Amadinejad slapped as factions turn on each other
Yassamine Mather looks at the growing tensions in the Islamic regime
Last week's stalemate in nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called 'five plus one' countries (US, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany) came at a time when a number of events had already promised a turbulent start to the new year for Iranians: a plane crash for which sanctions must have been partly responsible; the execution of 53 prisoners, including four political prisoners, in less than three weeks; accusations by the 'principlist' faction of the regime that president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest ally, chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is an "agent of foreign powers" (Israel); that vice-president Rahimi is corrupt; stories that Ahmadinejad was slapped in the face by a revolutionary guard commander; confirmation that Israel and US jointly sponsored the Stuxnet computer worm; the escalation of US sanctions against Iranian shipping companies; Afghan protests over Iran's month-long near blockade of cross-border fuel shipments; the passing of harsh sentences against film maker Jafar Panahi, 'human rights' lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and journalist Shiva Nazar Ahari; and a wave of workers' strikes demanding the release of all political prisoners ...
Seventy-five people were killed on January 9 when an Iran Air flight with 105 passengers and crew aboard crashed near Orumiyeh in north-western Iran. The US-made Boeing 727 plane, bought 37 years ago, broke into pieces when it attempted to make an emergency landing in a snowstorm near Orumiyeh in Iranian Azerbaijan. The incident led to a spontaneous anti-sanctions campaign when a Facebook page got the support of 25,000 Iranians - US sanctions prevent Iran from purchasing new aircraft and spare parts. Iran's ageing civilian air fleet (and, one assumes, military aircrafts) use spare parts bought on the black market or taken from older aircraft. In 2005 the International Civil Aviation Organisation warned that sanctions on Iran were "placing civilian lives in danger" by denying Iranian aviation the necessary spare parts and aircraft repair, and the situation has inevitably become worse in the last few years.
Following the accident, transport minister Hamid Behbehani, still in denial about the effect of sanctions, said that the number of aviation accidents in Iran was low compared to the world average. The Iranian press and media derided Behbehani's statement. Farda, a website associated with one of the conservative blocs, claimed that the minister's remarks showed complete disregard for public concern over the unacceptable number of aviation accidents. The website said that Iranians killed in plane crashes in the past 30 years made up nearly 30% of the world's total aviation accident fatalities (1,610 out of 5,416 people killed) - 795 people had been killed in the past seven years alone, about 23% of the global total in the same period.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where corruption is characteristic of secular, pro-western governments, Islamists claim to lead the battle against it (and overconsumption), at times pointing to Ahmadinejad as their champion. However Iranians are well aware that, for all his election promises of combating corruption, Ahmadinejad presides over one of the most rotten governments Iran has experienced - and this is quite an achievement, given the depth and spread of corruption during the Rafsanjani/Khatami presidencies, not to mention the pre-1979 Pahlavi era.
Allegations of corruption against first vice-president Mohammad-Reza Rahimi were first published by the conservative 'principlists' in April 2010. They claimed to possess evidence proving Rahimi was the ringleader of a corruption band known as the 'Fatemi circle'. Eleven people implicated in a government-linked embezzlement case are already in jail awaiting trial. A number of prominent conservative MPs have called for Rahimi be put on trial as well. Last week, in an open letter to chief justice Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, Ahmad Tavakoli wrote: "Is it fair that a low-ranking defendant in the Iran Insurance Company case ... should be jailed … when [Rahimi] is not even indicted?"
There are also allegations that the first vice-president spent large sums of government money bribing legislators to vote for a government bill when he was the parliamentary liaison deputy. Had it not been for the fierce internal battles between various factions of the Islamic regime, all this would have been forgotten, like many similar allegations. However, last month, the prosecutor general, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, confirmed that Rahimi faced charges of corruption that needed to be investigated and, of course, if he is put to trial this would indicate a major shift in policy. According to journalists inside Iran, it would signify that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has finally decided to stop giving his entire support to the president and ignore the complaints of the principlists.
Clearly the infighting between the Ahmadinejad and conservative camps has risen to a new level in recent months. They disagree on every subject from foreign policy to nuclear development and economic policies, from the never-ending issue of women's headscarves to cultural freedoms. However, the conservatives have chosen Ahmadinejad's seemingly unconditional support for Rahimi and Mashaie as the battleground.
According to Wikileaks documents released on December 31, at a meeting of Iran's supreme national security council (SNSC) held in early 2010 to discuss steps in dealing with protests, Ahmadinejad surprised other SNSC members by taking up a liberal posture. According to sources quoted by Wikileaks, Ahmadinejad claimed that "people feel suffocated" and argued that in order to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press. The source claimed Ahmadinejad's statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard chief of staff Mohammed Jafari, who said: "You are wrong! It is you who created this mess and now you say, give more freedom to the press?!" Allegedly Jafari then slapped Ahmadinejad in the face, causing an uproar.
