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No. 3, May 2011
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad risks impeachment following his failed attempt to wrest control over the Intelligence Ministry from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Khamenei correctly considered Ahmadinejad’s dismissal of Intelligence Minister Hojjat al-Eslam Heydar Moslehi a direct attack against him and mobilized the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to restrict Ahmadinejad’s power. Should Ahmadinejad survive parliamentary attempts at impeachment, the conflict between the supreme leader and the president is likely to continue. However, the IRGC may be the main beneficiary of the continual battles between the two civilian leaders of the Islamic Republic.
Key points in this Outlook:
On April 17, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked a new political crisis in Iran by dismissing Hojjat al-Eslam Heydar Moslehi, the influential minister of intelligence and a close ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Less than an hour after Ahmadinejad’s decree appeared in the media, Fars News Agency reported that Khamenei had reinstated Moslehi–a move that infuriated Ahmadinejad, who refused to attend cabinet meetings for two weeks. Khamenei’s unconstitutional overruling of the president in the fight over the strategically important ministry was meant to reassert his authority in the struggle for power with Ahmadinejad.
On April 20, Moslehi triumphantly returned to the Intelligence Ministry, where employees greeted him with chants of “God is great!” But Ahmadinejad did not invite Moslehi to the cabinet meeting that day. On April 25, Ahmadinejad met Khamenei and threatened to resign if Moslehi remained in the cabinet. “Do if you so desire,” Khamenei replied, giving Ahmadinejad a week to make up his mind. Ahmadinejad likely assumed Khamenei was bluffing. Returning from his two-week leave, which he called “distance working” from home, Ahmadinejad provided a coded explanation: “I am convinced that a strong and powerful president would lead to dignity of the Leadership and especially the nation. A strong president can stand firm as a defensive shield, advance affairs of the state, and bring dignity upon it. All leaders and executives are in need of strong arms.” In other words, Ahmadinejad’s power grab was not based on personal ambition but was for the sake of the regime. The same day, to demonstrate presidential strength, Ahmadinejad refused Moslehi access to the cabinet meeting. Moslehi was also absent from the May 4 cabinet meeting.
Ahmadinejad soon realized he had overplayed his hand, as attacks against him and his supporters increased thereafter. The Intelligence Ministry began filtering pro-Ahmadinejad websites. As many as twenty-nine Ahmadinejad confidantes–including Hojjat al-Eslam Abbas Amiri-Far, Ahmadinejad’s candidate for the Intelligence Ministry–were arrested. Calls of “death to the opponent of the guardian jurist,” a slogan open to interpretation, dominated even the Tehran Friday prayers. All this activity energized Ahmadinejad’s political rivals, who viewed the rift as an opportunity to get rid of their old foe. Parliamentarians, led by parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, threatened to impeach Ahmadinejad on several occasions, and Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf started a relentless campaign against Ahmadinejad and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei through his news outlet Shafaf News. Mashaei, the president’s confidante and former chief of staff, is also his choice for a presidential successor when his second term ends in 2013.
The presence of both Ahmadinejad and Moslehi at the May 8 cabinet meeting indicated that Ahmadinejad had submitted to Khamenei’s authority–for a time at least. That being said, the conflict is likely to continue through the remainder of Ahmadinejad’s presidency–if Ahmadinejad survives parliamentary attempts at impeaching him–and will doubtless escalate as Ahmadinejad supporters rally for the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2011 and the following year’s presidential election.
The failed attempt to dismiss Moslehi is part of Ahmadinejad’s wider campaign to cleanse his cabinet of senior officials imposed on him by other power circles in the Islamic Republic–essentially, to be the master of his own house. Entering the presidential palace in 2005, Ahmadinejad faced the same challenge encountered by all his predecessors: though the president has the constitutional prerogative to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers, factions in the regime challenge this authority. More often than not, these appointments are imposed on the president by the supreme leader, former president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, or Larijani. Since 2005, Ahmadinejad has systematically purged cabinet ministers forced on him by others, dismissing an unprecedented eleven cabinet ministers.
Ahmadinejad’s April 17 dismissal of Moslehi was the culmination of his attempts to gain control over the Intelligence Ministry. Khamenei, however, was likely aware of Ahmadinejad’s efforts. Ahmadinejad had previously attempted to restrain the supreme leader’s control over the Intelligence Ministry. On July 26, 2009, Ahmadinejad dismissed then-intelligence minister Hojjat al-Eslam Mohseni Ezhehi, accusing him of “incompetence” in dealing with the popular unrest that engulfed Iran after the June 12, 2009, presidential election. Some reports suggested that Ahmadinejad dismissed Ezhehi because his ministry had prepared a report to the supreme leader arguing that the protest movement was not a foreign plot or a velvet revolution. Ahmadinejad, with a team of intelligence analysts from the IRGC, reportedly told the Intelligence Ministry that the political activists arrested by the IRGC had already confessed to being foreign agents. In addition to the minister, Ahmadinejad also replaced a number of senior ministry officials with IRGC officers.
To counter Ahmadinejad’s schemes, Khamenei, during his much-publicized visit to the Intelligence Ministry on March 5, 2011, told ministry employees: “Although the government appoints the directors of the Intelligence Ministry, intelligence and actions of this ministry are related to the affairs of the entire country. Therefore, it [the Intelligence Ministry] should not lean toward movements, [political] parties, and political individuals, but should always move in the direction of guardianship [the supreme leader] and the Islamic revolution.” On April 17, 2011, Moslehi followed Khamenei’s advice by dismissing Hossein Abdollahian, Intelligence Ministry legal and parliamentary affairs deputy, who owed his position to Ahmadinejad and Mashaei. Immediately after Moslehi fired Abdollahian, Mashaei criticized the Intelligence Ministry’s alleged “intelligence and communications weaknesses concerning regional affairs,” after which Moslehi resigned.
