August 15 2011. A World to Win News Service. Further fissures and cracks have appeared among Iran's top rulers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader of the Islamic regime, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his close circle in charge of the government.
Given the love affair between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad over the last six years and specially Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad during the 2009 election that sparked an uprising, this difference between the two factions was not taken very seriously by masses at the beginning.
But now the sudden intensification of this row and the aggressive approach of both sides has left little doubt about the depth and gravity of the differences. These developments have also proved an explanation for previous contradictory statements made by Ahmadinejad and high-ranking conservative clergy.
This new round of quarrels broke out in April of this year when Ahmadinejad tried to fire Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi. This was strongly opposed by Khamenei, who reinstated Moslehi. In protest, Ahmadinejad did not turn up at his office for 11 days, until finally Khamenei threatened to dismiss him.
Upon his return Ahmadinejad faced a flood of criticism and threats from different sections of the power structure, especially his chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a former director of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Foundation whom the pro-Khamenei forces are now attacking as the main figure behind what they call the "deviant current" formed by Ahmadinejad, Mashaei and their circle.
Some members of Parliament moved to impeach Ahmadinejad for defying parliamentary resolutions. He was accused of vote buying (at $80 a vote) during the 2009 election. In late May Parliament voted to investigate the matter.
The groups of thugs whom the dominant factions of the regime, including Ahmadinejad, had used to disrupt meetings and speeches of reformist and other opposition leaders, were assigned to abort the president's speech marking the anniversary of the death of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on 4 June.
Since the rift has become public, around 30 people close to Mashaei and Ahmadinejad have been arrested. Among them are deputy foreign minister Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, Ahmadinejad associate Abbas Amirifar and journalists at the newspaper Hafte Sobh believed to belong to Mashaei.
Several Web sites close to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei were shut down. Although Ahmadinejad had to retreat in most cases, he persisted in trying to merge six ministries into three despite parliamentary opposition. Further, he issued a circular to the relevant ministries taking a stand against the proposed separation of women and men students into different classes in the universities and the early retirement of university lecturers that is meant to purge not considered politically and religiously correct, both measures supported by Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad is also trying to take control of the religious foundations known as the Oqaf organisations currently under the control of Khamenei's office. If he succeeded, this would mean that Khamenei would lose the control of very strong financial institutions with billions of dollars in annual income. Consequently, this will be a hard fight for Ahmadinejad and his gang.
These are not the only spheres of contention between Khamenei's supporters in the regime and Ahmadinejad's group. Despite the president's retreat, he continues to hit back here and there. One of the most important conflicts has involved the Pasdaran Corps (the so-called Revolutionary Guards), the Islamic Republic's strongest military force. Mohammad Ali Jaffari, the Pasdaran chief commander, said on 4 July, "The Pasdaran have been assigned by the judiciary system to deal with those who are currently related to the deviant current."
This was the Pasdaran’s clear support for Velayat-e Faqih (the religious doctrine of "Rule by the Supreme Jurist", the source of Khamenei's authority), and at the same time an open threat against the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei gang. Ahmadinejad hit back only a day later when he indirectly accused the Pasdaran of smuggling. Speaking at a conference against contraband goods and currency, he said "The 55-60 billion cigarettes consumed annually in Iran are worth 2 billion dollars. This figure would incite the greed of the world's biggest smugglers, so it would easily tempt our brothers who are smugglers." Jaffari's quick denial – "This kind of talk is a deviation" – left no doubt that Ahmadinejad had targeted the Pasdaran.
The row also involved the Oil Ministry. Ahmadinejad had fired this minister and taken charge of this key ministry himself. This was opposed by the Council of Guardians, a key body whose members are appointed by Khamenei, which called his move illegal. Ahmadinejad tried to ignore this ruling but finally had to retreat. He nominated another man to head the ministry, but failed to win parliamentary approval. Finally, after a month of negotiations, he named Pasdaran general Rostam Qasemi Oil Minister, and parliament gave its approval 3 August.
The nature and importance of the differences
Contention among different factions has been a permanent feature of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its foundation in 1979. With the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, the Islamic regime broke into two main factions, on the one side the conservative clerics and on the other those who wanted some reforms in the political system in order to save the Islamic Republic. This division defined the conflicts within the Iranian ruling class until recently.
Ahmadinejad has been aligned with Khamenei and other conservative sections of the regime against the reformists. His victory in the 2005 presidential race and especially his 2009 re-election were disputed by his opponents; many observers believe these victories would not have been possible without the support of Khamenei, the Pasdaran and the Basij militia led by the Pasdaran. It is claimed that those who engineered his victory in 2009 had to boost the 9 millions ballots cast for him to more than 23 million votes overnight. When Khamenei stepped in to express strong support for Ahmadinejad even before any formal decision, that ruled out any serious investigation of possible fraud.
