The knives are out for Ahmadinejad

His brand of extremism is under fire from political and religious opponents

The knives are out for Ahmadinejad

Facing criticism on all sides, Ahmadinejad is spending billions to secure the loyalty of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards | Mehdi Ghasemi/Document Iran/Redux, Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters, Natalie Behring/Reuters

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a regime-buffeting revolt—not just from secular-minded students and youth who continue to gather at universities to denounce him as a traitor and call for his death—but also from the very heart of the Islamic Republic’s conservative establishment. Conservative members of Iran’s Majlis, or parliament, recently tried to summon Ahmadinejad for questioning, which in theory could have led to his impeachment. According to a letter sent by a parliamentary committee to the chairman of the Guardian Council, another governing body, they “refrained from the questioning and impeachment of the president” only because they were ordered not to do so by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The parliamentarians accuse Ahmadinejad of concentrating power in his office. They say he withdrew $590 million from the Central Bank’s foreign reserve fund without parliamentary approval, that he illegally imports oil and natural gas, and spends government money without transparency. These specific allegations reflect deeper and more fundamental opposition. Already scorned by reformists who believe he stole the presidency in a rigged election last summer—not to mention Iranians who want an outright end to the country’s theocracy—Ahmadinejad has now alienated many influential political and religious figures in the country.

The reasons for his break with the clergy may seem odd to those in the West who associate Ahmadinejad with radical Islam. He is a religious extremist—but not one cut from the same cloth as most of the country’s mullahs.

All three of the world’s monotheistic religions share a belief in a messianic figure who will bring the world justice. For the Shia Muslims of Iran, this figure is the Mahdi, known as the Twelfth Imam, who was hidden by God centuries ago and will reappear at a time of death and destruction. Ahmadinejad believes the Mahdi will soon return, and that it is his job as president to get ready.

According to Kasra Naji, who has written a comprehensive biography of Ahmadinejad, when he was first sworn in as president in 2005, Ahmadinejad told Khamenei he expected his tenure would be brief, as he would soon hand over power to the Mahdi. “I assure you, I really believe this. He will come soon,” he said. Naji relates a widely believed anecdote about a cabinet meeting at which the Hidden Imam’s return was reportedly on the agenda. Ministers debated whether new hotels would be needed to accommodate expected religious tourists, or if the spirit of justice and peace resulting from the Mahdi’s appearance would cause everyone to welcome strangers into their homes. They decided against building new hotels.

Ahmadinejad’s obsession with the Hidden Imam amuses some Iranians, but the mullahs aren’t laughing. If the Mahdi’s return is imminent, so is the end of clerical rule in Iran. Worse, rumours abound that Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, a man by the name of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, believes he already has a direct link to the Mahdi, which would make holy intercession by the clergy even more redundant.

Already predisposed to suspect Ahmadinejad because he isn’t one of them, Iran’s mullahs are furious. They recall that he wanted to allow women into soccer stadiums. On foreign trips he has shaken hands with women. Ahmadinejad’s traditional conservative political opponents in parliament sense an opening and are piling on. “There’s a power struggle,” says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University and co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

The stakes are high, Akhavan says, because Iran’s political system is unstable, weakened by massive street demonstrations that shook the regime following Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election in the summer of 2009. This is why Khamenei stepped in to put an end to parliament’s revolt. “Khamenei realizes that if there is open war between the president and the parliament, that’s the end of the Islamic Republic,” Akhavan says.

Despite the recklessness with which Ahmadinejad has spurned much of the Iranian establishment, he has also tried to cultivate powerful friends. For the time being, at least, he has the tacit backing of Khamenei, who endorsed Ahmadinejad’s declared victory in 2009 as a “divine assessment” and has now defended him from parliament’s wrath. Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, describes this apparent support as “the great mystery of Iranian politics.” He suspects the two might share convictions about the Mahdi’s expected arrival.

Author Hooman Majd, a relative and friend of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, says Khamenei blocked moves to impeach Ahmadinejad because he didn’t want to expose disunity within Iran’s establishment at a time when the country is threatened by the West. “It’s one of those ironies that what we hate most about Iran today is probably Ahmadinejad and his goons, and we are kind of keeping him in power in a weird way,” Majd said in an interview with Maclean’s.

