Farhang Jahanpour writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
The tug of war between Supreme Leader Khamene’i and President Ahmadinejad
Despite the political turmoil and subsequent crackdowns in Iran since summer, 2009, seeming unity among the hardliners who rule the country was largely preserved. Recently, however, the façade of unity between Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been totally shattered and deep hostility between them has come to the fore.
Following the fraudulent presidential election in June 2009 that led to unprecedented nationwide demonstrations by the Iranian people demanding that their votes be respected, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i put his full support behind Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and with incredible brutality suppressed the demonstrations. The supporters of Khamene’i and Ahmadinejad labelled the uprising as “sedition” instigated by foreigners. In the course of the demonstrations that ensued, dozens were killed and hundreds were arrested and tortured, many of whom still remain in jail.
Those events created a major rift between the extreme right-wing elements around the leader and the president on the one hand, and the reformist and even more moderate conservative figures on the other. Those events marginalized Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the two-term president and the two-term speaker of the Iranian Parliament [the Majlis], who was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran only after the supreme leader. A few weeks ago, he lost his post as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which has the task of selecting the new leader when the present leader dies or is incapacitated. After his last sermon in July 2009, describing the situation as a crisis and calling for the freeing of political prisoners and for some form of reconciliation with the reformers, he was prevented from preaching any more sermons at the televised Tehran Friday prayers, although since Ayatollah Khomeyni’s time he had been the main Friday Imam of Tehran.
Pro-Khamene’i mobs attacked the office of the late Grand Ayatollah Hoseyn Ali Montazeri, who had been Khomeyni’s designated heir before he was dropped shortly prior to Khomeyni’s death, and who had supported Musavi. Mobs attacked the house of another leading Grand Ayatollah Yusef Sane’i, and they even disrupted a speech by Ayatollah Khomeyni’s grandson at his grandfather’s shrine and prevented him from continuing his speech.
The root of the current problem between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad lies in a struggle for power between the two. The open disagreement started over Ahmadinejad’s appointment of his close friend and his son’s father-in-law Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i to the post of first vice-president shortly after the start of his second presidential term.
During his time as the head of the Tourism Organization during Ahmadinejad’s first term as president, Masha’i had become the object of a great deal of controversy. He had been present at a cultural ceremony in Turkey in December 2005 at which women had performed a traditional dance, and he was strongly criticised for that. In 2008, Masha’i hosted a ceremony in Tehran in which several women played tambourines while another carried the Koran to a podium to recite verses from the Muslim holy book. Hard-liners viewed the festive mood as disrespectful to the Koran.
Masha’i faced even harsher criticism following his remarks about the Israeli people. Speaking at a conference on tourism in Tehran, he said: “No nation in the world is our enemy. Today, Iran is friends with the people of America and Israel and this is an honour.” His remarks created an outcry among conservatives who criticised such an unprecedented stance towards Israel. Masha’i rejected all criticism and said: “I am proud of what I said and I am not going to correct myself… I would like to announce for the thousandth time, and stronger than before, that we are friends with all peoples of the world, even the people of America and Israel.” Instead of distancing himself from those remarks, Ahmadinejad defended his friend, adding: “Masha’i’s words reflected the government’s stance. It is very clear. Our people do not have any problem with other nations.”
Ignoring all that criticism, Ahmadinejad appointed Masha’i as his first vice-president after the controversial presidential election. Ayatollah Khamene’i opposed that appointment and told the president to reverse the decision. Ahmadinejad ignored the Supreme Leader’s orders for many days. There was a row at the cabinet meeting on 22 July 2010 over the rejection of the supreme leader’s order to the president. In response, Ahmadinejad dismissed a number of ministers who had disagreed with him, including the then Minister of Intelligence Mohseni-Ezhe’i.
As a matter of tradition in the Islamic Republic, the appointment and dismissal of key ministers, including ministers of intelligence, foreign affairs, defense (in charge of the military) and interior (in charge of the police) are carried out in agreement with the supreme leader. However, on that occasion, Khamene’i did not openly object to the dismissal of the minister of intelligence, but insisted on his stance over Masha’i, only to be ignored by the president, until the letter by Khamene’i to Ahmadinejad calling on him directly to sack Masha’i was read out on national television, forcing the president’s hand. Now, Ahmadinejad had no option but to give in to the leader’s demand, but he immediately appointed Masha’i as the chief of staff in the president’s office, hardly a less influential position.
A few weeks ago, a series of documentary films were released called “The Reappearance is Near.” The films referred to the reappearance of the Hidden Imam who according to the Shi’is went into hiding as a child and who will return in the Last Days to crush the enemies of Islam and to establish a reign of justice and peace. A number of people will supposedly accompany the Hidden Imam on his return. The films openly stated that President Ahmadinejad is the embodiment of Shu’ayb bin Salih, one of the saintly figures who will accompany the Hidden Imam. This would give the president a special place above all the ruling clerics as a special companion of the Hidden Imam. In fact, the president frequently takes the entire cabinet to pray next to a well near Qom, from where the Hidden Imam is supposed to emerge. He also starts all his speeches, including the ones that he has delivered at the United Nations, with a prayer for the speedy return of the Hidden Imam.
Those films have understandably created a great deal of controversy among the clerics who see Ahmadinejad usurping their privileged spiritual position, as the true representatives of the Hidden Imam and the interpreters of Islamic teachings. Masha’i has been accused of having been the mastermind behind the creation of those films, a charge that he has denied. However, during the past few days, some of those who were involved in the production of the film have been arrested and accused of spreading superstition and undermining the position of the Hidden Imam.
