Ahmadinejad Bows to Khamenei on First Vice President

This issue of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appointment of Esfandiyar Rahim-Masha’i as his first vice president came to a head on Friday. Rahim-Masha’i, the father of Ahmadinejad’s daughter-in-law, had offended the hard liners last year by saying Iranians are friends of the Israeli people (as opposed to the ‘Zionist regime.’)

Ahmadinejad was presumably, by his appointment of Rahim-Masha’i, trying to signal three things.

1. He is not just a puppet of the hard liners, or even of Khamenei (Ahmadinejad portrays himself as a populist standing up to the fat cats and elites on behalf of the little person, a message he could hardly keep on point if he is just a hired gun of . . . the elite).

2. Ahmadinejad is tolerant of Iranian liberals. Rahim-Masha’i has been accused of favoring religious pluralism (saying that all the great religions are true) and of declaring that “Islamism” is outmoded and its era over with (thus he is accused of being a ‘post-Islamist’ in Asaf Bayat’s terminology). The appointment may have aimed at mollifying some of the reformists?

3. Ahmadinejad is not the crackpot on the question of Israel that his opponents in the presidential race, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, had painted him.

Of course, if those were his goals, they were unlikely to be achieved in this way, and now the whole thing has in any case come undone.

The Friday prayers sermon this week was led by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a consummate hard liner. He delivered a no-holds barred attack on the reform movement as undermining both the clerical ideology of the iranian state and the success in cutting Iran off from foreign interference. The USG Open Source Center translated these passages from Iranian radio:

‘The main issue is that Velayat-e Faqih (guardianship of a religious jurisconsult [demand for rule of the top cleric]) is a principle for our people, and the other basic principle for our people is to safeguard the revolution. But there are some individuals who do not want to accept that the vali-e faqih (supreme jurisconsult [cleric]) has the final say. They do not obey the guidelines of the supreme leader. They regard the supreme leader as supportive of a particular faction. They even sometimes make childish remarks. They are nothing, however, compared to the wave of the loyal ummah [Muslim community] who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the leader.

However, the duty of the Friday prayer leader is to give warning. I would like to explicitly say from this podium that our people love vali-e faqih [clerical ruler], and they will hold fast to this banner up to their last breath and the last drop of their blood. (People chanting: “God is great, Khamene’i is the leader, death to those against the vali-e faqih) [clerical ruler] . . .

This is an explicit message to those bat-natured individuals who do not hear this call. This is not just the call of the Friday prayers. We are aware of some private insulting meetings. We are aware of the plots against Velayat (guardianship of a religious jurisconsult). You should know that you do not have the power to stand up to this wave (of people).

. . . You are supporters of Velayat and you will remain supporters of Velayat. . .’

Jannati went on then to another key value of the hard liners, which is xenophobia or keeping Iran isolated from close connections with the Western Powers, on the grounds that when they could, these Powers put the dictatorial Shah on the throne and used him to keep control of Iranian resources such as petroleum. Jannati says,

‘ The second position that the enemy has targeted is the culture of fighting against arrogance [Western hegemonic powers]. This culture has brought us dignity. It has its foundations in the Koran and Islamic traditions. We (God) appointed prophets in every society to worship God and dispel arrogant powers . . .

. . . The imam was the individual who said that America is the great Satan. He taught this to the people.

The 30-year slogan of “down with America” comes from the same teachings. (People chanting: “Down with America”)

Unfortunately, in the past one or two months, some individuals have assaulted this culture. They have broken the taboo of being in touch with foreigners. Some individuals say that for victory they need a social shock, along with a foreign shock — foreign shock means foreigners’ media support for rioters.

One does not know who to share the sadness with when our country’s esteemed intelligence minister provides us with a piece of news. In the past couple of months some headquarters (within the country) have contacted foreign embassies, including the British embassy, more than 100 times. England is the old musty colonialist, the same England that our people have seen nothing from rather than acts of treachery, deceit, and craftiness. What is the objective behind your contacts with foreigners?

(Chants of indistinct slogans in support of the cleric’s remarks)

Some people affiliated with certain political groups have said themselves that they contacted American officials before the (12-June presidential) election to ask them to wait for a government that would come to power after Mr Ahmadinezhad’s to establish relations (with Iran). You wretched people! Is having relations with America a gift that you so anxiously await? America is only and merely seeking its own interests. You wretched people, think of the people (of this country).’