Whatever motivates Khamenei to protect Ahmadinejad, the supreme leader is also an elderly man with rumoured health problems. (U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks cite a source close to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who allegedly claimed Khamenei has terminal leukemia.) Ahmadinejad has invested more effort—and more of Iran’s wealth—trying to secure the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guards, a powerful branch of Iran’s military tasked with protecting the Islamic Revolution.

According to Naji, within months of taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad awarded the Revolutionary Guards and affiliated front companies at least $10 billion in contracts without bothering to submit them to public tender. When millions of Iranians flooded the streets after the 2009 election, it was the Guards and members of their Basij youth wing who swarmed on motorbikes into crowds, swinging batons and smashing heads.

But by diverting so much capital to the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad has attracted the ire of another important power bloc: Tehran’s bazaar merchants, who control vast amounts of wealth and are typically conservative. Many went on strike this summer, with similar shutdowns occurring in bazaars elsewhere in Iran. As for Ahmadinejad’s “election gold mine,” as Naji describes Iran’s rural poor, the president hasn’t forgotten them, but with international sanctions biting and Iran’s economy stumbling, he has less cash to spread around the countryside. Outside of the Revolutionary Guards and his own hardline faction of radical conservatives, Ahmadinejad has few influential allies left.

“I think it leaves him very vulnerable,” says Ansari. “There are people waiting with daggers almost drawn on the inside who want to get rid of him. But I think the regime itself is extremely unpopular.” Ansari adds that even though Ahmadinejad’s most serious threat, at least immediately, is from within Iran’s establishment, “the question is can they get rid of him without disturbing the entire fabric of the regime?”

Struggles within Iran’s political leadership, in other words, may feed popular unrest. “Whenever there is a little clash at the top, the people will come from the bottom,” says Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist and anti-regime activist who recently immigrated to Canada. “Then what will the reformist leaders do?” They may, he suggests, feel compelled to get behind those demanding more fundamental change.

There are other possible scenarios. Should Khamenei die, Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative and former president, will likely move to succeed him, and will then challenge Ahmadinejad, whom he despises, from an even stronger position. Ahmadinejad may lash out at the threats growing around him and try to consolidate more power within the Revolutionary Guards. Street protests, now sporadic, could again rock Tehran.

“The whole situation is extremely fragile,” says Ansari. “It will only take one thing to trigger everything off.”




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The knives are out for Ahmadinejad

  1. “The whole situation is extremely fragile,” says Ansari. “It will only take one thing to trigger everything off.” Geez. Where's that twelfth imam when you need him?

    While it may be hard to see how things could get any worse, I do hope for a good deal of turmoil in Iran, and eventual improvements for its people.

    • An unstable world leader under the gun politically, believes in an impeding end of the world and purportedly has nuclear weapons.
      Either the 12th Imam shows up or he reacts badly to being wrong. No worries right?
      At least the only curse of our political nut-bars is that they get a pension.

  2. The Iranian implosion begins!

  3. Hooman Majd is a bumbling idiot, he never makes sense! In true conspiratorial fashion, he wants to blame everything on the US! Hooman, as they say in Persian, boro jamesh kon olagh!

  4. What difference does it make who gets to pull the strings in the Islamic Republic ? None, either way we are being repressed. I left for exile in the early 1980's because I saw my country then turning into a religious dictatorship.

    We, educated Iranians are sick and tired of this anachronstic repressive regime that has hijacked Iran 30 years ago and given us nothing but a bad record and retarded Islamic brainwashing. For all his faults, under the Shah ,we had prestige in the world, we were progressive and looking to the world, we cherished our Persian non Islamic heritage, our women were being emancipated socially and before the law, look at us now, we must be eternally grateful if by the the likes of Amadinejad our women can claw back their right to watch a soccer game alongside men. Stop dreaming & stop giving legitimacy to the Islamic regime ( by taking part in their phony elections where Khamanei preselects the winner in advance!!), start to organize A REVOLUTION!!!! 30 Years ago you thought the Shah was worth deposing (BIG MISTAKE), but now you ain't got the guts to overthrow a regime that is 1 million times worse…..

