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Khamenei Looks Off-Balance After Dramatic Week

TEHRAN, Feb 12 2013 (IPS) - Last week’s dramatic and very public display of deep fissures among the leading politicians of Iran has left many here wondering if the conflict will escalate into an all-out war among various political factions in the run-up to the presidential election in June.

President Ahmadinejad (left) and Ayatollah Khamenei. Credit: Mehr News Agency

While everyone considers Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to be the only official powerful enough to prevent such infighting from getting out of hand, confidence that he will indeed do so has been shaken.

Politics in the Islamic Republic has always been raucous and full of surprises, but what happened last week was in many ways unprecedented.

The spark was the parliament’s decision to impeach the minister of cooperatives, labour, and social welfare, Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, for his failure to dismiss former judge and Tehran prosecutor-general Saeed Mortazavi from his post as the director of the Social Security Organisation (SSO), an agency under the ministry’s authority.

Lawmakers were concerned that, under Mortazavi’s leadership, the SSO, Iran’s largest pension fund and one of its largest economic organisations, has been selling off major public assets to individuals and companies close to the government.

The Court of Administrative Justice had ruled previously that Mortazavi should be removed both because he lacked the necessary qualifications for his post and because of his suspension as a judge as a result of a number of pending indictments against him.

The executive branch, however, frustrated the ruling – first, by changing the name of the SSO and then by transferring the new organisation from the ministry’s authority to that of the first vice president’s office. It also removed Mortazavi as director only to re-appoint him as its caretaker pending the appointment of a new one.

The parliament was aghast at this deliberate defiance, but, constitutionally unable to impeach the first vice president, it chose instead move against Sheikholeslami.

But the impeachment process, which was broadcast live on radio, took an extraordinary turn when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, purportedly appearing in defence of his minister, instead played a secretly taped conversation between Mortazavi and a younger brother of the powerful Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani and Judiciary chief Sadeq Amoli Larijani.

The tape’s content suggested that Larijani’s brother, Fazel, was trying to tout his influence with his brothers in order to receive profitable contracts from Mortazavi.

After allowing the tape to be played, Speaker Larijani denounced the president for his conduct. Among other charges, Larijani claimed that he had been told before the session that if he did not stop the impeachment proceeding, the tape would be played.

He then detailed alleged legal violations by the executive branch, and recalling the words of Ahmadinejad’s own brother, suggested that some members of the president’s close circle may be in contact with opposition groups outside of Iran.

At the session’s end, the parliament, in what was widely seen as a de facto referendum on Ahmadinejad’s performance, voted to remove Sheikholeslami by the largest margin recorded against any cabinet official.

Initial amusement at the fireworks and folly of politicians, however, has now given way to genuine bewilderment as to where this open acrimony among powerful factions is leading.

Ahmadinejad’s penchant for using the threat of revelations regarding the corrupt conduct of various past or present officials has been on display since his 2009 presidential re-election, when he accused key figures of the Islamic Republic, including former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Parliament Speaker and presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, of extensive corruption.

But his attack on the Larijani family, which includes the heads of the judicial and legislative branches of government, was unprecedented in its use of a secretly taped conversation played before an official and very public forum.

Mortazavi’s immediate arrest by the judiciary on charges of taping a conversation without legal authorisation calmed some nerves and suggested that Ahmadinejad was finally being reined in. It also pleased much of the Iranian press, for which Mortazavi’s career when he was a judge is best remembered for his imprisonment of numerous journalists and banning of many reformist newspapers.

“On top of satisfying a sense of revenge many people had towards Mortazavi,” one political analyst told IPS, “this arrest also signaled to many people that Leader Khamenei was now serious in addressing the blatant legal abuses committed by Ahmadinejad and his cronies.”

But Mortazavi’s release from prison the next day created new uncertainty, renewing concern about Khamenei’s willingness or ability to put an end to the attacks by Ahmadinejad and his loyal supporters against other officials of the Islamic Republic.

This concern was confirmed when, on the anniversary of the revolution Sunday, Speaker Larijani’s speech was disrupted when objects were hurled at him in an event in the holy city of Qom which he represents in the Parliament.

The well-known cleric Mohammad Javad Hojjati Kermani expressed this concern last Thursday in the daily Ettela’at, whose chief editor is appointed by Khamenei.

Noting his own disagreements with the Leader, Kermani wrote that he prays for Khamenei’s wellbeing every day since “in case of his death I do not know what will happen to this country and the nation… and what these abusive and slandering, fiery (men) will do to the people.”

This concern is not without foundation. The day after Mortazavi’s release, the Iran Daily, which is run by Ahmadinejad supporters, described the revelations against the Larijani brothers as a “soft document”. According to a journalist who did not want to be identified, “the term soft document suggests that more concrete and important evidence of their corruption will be revealed if necessary.”

Most observers believe that the Leader does indeed have the power to put an end to Ahmadinejad’s aggressive behaviour and are befuddled why he does not use it.

One university professor believes that the Leader, whose strategy since mid-2011 – when attacks by the president against his former conservative allies broke into the open – he describes as intended to gradually and peacefully weaken Ahmadinejad’s influence while letting him serve out his term, has been genuinely “taken aback” by Ahmadinejad’s “sudden game”.

In this view, Khamenei has been “temporarily thrown off-balance and doesn’t know what to do”.

But another close observer of Iranian politics sees the issue as more than temporary. This political science professor thinks that the Leader and people surrounding him are undecided about what to do for two reasons.

“Fears that Ahmadinejad may reveal more about the corruption of high-ranking officials, including Khamenei’s own children, or even the details of electoral manipulations that may have occurred in the contested 2009 presidential election and fear of admitting that he (Khamenei) was wrong in his full-fledged support of Ahmadinejad after the 2009 election,” the professor says.

What lies behind the Leader’s inaction and passivity has become a puzzle. Perhaps this is why in his last speech, which mostly focused on Iran’s foreign relations, he promised to speak soon on last week’s stunning turn of events.

The country awaits his words and wonders whether he can prevent the heat generated last week from turning into a firestorm.

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  • QLineOrientalist

    Wonderful article.
    I think the Leader is reluctant to lance this boil because he still thinks that it will lead to an open rupture in the regime, something he is reluctant to provoke. By slowly easing Ahmadinejad, who will not be in power long, and assuring a strong candidate in the upcoming elections, he can finish demolishing Ahmadinejad’s power base.

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