Of course Iran's Revolutionary Guards have subsequently denied the report. However, even if one doubts the veracity of the slapping incident it is certainly true that the conflict within the state has now engulfed various factions of Iran's militia and, like members of the majles (Islamic parliament), they are expressing their disapproval of Ahmadinejad's new-found liberal and nationalist (as opposed to Islamic) posturing in the open.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, faced with major demonstrations and envious of the apparent popularity of the nationalist reformists, Ahmadinejad would try and steal their policies. In this he has relied heavily on the controversial opinions of chief of staff Mashaei (to whom he happens to be related).
Mashaei was first vice-president of Iran for one week in July 2009. His appointment was heavily criticised by the hard-line conservatives and he resigned following the direct intervention of Khamenei. Today Mashaie is still under attack for his unorthodox religious views and for allegedly influencing the president's decisions in other matters, including the appointment and firing of cabinet members.
Mashaie belongs to a group that believe the return of the 12th Shia Imam is imminent, while senior Shia clerics are opposed to such views, as 'nobody knows when the imam will return'. Mashaei has also expressed controversial views about an 'Iranian school of thought', as opposed to an 'Islamic school of thought', about the hijab, the religious ban on music and more recently about cultural freedom.
In fact on most of these issues, in particular the emphasis on Iranian nationalism, he and Ahmadinejad echo the views of the 'reformist' leaders, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mohammad Khatami. All this because Ahmadinejad is apparently grooming Mashaie to be his successor in the 2013 presidential elections - alarming news for conservative hardliner and senior ayatollahs.
Over the last few years Mashaie has been blamed for a number of comments and incidents considered unacceptable by Ahmadinejad's enemies, who have been busy compiling them:
- July 2008: Mashaei is quoted as saying: "Today, Iran is a friend of the United States and Israeli nations. No nation in the world is our enemy. This is an honour." For the first time since the 1979 revolution, an Iranian regime politician acknowledged the Israelis as a nation. In response 200 MPs released a statement calling for Mashaei to be "dealt with seriously" and ayatollah Khamenei denounced his remarks in Friday prayers. The day before, Ahmadinejad had said that Mashaei's opinions were also those of the government.
- November 2008: In Iran, opening ceremonies for public events almost always begin with the recitation of a few verses of the Qur'an by a qari (reciter). The reciter of the international conference on investment in Iran's tourism industry had to wait for the Qur'an to be delivered to him by women dressed in Kurdish traditional clothes playing frame drums (dafs). Two senior clerics from Qom were outraged at the incident, but Mashaei blamed his deputy, who was subsequently sacked.
- September 2009: At the inauguration of the minister for higher education, Mashaei told the audience: "God ... created the human ... if the human were removed, there is no need to remove god." While it is not clear exactly what this meant, it was considered blasphemous by senior clerics.
- November 2009: The hard-line newspaper, Kayhan, quoted Mashaei as saying: "God cannot be the fulcrum of unity for humankind". The paper commented that his remarks were "unjustifiable" and paved the way for malicious propaganda.
- January 2010: Following Mashaei's presence at a photo exhibition with actress Hedieh Tehrani, there were rumours that she was his mistress (as opposed to his sigheh - a Shia 'temporary wife') and that the Organisation of Cultural Heritage had loaned her $200,000 for the event. Mashaei claimed that the picture taken of him sitting side by side with Tehrani had been doctored to make the two appear intimate. The actress denied rumours that Mashaei had bought one of her most expensive photo works. However, the incident prompted some bloggers to compare the "scandal" with the "decadence" of the last years of the shah's rule.
- July 2010: Mashaei invited a number of Los Angeles-based Iranian singers - most of them from the pre-Islamic Republic era - back to Iran. Supporters of the supreme leader slammed Mashaei, claiming that he wanted to "invert the situation" (favour supporters of the monarchy). Mashaei had said that expatriate Iranian singers would have no problem returning to the country if their activities were legal.
- August 2010: In a speech at the Razi Medical Research Festival, Mashaei said that the 'god-sent prophet' Noah failed to undertake a "comprehensive management style" since he did not establish justice. He reiterated similar remarks regarding other prophets in his subsequent speeches.
- August 2010: In the closing ceremony of a conference of expatriate Iranians, Mashaei made what was perhaps his most controversial remark to date: "Some criticise me for refusing to talk of the school of Islam and instead preferring the school of Iran. There are diverse interpretations of Islam, but our perception of the essence of Islam is the school of Iran, which we should promote to the world." Former head of the judiciary ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi accused Mashaei of parroting the words of monarchists, while general Hassan Firouzabadi, joint chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, went further, claiming the remarks were an act against national security, and an attack on the tenets of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution. Yazdi threatened: "If someone turns away from Islam, we warn him, and then, if that does not work, we beat him."
Conservative cleric Ebrahim Nikoonam referred to the "possibility that the 'incitement' created by the presidential chief of staff might be rooted in foreign agendas". Previously, some high-ranking officials had insinuated that Ahmadinejad's office had been infiltrated by a foreign state (this is usually taken to mean Israel). Nikoonam said: "Such words might be said by those who are not part of the government, but when they are said by those who are they cause serious concern." Yazdi called on Ahmadinejad to "beware of letting anyone infiltrate the government who might later turn out to be an agent of foreigners".
On January 11 theatregoers queuing outside Tehran's City Theatre to watch Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler were informed by police that the play, which had been running for a week, had been suspended.