    Khoda Biamorz Shahanshah Aryamehr !!!!

    • Right on Ardeshir! I travelled in Iran in the mid-seventies when the Shah was in power. When people found out I was Canadian, they became very friendly and wanted to know all about Canada. The only thing that didn't impress me was being in downtown Teheran in front of a very prestigious hotel where rich oil sheikhs were getting out of their Rolls Royces while on the other side of the street, beggars were in great abundance. However, it felt like a safe place and there seemed to be a lot of optimism about the goodness expected in the future. It's too bad that is all gone now and the fruitcakes have taken over.

      • Gary , your observation is spot on. Yes there was poverty in Iran, and I saw it also in the 1970's, while being at university in the capital. I think our Shah gave the Fruitcakes alot of ammunition, by focusing too much on turning Iran as fast as possible into the 5th biggest military power and lost sight of what was on the ground. As a student I like so many applauded his modernizing zeal (initially in 1963 i.e. White Revolution) but then with the growing westernization and socio economic gaps and closeness to the USA (Leftists and Mullahs really got him on this) most people turned against him. The Shah also made enemies in the West by hiking the oil price 4 fold in 1973-1974 as you may know. I was one of the few who still believed that our monarchy was good for the country and just needed to be reformed and believed that Dr Shapor Baktiar could do the job. Unfortunately our ignorant people wanted to be believe heaven was upon us with the Islamic fruitcakes in charge. Maybe now Iranians have woken up to this grave error.

      • Right on Gary! Your observation is spot on, as a student in Teheran, I saw poverty. But I dont believe like all the doomsayers back then than Iran couldn't have handled that. We had everything going for us, we had our ancient heritage, we were becoming the 5 biggest military power in the world, we were rapidly modernizing economically and socially. Maybe way too fast. I guess Shahanshah Aryamehr was too ambitious for a backward country that Iran was. He had a vision but lost track of domestic problems, focusing on world affairs mainly.As you know a coalition of Islamic frutcakes and communists undid all the progress we had going for the country. Iranians should look and see that today in Iran the GDP is considerably lower than in 1978, and we have Zero prestige in the world. What a regression.

  5. This situation with Amadi Nejad can not go on for much longer. The SL will cut him loose very soon, before he dies. Then Iran will start to recover if the Parliment can keep the IRG under control, although I fear now it is too late for this. This could cause a new revolution, one of their own making once again. Hopefully they will get it right this time with open, free, elections by the people who have moved away from the totalitarial islamic ways and back to the iranian ways. The people will be free once again. Free to set their own destiny through free elections and a free government elected by the people who have a say in how they want their country to be run. A say in how they want the rest of the world to view them. A say in how they interact with other world governments. This would truly be the end of the world for the current regime. Maybe 2012 is right time for the destruction of the evil in the world.

  6. More nonsense from Iranians whose paycheck comes from telling westerners what they want to hear. Americans, please, go and investigate and learn about Iran on your own, rather than getting your information from these yes men.

  7. And more nonsense from bleeding Hearts Westerners who go out of their way with praise and appeasement for Islamic repression to get their weekly paychecks straight from Amadinejad's Presidential office or the Pasdaran.
    Obviously you haven't lived in Iran to know whats going on so your opinion is worthless.

    I congratulate you utmost, because you really think Ignorance is Bliss !! Shame on you.

  8. oh dear, a religious nutter who thinks the world is about to end in charge of a country that's trying to develop a nuclear bomb…sounds like a nightmare scenario to me!

  9. Fingers crossed for Iranians to make their own revolution. They deserve better ruler than this guy…

  10. Iran’s movement MUST be loosely organized & members trained in IED making…similar to Iraq, this “group” must begin to destabilize in the next few months. This loose conglomeration MUST have separation of mosque/state ideology. This change, once accomplished will cause the many highly educated, wealthy expats to return. If physicists currently in the USA & Europe hadn’t fled because of theocratic rule, Iran would have a nuclear weapon. It’s what government is getting such technology. The US was providing the Shah with nuclear technology because they knew what they were getting. The mullahs on the other hand -I don think so!

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