Observers of the Iranian scene agree on one thing: it’s very hard to come up with a definitive view on anything. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, is more or less in the same situation. Supposed political truths have alternate definitions and he’s stuck with devising justifications for each alternative. Of course this is not new for him or the other politicians. It’s the Persian way of things. In Clintonian terms the meaning of “is” is “isn’t,” but not always. With this as a guide, there is no reason why Ahmadinejad is not seemingly always embroiled in controversy.
Controversy in Iran exists over every aspect of living. In a way it‘s an art form — and it certainly did not just begin after the 1979 revolution. The Shah‘s government made regular payoffs to politically important clerics and regular subsidies to mullah-dominated charities. The left objected vigorously to this and other financial manipulations used by the Shah‘s family to ensure support. Tehran was then, as it is now, seething with controversy over one thing or another. And the regime‘s spies now, as then, try to keep track of who is saying what to whom.
The current conflict of note derived from the refusal of President Ahmadinejad last spring to follow a clear order from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not to fire the minister for intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. To show how strongly he felt about being told what to do, the president took off for the countryside for about ten days. As was explained to journalists by fundamentalist supporters of Ali Khamenei, this was interpreted to mean Ahmadinejad did not believe in “the sanctity of the ayatollah‘s authority.“
The problem with this bit of news is that the same story surfaced in reverse with Khamenei ordering Moslehi be removed and Ahmadinejad working to retain him. The Iranian correspondent for one major British newspaper actually reported the issue in different versions without noting the conflict with her previous filing. As far as anyone can find out, Moslehi remains at his post today. No one has yet discovered exactly why he would have been fired by anyone, for as intelligence chief he‘s had access to all the dirt on everyone. But then again, that may have been the reason.
Of course, as in most things Persian, there is another figure operating behind the scenes. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the head of the presidential office, is said to be Ahmadinejad‘s principal strategist. It was Mashaei who supposedly encouraged the Iranian president to ignore the supreme leader‘s order (whatever it was). Mashaei — along with several others, including the powerful Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani — is reportedly politicking to be the next president of Iran in 2013 when Ahmadinejad leaves office.
Mashaei may have difficulty in accomplishing his presidential ambitions, as he has just been implicated in a major bank fraud scheme perpetrated by one of his and Ahmadinejad‘s principal money men. By targeting Mashaei with massive corruption charges, Ayatollah Khamenei‘s political operatives aim to cut the ground from under Ahmadinejad‘s own ambitions of being a future political kingmaker.
While all this is going on, the Israelis have let it be known that they project 2015 as the latest date when Iran will have the full capability to construct and deliver a nuclear-armed missile anywhere in the area from the Middle East to all of Europe. The Russians insist this analysis is without foundation, and the Obama Administration devotes most of its energies toward increasing the so far ineffective economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran has responded by announcing it is moving a large portion of its nuclear development program for safety‘s sake to deep underground facilities near the historic city of Qum. Why it’s made a point of announcing this is unclear. In this closed society Iran’s rulers take every occasion to appear open. But then again this is Persia and dissimulation for the greater good (one of the meanings of taqiyah) is in their societal DNA.
As important as Iran‘s nuclear program is internationally, the Iranian public is far more interested in the domestic politics. The infighting in parliament and behind the scenes has escalated even beyond the usually confrontational Iranian style. If President Ahmadinejad‘s attempt to fire the intelligence minister had caused upset in the supreme leader‘s office, his sacking of the oil minister several months ago resulted in charges personally against the president for acting illegally. The story that eventually leaked out was that Ahmadinejad had misused energy development funds to make payments to key electoral constituencies. The news regarding Mashaei‘s possible money deals only adds to that. Persian hardball is in full swing.
It‘s rather obvious that the principal advisors in the office of the supreme leader and Ayatollah Khamenei himself are looking forward to the parliamentary elections in March 2012 to set the tone for the defeat of Ahmadinejad and his clique in the presidential election the following year. In the meantime President Ahmadinejad‘s backers have been leaking the story that he is committed to improving relations with the West and has been the force behind the release of the two imprisoned American hikers. As odd as it might seem, it appears Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s political entourage is actually working to make him or his chosen replacement be the “peace candidate” for 2013.
As the expression goes, “You can‘t make this stuff up.” And by the way, the New York Times reports that “…the supreme leader‘s son, Mujtabah Khamenei, who heads intelligence for the Revolutionary Guards, is said to have designs on the ministry.” Now that‘s a real surprise.