Thus the present contention is unusual. Until recently these regime factions had to unite against the reformists and more importantly against the masses and their uprising. Khamenei helped Ahmadinejad achieve power in order to control him, but Ahmadinejad wants to be independent. He believes, or at least pretends to believe, that he owes his appointment not to Khamenei and the Pasdaran but the twelfth Imam. (Shia Islam holds that the twelfth and final successor to Mohammed, or Imam, known as the Mahdi or redeemer, did not die but is hidden; when the situation is ripe he will reappear to cleanse the world of corruption).
What has forced these two factions to continue to coexist, despite the harsh accusations against each other?
Khamenei probably could have impeached Ahmadinejad and eliminate him and his circle, but it would not be easy because there are many contradiction in his way. The Islamic regime has just gone through an uprising that strongly shook its pillars. The regime may have suppressed the uprising, but the people's retreat doesn’t mean a decisive defeat. A great many people are determined to find another opportunity to fight back. The participation of hundred thousands of people chanting anti-regime slogans in February demonstrations in Tehran and many other cities in support of the people’s movements in North Africa and the Middle East was a clear indication of that spirit. It is fair to say that the regime has come out of this battle not stronger but weaker. Thus Khamenei cannot risk recklessly destabilising the regime.
However there are other aspects to this. Every new conflict within the regime has cost it a part of its social base and core supporters. It would not be easy for many Khamenei supporters to digest a new split with a faction that until recently was a close ally. At the least, that would be dispiriting to its followers. This makes it especially hard for Khamenei to go ahead with impeaching Ahmadinejad. Many observers believe that Khamenei wants to keep Ahmadinejad until the end of his term, but under close control and supervision. It is also believed that the clergy will disqualify Ahmadinejad's candidates for parliament and especially the next presidential election in 2013. (Under law, he is not allowed to run for a third term.)
What makes this conflict different from the previous ones is that the two ruling gangs have lined up against each other in the ideological, political, economic and military spheres. Along with policy disputes, there is also conflict over the control of massive sources of income, such as oil and gas exports and the import and export of other commodities.
Ahmadinejad's efforts to keep key government posts exclusively in the hands of his circle was a source of conflict even during his first term as president. Mashaei has been another bone of contention. In 2008, when he was Iran's First Vice President, parliamentarians and conservative clergy forced him to resign for making allegedly pro-US and pro-Israeli remarks on several occasions. Among other things, he said that "It is the Israeli government that is our enemy and we have no enmity against the Israeli people." Ahmadinejad defiantly responded to this dismissal by making Mashaei his chief of staff.
What makes Ahmadinejad's habit of removing clergy from governmental posts all the more irritating to Khamenei and his gang is the way the president has been distancing himself from the idea of Velayat-e faqih without explicitly admitting it. In fact the concept of the imminent reign of the Mahdi – which Mashei is accused of concocting – is in the service of such approach.
Ahmadinejad's fascination with the twelfth Imam is well known. His implication that he has the Madhi's backing is interpreted as trying to work around Khamenei's position as the Supreme Jurist and in fact make his existence meaningless. The clergy was outraged by a recent documentary claiming that the twelfth Imam will reappear soon. They blamed Mashaei and "deviant current" for this film. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly announced that he is answerable only to the twelfth Imam. This is laying the bases for the elimination of the clergy from the state apparatus.
Further, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad apparently believe that Islam has begun to lose its grip and are increasingly appealing Iranian nationalism instead. Mashaei has emphasised that Shia Islam (Iran's majority religion) represents the highest understanding of Islam and that Iran has added to Islam's richness. Ahmadinejad, in a speech at the National Museum of Iran, praised Cyrus the Great, the pre-Islamic founder of the Persian Empire, as one of the greatest moral leaders in human history. He continues to praise Iran and its past in his speeches and interviews. Such remarks have infuriated the conservative clergy. Even Mesbah Yazdi, the ayatollah Ahmadinejad claims to follow, called the idea of an "Iranian Islam" a shameful deviation.
Combining Islam with nationalism has caused some contention in the moral and cultural sphere as well. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly remarked that hijab (the covering of women's hair, a core issue in Islamic fundamentalism) "is not the most important problem of our society". He has argued in favour of permitting women into football stadiums, another extremely contentious question. Like his intervention against the proposed separation of women and men into different classrooms in the universities, this is a move to win over the reformists' social base. It also reflects an effort to "modernise" Islam, though lvery slightly.
The economic and military spheres
What makes this conflict all the more alarming for the ruling power structure is that these policy differences are being accompanied by economic and possibly military jockeying.
Ahmadinejad and his circle have been attempting to use their positions in government to build a financial base that could enable them to withstand the rival faction. Kayhan, a newspaper that strongly supports the most conservative clergy, including Ayatollah Khamenei, followed its remarks regarding the political differences by expressing deep concern about the economic measures sought by this faction. Kayhan says that the "deviant current" and Ahmadinejad "have crossed the line of justice by appointing unjustified persons to the government and also by making suspicious moves in relation to financial resources in the oil and industrial sectors (acts which, according to reports, have increased greatly in the last two years)."
Preparing for a possible conflict, Ahmadinejad has worked to reinforce relations with the Pasdaran both economically (by giving them massive construction contracts) and politically (by giving important governmental posts to Pasdaran commanders). His government has also enhanced the financial powers of provincial governors, who are appointed by the president. The struggle over the oil ministry is vital because petroleum is the country's most important source of income. But control over the import and export of other commodities is also an important issue.
Observers believe that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have been trying to establish some sort of relations with the US, despite major obstacles on both sides. There are unconfirmed reports of several meetings between the Iranian government and US officials, including one between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mashaei in the United Arab Emirates. That would be consistent with Ahmadinejad's general efforts to gain room to manoeuvre. Voluntarily complying with World Bank and IMF conditions and further integrating Iran into the global economy would help the Ahmadinejad circle increase their role and influence in the economic structure and gain the upper hand politically. It is worth mentioning that imports of the most basic necessities for the masses have increased tremendously during the last six years of Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Ahmadinejad's proposal to shift control of the religious endowments from the Khamenei to the provincial governors can be considered another move in this direction.
The clear support of Pasdaran commanders for Ayatollah Khamenei and the row between Ahmadinejad and Pasdaran head Jaffari has led many people to believe that the Pasdaran are part of the Khamenei faction and Ahmadinejad cannot count on its support. But Ahmadinejad's contradictory and complex relationship with the Pasdaran and vice versa indicates that the situation is still highly fluid. At least it can be said that there are unclear and blind points in this relationship that need thorough investigation. For example, his naming of Pasdaran commander Rostam Qasemi to be Oil Minster, the presence of several ex-Pasdaran commanders in his cabinet and the many ex-Pasdaran occupying high governmental posts all seem to indicate some kind of trust between the two groupings. Perhaps events in the near future will shed light on this relationship.
Some sources of this conflict
Given the history of contradictions and contention within the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is hard to believe that such fissures and divisions will come to an end. As far as the recent rift is concerned, more than anything else it represents an ideological crisis. Islam has lost some of its ability to provide the regime with legitimacy and stability. People are tired of a theocratic regime and looking for a way out. Many of the regime's founders and the hard core of its managers, including the regime reformists, have pointed out the ineffectiveness of the Islamic Republic as it is and have called for reform. The 2009 uprising revealed a deep ideological crisis within the system. Recent developments, including the revolt in the Arab countries, have added to the worries of some factions of the regime.
In such a situation different factions want to put forward their programme to save the system, even if that means sacrificing and replacing some of the most important pillars holding up the regime. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei have understood that necessity and want to reform the regime in their way. But their success is not guaranteed, and they have to fight other factions, some operating openly and others not now taking a public position (for example, the Pasdaran).
What is certain is that even if Ahamdinejad and Mashaei were eliminated or silenced, these kinds of splits would not come to an end because the system itself is their source. They are all part of the problem.
But the destructiveness of the crisis will not itself lead to the overthrow of the Islamic regime, or at least will not automatically lead to its replacement with a system that is desired by the people. In fact, in any foreseeable situation, one or other faction will try to save the regime and restructure it more efficiently within the global imperialist system, and will continue to oppress, suppress and exploit the masses of people in the service of world capitalism.
At the same time these new developments also have the potential to push the people to tail one or another ruling class faction. The hatred for Ayatollah Khamenei, who has monopolised the key positions in the Islamic power structure and is the symbol of a theocratic system, could give rise to a pragmatic approach that would mean, this time, supporting the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei gang, even though they were key targets in the recent people's uprising. Such an approach would will take the people into a useless cycle and neutralise their years of struggle and sacrifices.
However, such fractures could weaken the system even more and provide the opportunity for the revolutionary forces to advance and organise their ranks and the masses for a radical change in the country.