Two other issues that have further deepened the rift between Khamene’i and Ahmadinejad have been the dismissal of Manuchehr Mottaki, the former foreign minister, due to his criticisms of Masha’i’s meddling in the affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Again, without consulting Khamene’i, Ahmadinejad appointed the former director of Iranian nuclear energy, Ali Akbar Salehi, as the new foreign minister. On that occasion too Khamene’i decided that silence was the best option.
Those moves emboldened Ahmadinejad, and so two weeks ago, he dismissed the new Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. Various Iranian sources have reported that allegedly Moslehi was secretly recording the telephone conversations of Masha’i and other government ministers. However, the problem goes deeper than that. The next Iranian parliamentary election is due to be held in March 2012, followed by the next presidential election in June 2013. Ahmadinejad has been trying to groom Masha’i as the next president so that his legacy will continue.
Many pro-government websites in Iran have compared the relationship between Ahmadinejad and Masha’i to that between the former Russian President Vladimir Putin and his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev. If Masha’i could succeed Ahmadinejad, there is a chance that Ahmadinejad could run again after Masha’i’s term. However, the qualifications of the candidates both for Majlis and presidential elections should be approved by the Guardian Council, which acts partly on the recommendation of the minister of intelligence. Therefore, the reports prepared by the minister of intelligence are crucial for the success or failure of any presumptive candidates.
This is where the rivalry between the president and the Supreme Leader assumes very serious dimensions, because it involves the future course of the Islamic Republic.
This time, Khamene’i objected to Moslehi’s dismissal, but as usual Ahmadinejad ignored his advice. This forced the leader to go over the president’s head and in a letter to Moslehi he reinstated him to his post. This overt interference in the president’s prerogatives incensed Ahmadinejad, and in protest he refused to attend any cabinet meetings for eight days, and cancelled a pre-planned visit by the entire cabinet to Qom province. After over a week’s absence, Ahmadinejad took part in two cabinet meetings but he prevented Moslehi from taking part in them. He also did not attend an important religious ceremony convened by Khamene’i on Friday 6 May, but significantly with Moslehi in attendance. Two preachers speaking in those ceremonies in Khamene’i’s presence openly attacked the president. The main speaker, Ayatollah Kazem Sadiqi, pointedly said: “We did not expect that a person who during the [presidential] election used the religious groups and mosques as his propaganda bases and who also claimed to be the follower of Vali-ye Amr [Khamene’i] to behave like this.” He added: “I am informed that even Mr Ahmadinejad’s closest friends and colleagues are intensely upset and unhappy at his behaviour.”
Some of his former supporters, including the influential Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, have launched savage attacks on Ahmadinejad telling him that disobedience to the Supreme Leader would lead to his dismissal. Mesbah-Yazdi said: “Opposing the Vali-e Faqih [Khamene’i] is the same as opposing the Holy Imams (peace be upon them), and according to some traditions it is at the level of attributing partners to God”, which is regarded as the most grievous sin in Islam.
When some of Ahmadinejad’s friends said that the relationship between him and the Supreme Leader is like the relationship between a father and a son, Ayatollah Khamene’i’s representative at the Revolutionary Guards rejected that analogy, and said that the relationship between him and the leader should be that of a slave and a master, a pupil and a teacher, and a king and a subject. He has no right even to question the orders of the leader, let alone reject them.
Another influential clergyman Ayatollah Abolqasem Khaz’ali, a member of the Guardian Council, referring to Ahmadinejad’s boast that he was elected by the people, said: “… if someone receives not 20 million but 40 million votes, without the leader’s endorsement those votes have no value and are just a number of zeroes.” He said that only the leader’s backing would put a figure in front of those zeroes.
According to the reports of various news agencies in Tehran, a few nights ago Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the influential secretary of the Guardian Council, visited Mahmud Ahmadinejad and asked him to obey the leader. In a hostile mood, Ahmadinejad replied: “I owe nothing to the leader that I should give in!” He went on to say that first of all, he had managed to put an end to the power of the reformers. Secondly, he was the person who had persisted with the nuclear program despite universal opposition. Thirdly, he had carried out difficult economic reforms and implemented the project on targeted subsidies that nobody had been able to undertake before. He complained that the only power that he had was to appoint and dismiss ministers and Khamene’i had taken that power from him too.
On Thursday evening, 28 April 2011, again Ayatollah Jannati and Dr Ali Larijani (the Majles speaker) had decided to meet with Ahmadinejad to mediate between him and the leader, but he had refused to receive them. Most ominously for Ahmadinejad, the commander of the revolutionary guards has also come out strongly on the side of Ayatollah Khamene’i, reminding Ahmadinejad of the fate of the first Iranian President Bani-Sadr who was dismissed by Ayatollah Khomeyni shortly after the revolution.
This is certainly the biggest challenge facing Ahmadinejad and one of the most serious challenges facing Khamene’i. It was assumed that the president enjoyed the backing of the revolutionary guards, in which he had served during the Iran-Iraq war. However, it seems that the revolutionary guards are more inclined to back the supreme leader. With the support of powerful revolutionary guards and the overwhelming majority of the top clerics, Khamene’i is in a much stronger position than his appointed president. Knowing the unpopularity of the clerics among the vast majority of Iranians Ahmadinejad had calculated that they would ultimately back him against the dictatorial supreme leader, but that remains to be seen.
Ahmadinejad seems to have three options, either to resign and go quietly, or to stand up to Khamene’i and face a major and probably a bloody showdown, or finally to swallow his pride, remain in office but continue to oppose Khamene’i’s policies. In any case, the Islamic Republic of Iran is going to have an exciting time ahead of it.
Dr Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Languages at the University of Isfahan, Iran, and a former Senior Fulbright Research Scholar at Harvard. He is Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies and tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford