the most dangerous time in its contemporary history.
Amir Taheri’s new book “ The Persian Night: Iran Under The Khomeinist Revolution” has just been published by Encounter Books, New York and London.