Beyond those two points, Jannati denounced the opposition for plotting to keep society riled because they did not like the outcome of the election. He rejected the reformists’ call for a referendum on the election, insisting that the election was itself the referendum. (The opposition maintains that there was widespread fraud in reporting the election results):

‘ The fifth point is about the power of the Islamic state. Thank God, our Islamic state is powerful and of course it uses this power in the service of the people and promotion of the status of Islam. Unfortunately, some people questioned the power of the Islamic state following the elections. They were disappointed of course, but the harm they caused is still considerable. The blow they dealt to the authority of the state was worse than anything else. And some of them do not let go. Apparently, some people intend to keep the quarrels going for the next four years. They want to play a different tune every day. One day they demand the annulment of elections. When they were disappointed they proposed a referendum to decide the legitimacy of the government. Wake up! The referendum was held, 40 million people came to the scene and elected a president with 24.5 million votes of support. Pay attention! Do not pretend that you are sleeping. The referendum was held. The people’s decision is clear, there is no room for discussion. They want to repeat that this government is illegitimate for the next four years. No, this government is an elected government and, with the grace of God and the endorsement of the leader, will be legitimate and our nation will support this government.

The final point I’ll deal with in Jannati’s sermon is his demand that Ahmadinejad dismiss Rahim-Masha’i. Jannati said that in light of the letter that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s wrote to Ahmadinejad insisting on Rahim-Masha’i's dismissal, Ahmadinejad had an obligation to obey:

‘However, the meaning of legitimacy, or support for an individual, does not mean that the individual is flawless. We have never said that the most qualified candidate (Ahmadinezhad) was flawless. We believe that criticism is a God-given gift. My best brother is the one who presents to me my shortcomings

We still say that with the grace of God and after endorsement by the supreme leader, we regard the government legitimate. We even support the government. But out of love for the president, we asked him to revise his decision on appointing his first vice-president. (People chanting: “God is great, Khamene’i is the leader”)

I wish the president had accepted the friendly criticism by his friends. There is no discussion of getting any concessions or shares (in the government). We want what is good for you (the president). We want you to remain powerful and popular. I wish the honourable president had accepted the friendly criticisms, so that the leader would not have been obliged to make comments in this respect.

Now that the supreme leader has expressed his viewpoint, there is no reason to make any delays. The president should observe the viewpoint of the supreme leader. The legitimacy of everyone in an Islamic society depends on the viewpoint of the vali-e faqih (supreme leader). In view of his good will, I hope that the president would enforce the view of the supreme leader at the earliest.

I think Jannati is hinting around that Ahmadinejad, by defying Khamenei’s order, was himself undermining the clerical ruler, the vali-i faqih or Guardian Jurisprudent. Given the structure of Jannati’s sermon, which began by reaffirming the centrality to the regime of the principle of the supremacy of the clerical ruler. It is that principle that underpinned everything else– the isolation from the West and Iran’s fierce independence, and the affirmation of the legitimacy of the June 12 presidential elections (if the Supreme Leader says the outcome was legitimate, it was legitimate). Since Ahmadinejad owes his legitimacy to the affirmation of the Supreme Leader, it was unwise of him, Jannati implies, to undermine the latter’s authority.

On Friday, Khamenei’s letter was read out on official media, which put Ahmadinejad in much more of a bind than when it was a private affair between the Leader and himself. This is the USG Open Source Center translation from Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran radio.

‘In the name of God,
Dear Dr Ahmadine[j]ad,
The honorable president of the Islamic Republic of Iran,

Greetings,

The appointment of Mr. Esfandiar Rahim-Masha’i as the vice president is to your disadvantage and the government, and it will cause discord and frustration among your supporters. It is necessary to annul the appointment and to announce it as null and void.

(Signed) Seyyed Ali Khamene’i
27/4/88 (as heard, 18 July 2009)’

There were then street demonstrations by hard line supporters of Khamenei denouncing Ahmadinejad.

Then late on Friday, Rahim-Masha’i resigned, a sign that Ahmadinejad had ceased running interference for him.

When this controversy broke, I pointed out that Khamenei has the authority to dismiss Ahmadinejad himself, and to overrule him on virtually any issue, so if he really wanted Rahim-Masha’i gone, he would be gone.

The ever perceptive Kevin Drum at Mother Jones pointed out in response that the situation in Iran is new and unsettled:

‘ Perhaps. But this has gone so far beyond merely a conflict between Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi that it’s hard to say what’s really happening behind the scenes. Khamenei is obviously not the unquestioned authority he was before all this started, and the fact that he’s now being challenged by Ahmadinejad, the very guy he attached his fortunes to in the first place, says something about his position. Or about Ahmadinejad. Or about something else none of us can even guess at. Stay tuned.’

Kevin was correctly pointing out that my statement assumed that Khamenei’s authority remains intact. While that authority has obviously been widely and deeply questioned in the reform camp, as Jannati admitted, in the aftermath of the presidential elections, it clearly remains enough intact with the hard liners that Ahmadinejad had to bow before it.

The up side for Khamenei is that even in his weakened state he won on this point. The down side is that some the people have been chanting ‘down with the dictator,’ and Khamenei has played into their hands by demonstrating himself to be high-handed and to be to the right of Ahmadinejad. The regime’s kabuki-like attention to stylistic details and hierarchies may in the end be making it too brittle to hope to survive in the medium to long term.

End/ (Not Continued)