One of the play's characters is a former alcoholic, but in the Tehran production there was no mention of alcoholism, and male and female characters were kept away from each other on stage. However, the Fars News Agency reported that conservative papers had claimed the theatre was promoting "nihilism, licentiousness and vulgarism as the main points of the play", which has "nothing to do with national and Islamic ideas and is based on western nihilistic philosophy".
All artistic activities in Iran are controlled and regulated by the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance, and the Iranian version of Hedda Gabler had apparently passed its vetting procedures following changes to the original script imposed by the censor. The subsequent news that a new body to regulate cultural affairs was to be created came amid a very public row between the ministry of culture and the regime's more conservative elements. Culture minister Mohammad Hosseini said there was "no moral issue" with the play and accused its critics of "exaggeration", while Mashaei himself used the incident to reassert Ahmadinejad's new-found 'reformist' credentials.
Mashaei also commented that Ahmadinejad was not in favour of the jailing of renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Panahi was handed a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year work ban for making propaganda against the Islamic establishment. The work ban covers writing scripts, film-making and travel abroad, as well as giving interviews to local and foreign media. Mashaei added: "The sentence was issued by the judiciary and reflects neither my opinion nor that of the president."
Crisis? What crisis?
The history of Iran's Islamic regime has been one of permanent crises and constant conflict between various factions of the regime. However, over the last 30 years they have agreed to share power in accordance with their respective votes in elections (the choice being limited, of course, to factions of the Islamic Republic) and subsequent negotiations. Last year's rigged presidential elections broke this pattern and for the first time since 1979 there is no precedence for resolving the current conflict. Hence the paralysis that has overtaken decision-making and the total uncertainty regarding the forthcoming majles poll. In December, former president Mohammad Khatami warned that 'reformist' parties would not take part in future elections "unless prisoners are freed and the elections are clean".
The battle lines for 2011 have already been drawn, with unprecedented animosity not just between conservatives and 'reformists', but more significantly within both groups. It is important to emphasise that these divisions are expressions of the inability of the religious state in its entirety to rule the country. The current crisis of government - mainly between the president, his advisers and ministers, on the one hand, and the conservative principlists in the majles and revolutionary guards, on the other - has brought the state to a standstill and it is unlikely that this crisis, coinciding as it does with the escalation of sanctions, will be resolved as easily as previous ones.
For example, the appointment of the governor of Iran's central bank has become a battleground between the warring factions. The majles voted in November in favour of a bill authorising a change in the composition of the bank's board to block government "interference" and ensure its "independence". The bill effectively removed the president's executive control over the central bank, highlighting the intensity of the infighting between parliament and government at a time of discontent over price rises, the ending of subsidies and mass unemployment. Parliament, strengthened in recent months by the backlash against the crippling impact of the latest round of UN sanctions, seemed to have wrested day-to-day control of monetary policy from the government, but Ahmadinejad simply refused to accept the bill, creating deadlock.
In another development, the ministry of foreign affairs has barred Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, from attending an awards ceremony in Washington in an attempt to prevent a rival to the Iranian president from gaining international publicity. The inability of the regime to agree on peaceful coexistence between its factions has led to renewed speculation about regime change through military intervention by one section of the Revolutionary Guards against another or through the US escalation of sanctions combined with cyber war and armed insurrection amongst national minorities.
Iranians have been looking at events in Tunisia with envy and websites have compared the success of the protests in overthrowing Ben Ali's government with the failure of larger, more militant protests last year in Iran to achieve similar results. Answering the question, "Why Tunis, not Iran?", one cartoonist sums up the feelings of frustration and anger amongst young Iranians: "Moussavi talks about the 'golden years' under Khomeini, Karroubi is nostalgic for the 'dear imam', Khatami supports velayate faghih [religious guardianship of the nation], Rafsanjani addresses Khamenei as the 'dear leader' ... Now do you get why Ben Ali fled and Seyyed Ali [Khamenei] is still in power?"
In the words of Mohammad Reza Shalgouni, a leading comrade of Rahe Kargar, the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran, "The situation in Iran is such that even the resolution of a most modest demand, that of the position of a headscarf a few millimetres above or below the woman's eyebrow, cannot be resolved by 'reform'. Such a simple demand requires a revolution."
At a time when leaders of the green movement have reached a dead end, their failure is also that of their leftwing supporters. A recent battle between Farrokh Negahdar, a leading figure of the Fedayeen Majority, and other members of that organisation's central committee shows the bankruptcy of both sides. Negahdar was criticised for the content of his open letter to Khamenei, which could have been written, word for word, by Hashemi Rafsanjani or any other leading 'reformist' supporter of the supreme leader. It warns Khamenei that he will lose power unless he listens to the calls for reform!
Although the letter is an appalling text, it is difficult to understand the anger of other members of Majority Fedayeen central committee. After all, what Negahdar has written is the inevitable consequence of the policy advocated by that organisation for more than a decade of tailing Islamist 'reformists'. No doubt Negahdar's text is shameful, but so are the policies of all those who advocate accommodation with a wing of this brutal religious dictatorship.