Iran's Ahmadinejad survives worst storm of his presidency
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been locked in a stand-off that had some predicting the president would resign this past weekend.
Iranâ€™s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has survived one of the most turbulent political storms of his seven-year presidency, a stand-off with Iran's supreme religious leader that caused some to believe he would be impeached or forced to resign as early as this past weekend.
But Mr. Ahmadinejad arrived in Istanbul today for an international conference as planned, after accusing political enemies of dirty tricks and brushing off his weeks-long defiance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At issue was a tussle over the key post of the Intelligence minister and the powerful role of Ahmadinejad's chief of staff and in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.
The feud drew a rare public rebuke of Ahmadinejad from Khamenei, whose unqualified support of the presidentâ€™s disputed reelection victory in June 2009 â€“ Khamenei called it a â€śdivine assessmentâ€ť â€“ ensured that Ahmadinejad stayed in the post and set the tone for a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
The political turmoil is likely to extend far beyond the current spat to parliamentary elections next year and the presidential vote slated for 2013.
â€śBoth Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been damaged, because what has become evident [is] that Ahmadinehad was genuinely trying to encroach on the powers of the supreme leader,â€ť says Mehrdad Khonsari, an Iranian analyst and critic of the government who is based in London. â€śAhmadinejad couldnâ€™t carry the day and thatâ€™s why he backed down.â€ť
â€śThe fate of these two men were bound together in the aftermath of the  elections,â€ť adds Mr. Khonsari. â€śSo the fact that they are feuding is a highly damaging matter â€¦ because fighting is seen at the very top of the hierarchy.â€ť
How the spat evolved
Ahmadinejad dismissed the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, in mid-April, apparently because he found out that the ministry and Revolutionary Guard intelligence had bugged the offices of chief of staff Mr. Mashaie, according to an account in The Los Angeles Times.
Moslehi's deputy, Hassan Abdollahian, had helped Mashaie discover that his office had been bugged and was subsequently fired, according to the Times. After Ahmadinejad sacked Moslehi, he picked Mr. Abdollahian for the top slot.
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But within hours, Khamenei overturned the presidentâ€™s decision. Ahmadinejad then refused to accept Khameneiâ€™s ruling, and for 11 days boycotted official functions, from cabinet meetings to religious ceremonies.
The spat turned into a full-blown political storm as the days went by, damaging the image of a unified leadership in the Islamic Republic as senior voices across Iranâ€™s conservative spectrum â€“ from grand ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard commanders to parliamentarians â€“ made clear their view that challenging Khamenei was akin to apostasy against God.
Ahmadinejad was given a deadline by the supreme leader to accept the return of the Intelligence minister or resign, according to an videotaped account to followers by Morteza Agha-Tehrani, the hard-line â€śethicsâ€ť adviser of the cabinet, as described in the Guardian newspaper.
Before leaving for Istanbul on Monday, Ahmadinejad tried to reclaim the high ground, while restating his loyalty to Khamenei.
â€śDue to actions of two groups, I feel it is necessary to once again defend the supreme leader,â€ť Ahmadinejad told Iranian state television. â€śOne group is those who assume that the supreme leader is a tool for regulating political debates between parties for their advantage. And another group is the one that defends the supreme leader in a wrong manner.â€ť
Even hard-line supporters criticize president
In fact, it is Ahmadinejad and his controversial chief of staff who have been widely accused of deviation from the tenets of Iranâ€™s 1979 Islamic revolution, and from accepted Shiite religious practice. Some of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei's close advisers have been arrested for â€śsorceryâ€ť in recent days.
Ahmadinejad this week repeated his statement that Khameneiâ€™s relationship with him is like a father to a son. But even high-ranking hard-line voices in the regime, who have supported Ahmadinejad for years, have taken aim at the president this time.
â€śTo obey and submit to the supreme leader is a religious duty that has nothing to do with politics,â€ť said Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who has often been cited as the presidentâ€™s spiritual mentor. He added that the presidentâ€™s â€ślegitimacy is based upon the approval of the supreme leader and not the popular vote,â€ť according to a translation by Agence France-Presse.
Khameneiâ€™s representative to the Revolutionary Guard, Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, had a similar warning for the president. He told Ahmadinejad that â€śresisting the supreme leaderâ€™s orders is opposition to God and the Hidden Imamâ€¦â€ť
Ahmadinejad last week reaffirmed his allegiance to the velayat-e faqih â€“ the post of supreme leader which gives Khamenei final say in all state affairs â€“ but he and Moslehi did not appear in the same room during a Wednesday cabinet meeting.
The immediate crisis was finally defused on Sunday, when Moslehi was shown by Iranian state media sitting in a cabinet meeting, several chairs away from the president.
â€śWe saw that some celebrated. They said the rift has been created,â€ť Ahmadinejad told the cabinet on Sunday, according to a translation of state-run TV by the Associated Press. IRNA news agency quoted him saying that despite â€śpropaganda by enemies over my absence [from cabinet meetings], my entire life â€¦ has been geared toward velayat.â€ť
The dispute over the top intelligence post is just one problem for Ahmadinejad, whose son is married to Mashaieâ€™s daughter. Both men have not hidden their obsession with the 12th Imam â€“ the Muslim messiah who Shiites believe will return one day to bring justice to the world â€“ nor their view that this apocalyptic return is imminent.
But many in Iran, including many clerics, see a swift return of the messiah as superstition only â€“ a view that played into the arrest of a handful of Ahmadinejad allies for "sorcery."
Among them was Abbas Amirifar, who heads the presidentâ€™s cultural affairs office, and was picked up on May 1 for promoting a DVD called â€śThe Appearance is Imminentâ€ť that describes the president, supreme leader and chief of Lebanonâ€™s Shiite Hezbollah movement, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as paving the way for the return of the 12th Imam.
Other arrests have also been reported among those close to Mashaie â€“ whom Ahmadinejad is widely believed to be positioning to succeed him as Iranâ€™s next president â€“ for â€śsorceryâ€ť and summoning of spirits.
â€śCertain people within the regime have forgotten the values of the revolution and seek to misrepresent Islam â€¦ but the people do not follow demons or djinns, and will not tolerate such deviance,â€ť warned Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari.
Mashaie has drawn fire from hard-liners for promoting an â€śIranian school of Islamâ€ť that amounts to Islam without clerics â€“ a taboo notion is this religious regime. He has in the past spoken about the Israelis â€“ citizens of Iranâ€™s archenemy â€“ as â€śbeautiful people.â€ť
Ahmadinejad's gutsy politics
When Ahmadinejad named Mashaie first vice president in 2009, Khamenei overruled him. But to the surprise of many, the president took one week to act on Khameneiâ€™s order â€“ and then snubbed the supreme leader by appointing Mashaie to be his chief of staff.
The political gamesmanship has shown Ahmadinejad to be a gutsy politician, in keeping with his accumulation of power in a presidential post that â€“ almost by definition in Iran â€“ has limited influence.
But the latest episode also shows a lack of judgment that will embolden Ahmadinejadâ€™s enemies.
â€śI think he overplayed his hand,â€ť says Khonsari in London, though he says Ahmadinejad is far from a lame duck president. â€śHeâ€™s just received a setback at this stage [and] it has some political costs for him. But it's not something that will cripple him just yet.â€ť