Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and virtually the entire conservative Iranian establishment – including leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – have unleashed a political firestorm against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his closest aides. Although the battle lines were drawn many months ago, an unprecedented power struggle erupted into full public view on April 17, when Ahmadinejad summarily fired Heydar Moslehi, Iran’s intelligence minister. An hour later, Khamenei reinstated Moslehi, and the two most powerful men in Tehran began an astonishing test of wills, in which Khamenei – who commands the leadership of the IRGC, the armed forces and the paramilitary Basij, and who has the loyalty of the largest bloc of conservatives in Iran’s parliament – holds most of the cards.
Within weeks, Ahmadinejad was engaged in a rearguard struggle to hold on, in the face of impeachment threats, a media onslaught, and charges from some of Iran’s most powerful cleric that he and his aides had abandoned the central principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran, namely, clerical supremacy.
The conflict, according to Iran analysts, revolves principally around manoeuvring in advance of next year’s parliamentary elections, in which conservatives loyal to Khamenei plan to isolate and weaken Ahmadinejad. Beyond that, at stake is the presidential election in 2013, where Khamenei is seeking to block an attempt by Ahmadinejad to run a favourite aide to succeed him as president. While it’s by no means clear that Ahmadinejad can maintain his grip on power much longer, the turmoil in Iran also has direct implications for Iran’s relationship with the United States, the West, and the rest of the P5+1 powers who are seeking to restart negotiations with Tehran over its controversial nuclear enrichment programme.
And to the extent that there are ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in Iranian politics when it comes to the nuclear issue, in this case the doves are actually centred in the Ahmadinejad camp.
Since the presidential election in June, 2009, when Ahmadinejad emerged victorious amid widespread charges of fraud, he has consistently tried to outmanoeuvre Khamenei, seeking to accumulate power in the president’s office. Khamenei, meanwhile, has repeatedly clipped Ahmadinejad’s wings. In 2009, when Ahmadinejad sought to install a close ally, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, as first vice president, Khamenei blocked Mashaei’s appointment. Although Ahmadinejad responded by naming Mashaei to the position of presidential chief-of-staff, Mashaei has since emerged as a lightning rod in the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been close friends and allies for three decades, since they served together in local government in West Azerbaijan in the early 1980s. Ahmadinejad’s son is married to Mashaei’s daughter. And there are reports that Ahmadinejad is grooming Mashaei to succeed him as president in 2013.
There are persistent reports that Mashaei has been Ahmadinejad’s point man in an effort to reach out to the United States. In early May, writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius reported: ‘In recent months, Mashaei is said to have initiated a series of contacts attempting to open a dialogue with the United States.’ Added Ignatius, who has impeccable sources within the US intelligence community, ‘Sources say Mashaei has sent multiple signals that he wants to meet with American representatives.’ According to one close observer of Iranian affairs, Mashaei recently paid a quiet visit to Amman, Jordan, to explore whether King Abdullah might be able to serve as a go-between for Iran and the United States, and Mashaei extended an invitation to the king to go to Tehran to explore the idea. But Khamenei, sources say, nixed the visit.
In the past, Mashaei and other aides to Ahmadinejad have participated in behind-the-scenes, Track Two contacts with former US diplomats and disarmament experts, in search of a formula to end the US-Iran impasse, going back at least five years.
It isn’t surprising that Khamenei might be uneasy about Ahmadinejad’s outreach efforts to the United States, because were Ahmadinejad able to strike a deal with Washington, his political standing inside Iran would likely be bolstered significantly. Back in October, 2009, when Ahmadinejad endorsed the deal struck in Geneva to ship the bulk of Iran’s enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing, Khamenei and his allies killed it. They did so in part because Khamenei is more bitterly opposed to reconciliation with the Great Satan than the pragmatic Ahmadinejad, but also because the supreme leader fears the political boost Ahmadinejad might get from a successful accord.
One week after the firing and reinstatement of the intelligence minister in April, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei held a tense meeting in which Khamenei warned the president that he would be forced to resign unless be bent to the Khamenei’s will. Morteza Agha-Tehrani, Ahmadinejad’s ‘moral adviser’ and a member of parliament, said that Ahmadinejad had been given a ‘deadline’ to ‘either accept (Moslehi’s reinstatement) or resign.’ When Ahmadinejad mulled resigning, Khamenei replied: ‘Do so if you wish.’ For nearly two weeks, Ahmadinejad disappeared from public view. When he returned, it seemed as if he had capitulated, and he presided over a Cabinet meeting with the reinstated minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi.
According to one report, Ahmadinejad and Mashaei wanted to fire Moslehi because the ministry of intelligence was conducting a campaign of surveillance against aides in the president’s office, including Mashaei. Soon after, one by one, members of Ahmadinejad’s circle were arrested, 29 in all. In parliament, nearly a hundred conservatives signed a letter in an effort to haul Ahmadinejad before the body for questioning, and prominent members of parliament, including Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, started murmuring about impeachment. Another high-profile conservative, Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran, openly entertained the idea that he was willing to take over if Ahmadinejad were forced out of office.
Following Ahmadinejad’s electoral coup in 2009, there was widespread speculation among Iran-watchers that Ahmadinejad had built a ruling coalition based on the IRGC and the Basijis, the militiamen who put down the Green Movement’s revolt. Through the fog of Iran’s notoriously murky political haze, it appeared as if Ahmadinejad might have an edge over Khamenei by virtue of his support from the IRGC. One strand of conventional wisdom about Iran concluded that the influence of Khamenei, and of the clergy, was in decline, and that Iran was becoming a more secular, traditional authoritarian state with a dominant military elite under Ahmadinejad. But in the current tug-of-war, the IRGC and the Basijis have decisively backed Khamenei. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, has warned that ‘the deviant (Ahmadinejad) current has infiltrated the regime, hiding behind a popular figure.’
Bizarrely, Khamenei’s allies have accused Ahmadinejad of engaging in sorcery, witchcraft, and mystical beliefs, and they’ve accused the president of seeking to overthrow the doctrine of ‘rule of the jurisprudent’ (velayat-e faqih), the core doctrine proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, that the leader of the Islamic Republic must be an elite member of the clergy. Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who was Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, backed Khamenei, accusing Mashaei of ‘bewitching’ Ahmadinejad, adding, ‘There’s something unnatural in this matter.’ Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a leading conservative member of parliament, accused Ahmadinejad of seeking to create a direct link between himself and the Hidden Imam, the last of the Prophet Mohammad’s successors whose return will signal the end of the world:
‘There is this deviant faction and I don't know if they even follow the laws of Islam. Most of them are followers of mysticism and Sufism. They claim that if they can directly connect to the Hidden Imam, then there is no need for intermediaries.’
And through intermediaries, Bahonar was referring to Khamenei, who he described as ‘the Hidden Imam’s deputy.’ Mojteba Zonnour, Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC, added: ‘Ahmadinejad has a special love for Mashaei. These people do not believe in velayat-e faqih and preach an Islam without the clergy.’
Though wildly exaggerated, and mixed with fanciful religious conspiracy theories, Khamenei’s partisans aren’t completely wrong when the argue that Ahmadinejad is seeking to undermine clerical rule. Since his re-election, Ahmadinejad has sought to put forward a more nationalist perspective. He’s rehabilitated some of Iran’s pre-Islamic history, bringing back the famous Cyrus Cylinder from London for an exhibition in Tehran. His allies have spoken of an ‘Iranian Islam.’ And he’s invited heads of state to a lavish event in Persepolis for the celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian new year. And Khamenei’s allies aren’t wrong, either, when they accuse Ahmadinejad of touting a special relationship with the Hidden Imam, which Ahmadinejad has done in part to stimulate a kind of populist religion that might indeed short-circuit Iran’s need for a supreme leader as the Hidden Imam’s intermediary.
But despite his setback, Ahmadinejad is fighting back. In May, he ousted the powerful minister of oil and took the portfolio for himself, and he’s announced several other unilateral shakeups in the Cabinet, too. The smart money is on Khamenei, and it’s possible that in the very near future Ahmadinejad could be impeached or forced to resign. But the longer he holds on, the weaker Khamenei looks. If Ahmadinejad can withstand the withering fire directed against him in the media and by leading politicians, with each passing day he looks more like a survivor.
Of course, it’s far too difficult for the United States and other outside powers to try to game the internal struggle within Iran. But in Washington, US officials are certainly paying attention. In a speech in early May, at a gathering organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, addressed the issue obliquely. ‘As you might expect, we now see fissures developing among the ruling class (in Iran),’ Donilon said. Those fissures, he said, ‘reflect a fundamental question, whether Iran has the confidence to engage the outside world.’ After the speech, Donilon said that his remarks did indeed refer to the possibility that some in Iran’s ruling elite might be struggling internally to break Iran’s diplomatic isolation through talks with the United States and the P5 + 1.
In the past, however, from President Jimmy Carter’s feckless efforts to pick favourites in Iran’s post-1979 revolutionary government to President Ronald Reagan’s stumbling search for Iranian moderates in the 1980s Iran-contra affair, American attempts to outsmart Iranian politics have run aground. For Obama, who began his administration by reaching out to Iran, it might be best to take the long view, keeping the door open for talks while awaiting the outcome of Iran’s turmoil.