Ahmadinejad’s Counter Ideology
Ahmadinejad’s challenge to Khamenei’s authority is not limited to the issue of control over the Intelligence Ministry. Ahmadinejad also poses an ideological challenge to the regime, reflected in Mashaei. Ahmadinejad and Mashaei’s friendship dates back to when Ahmadinejad served as an “adviser” (intelligence officer) to the governor of West Azerbaijan Province in 1979. Mashaei founded the IRGC intelligence unit in neighboring Kurdistan Province during the same period, and their children are married.
There is a long history of enmity between Mashaei and Khamenei. After his contested reelection in 2009, Ahmadinejad appointed his old comrade first vice president. However, due to Mashaei’s history of making controversial statements–such as “the era of sovereignty of religion is over” and “the people of Israel are our friends”–Khamenei wrote a handwritten note to Ahmadinejad demanding Mashaei’s dismissal. Ahmadinejad ignored Khamenei’s order for an entire week but in the end appointed Mashaei his chief of staff. Since then, Mashaei has used every possible opportunity to undermine the authority of Khamenei, the clerical class, and the ideology of the Islamic Republic. Mashaei’s concept of “the school of Iran” is a nationalist discourse that challenges the internationalist aspirations of the Islamic Republic, which call for the mobilization and unification of the entire umma (worldwide Islamic community of believers) without regard for modern political borders.
Ahmadinejad’s support for Mashaei and his pseudonationalist discourse, even in the face of fierce clerical criticism, illustrates that Ahmadinejad no longer considers clerical support an asset for his cabinet but a liability. Ahmadinejad is trying to create a new ideology that legitimizes the rise of veterans from the war against Iraq and seeks to marginalize the clerical class.
Opportunistic Revolutionary Guards
Ahmadinejad’s attempt to ensure that Mashaei succeeds him as president has little prospect for success unless it enjoys IRGC support. For the time being, the IRGC seems to support Khamenei and not Ahmadinejad.
On April 20, 2011, Javan, one of several IRGC mouthpieces, accused “a deviant current” of trying to “fabricate files” and “abusing the Intelligence Ministry” for political purposes. The same day, Basij chief Mohammad-Reza Naqdi warned the public against “those with apparent interest in Messianism [Mahdaviat] who may fight against the Guardianship [of the jurist].” On April 22, the Guards Day, IRGC chief Mohammad-Ali (Aziz) Jafari criticized Ahmadinejad indirectly by stressing that the greatest worry of the late Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, was “internal enemies,” and that “the sedition of 2009” was founded on the green movement’s “opposition to the issue of the Guardianship of the Jurist.” The same criticism could, of course, be directed against Ahmadinejad. In the second part of the interview, Jafari warned against “a deviant current” that has “infiltrated the regime,” but also said that the deviant current was “hiding behind a popular figure [Ahmadinejad].” On April 24, Jafari used equally nuanced tactics, praising Ahmadinejad and his cabinet’s performance while simultaneously attacking “a deviant current” within the government.
Within the IRGC, the harshest attacks against Ahmadinejad were launched by the political-ideological commissars: Hojjat al-Eslam Ali Saidi, the supreme leader’s representative to the IRGC, and his deputy, Hojjat al-Eslam Mojtaba Zolnour. “Disobeying the command of the Guardian Jurist equals disobeying the commandment of God and the Imam of the Era,” charged Saidi, while his deputy went so far as to claim that Mashaei was the real president and warned that a president who does not seek legitimacy from the guardian jurist is Taqout (one who revolts against God, a Koranic reference to Satan).
Remarkably, as Ahmadinejad capitulated to Khamenei and acquiesced to Moslehi’s presence in the cabinet, Javan and other IRGC mouthpieces continued to attack Ahmadinejad, insisting that “the new sedition” would raise fresh challenges to the guardian jurist. This indicates the opportunism of the IRGC: the IRGC initially managed to use the conflict between the president and the supreme leader to partially take over the Intelligence Ministry, but as soon as this goal was achieved it decided to intervene on Khamenei’s behalf to preserve the balance between the president and the leader. In other words, the IRGC has emerged as the final arbiter of power in the Islamic Republic.
Thirty-two years after the revolution of 1979, public support for rule by the clergy in Iran has waned to extraordinarily low levels. Ahmadinejad, who is well aware that clerical support is no longer an asset but a liability, has chosen confrontation with Khamenei to mobilize the masses.
But there is no guarantee that Ahmadinejad’s tactics will resonate with Iranian voters. The memory of the fraudulent 2009 presidential election is still fresh. Ahmadinejad cannot even count on support from the parliament, which is waiting to impeach him. Should Ahmadinejad–contrary to expectations–survive parliamentary attempts at impeaching him, the IRGC may be the greatest beneficiary of the conflict among the civilian leaders, further solidifying its position as the final arbiter of power in the Islamic Republic.
Ali Alfoneh ([email protected]) is a resident fellow at AEI.
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17. For a survey of cabinet ministers purged by Ahmadinejad, see Ali Alfoneh, “All Ahmadinejad’s Men,” Middle East Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Spring 2011).
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36. “Takhalof Az Farman-e Vali-ye Faqih Dar Hokm-e Mokhalefat Ba Farman-e Khoda va Emam-e Zaman Ast” [Disobeying the Command of the Guardian Jurist Equals Disobeying the Commandment of God and the Imam of the Era], Fars News Agency (Tehran), April 27, 2011, www.farsnews.net/newstext.php?nn=9002060712 (accessed May 10, 2011).
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