Internal Divisions in Iran

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In Iran, tensions between the camps of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have been laid bare following Ahmadinejad’s refusal to report to his office for several days after Khamenei reinstated the country’s Intelligence minister against the wishes of the president. The Iranian website Mehr News reported at the beginning of the dispute that Ayatollah Khamenei “has advised Iranian officials and media outlets against disseminating information that would provide the enemies with pretexts to create a commotion about the country. The Leader made the remarks during a meeting with a number of police officials in Tehran on Sunday in reference to the commotion created by certain media outlets about Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi’s resignation, which was accepted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but was rejected by the Leader….The Leader said that Iranian officials, the intelligentsia, and media outlets should not speak in a way or write something that would undermine peace in the country and create discord, since that would not be in the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran at this juncture. He also pointed to the enemies’ attempts to blow certain disagreements between Iranian officials out of proportion, saying, “‘Pretexts should not be provided for the enemies.’”

Even though the intelligence minister was absent from the first cabinet meeting  following Ahmadinejad’s absence, according to Iran Independent News Service, “The Iranian Intelligence minister has reportedly attended a cabinet session chaired by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fars news agency reported Sunday. The presence of Heidar Moslehi is interpreted as a setback for the president and a sign of his loyalty to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad, who had discharged his minister, was urged by the leader of the Islamic Republic to accept him or resign as president, Iranian media reported this week, quoting a close aide to Ahmadinejad. The president was under heavy pressure by the Iranian clergy to obey the leader and recognize his order regarding return of Moslehi to his post.

In another sign of the supreme leader’s authority, underlining the fact that the dispute is far from over, Saeed Kamali Dehghan reported in the Guardian on the charges against and arrests of Ahmadinejad’s allies: “Close allies of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being “magicians” and invoking djinns (spirits)….Khamenei’s supporters believe that the top-level confrontation stems from the increasing influence of Mashaei, an opponent of greater involvement of clerics in politics, who is being groomed by Ahmadinejad as a possible successor….On Saturday, Mojtaba Zolnour, Khamenei’s deputy representative in the powerful Revolutionary Guard, said: ‘Today Mashaei is the actual president. Mr. Ahmadinejad has held on to a decaying rope by relying on Mashaei.’”

Following the public nature of the falling out between Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, many are wondering what the future holds for the Iranian president.  Tariq Alhomayed writes in Aswat al Ashwat that the final outcome is far from clear: “Ahmadinejad will either resign or be sacked, or perhaps remain in his position, if the intelligence chief supported by the Supreme Leader remains. This means that Ahmadinejad may actually fall, unless there is a surprise and Ahmadinejad himself ousts the Supreme Leader. This would be a momentous event, but nothing can be ruled out. Ahmadinejad would fall because of the failure of his foreign policies, as Iran today is completely isolated. Ahmadinejad would also fall due to the blow dealt to him by Khamenei, when he was ordered to keep his intelligence chief, as if he was the Iranian “secretary,” not the Iranian President. But will Ahmadinejad leave the political scene in the near future? Let’s see, although no one would miss him!”

Geneive Abdo, commenting on Al Jazeera, argues, “Many conservatives in the regime have had enough of Ahmadinejad, and they see this latest conflict with Khamenei as a good way to completely paralyze him and his loyalists. Outrage among influential conservatives has been fuelled further by the belief that they brought Ahmadinejad to power only to see their interests spurned after his election. Moreover, Ahmadinejad hails from a provincial and populist background that is at odds with the economic principles of the urban and merchant class that has long used its significant backing for the ruling clerics to pursue its interests….For now, Ahmadinejad appears unable to control his own destiny. With Khamenei, his long-time supporter, no longer willing to tolerate his insubordination, Iran’s parliament poised to bring him in for questioning, and his attempts to appear presidential mocked openly in the press, he might have to settle for serving out two years of his term as a weakened and lame-duck president.”

For Afshin Molavi it is clear who the loser is. In a recent article on The National he asserts, “Ahmadinejad challenged Iran’s clerics — and lost.” Molavi goes on to explain that the roots of dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad go deeper, looking forward to the next presidential elections. “What we are witnessing in Iran today is a seismic political moment. A power struggle has emerged between the hard-line Mr. Ahmadinejad and his allies and the hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his more formidable allies. It has rocked the political establishment and tested the survival skills of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has faced a withering political assault over the last two weeks….For Mr. Ahmadinejad, who landed in Istanbul for an international conference on Monday, the episode has damaged his reputation among the conservative power base that rules Iran today. He has emerged weakened and battered, but not yet beaten….The Moslehi affair seemed to be the last straw, but beyond the political struggle with the Supreme Leader, Mr. Ahmadinejad has also crossed another red line, one that might even be more consequential. He and his allies have trafficked in a school of thought that diminishes the influence and power of the clergy.”

In the online magazine Rooz, Ali Afshari also considers the electoral calculations behind both the camp of Ahmadinejad and that of Khamenei, suggesting, “the Ahmadinejad team seeks to gain support among the middle class, particularly those segments that are interested more in cultural and social, rather than political, reforms. They take this combination of support to guarantee their victory in future elections. It is strategically important for them to take a majority of the seats in the parliament, so that they can align the legislature with the executive against the unelected institutions, and force those institutions into retreat. But serious challenges await this plan, undermining its chances of success under normal political conditions….The prospects of victory for Ahmadinejad’s team are dim. He can be set aside just as quickly as he rose to power unless Ahmadinejad pulls out a surprise, such as revealing secrets about the controversial 2009 presidential election, or speaking directly against the supreme leader, or calling his supporters into the streets. Such a move would amount to political suicide, benefitting the green movement and those seeking change.”

Regardless of the rationale behind the maneuvering, it is clear, according to some observers, that the controversy couldn’t have come at a worse time and seems to have paralyzed Iran.  Writing for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, Ipek Yezdani notes that, according to experts, “Iran cannot play an active role in its turmoil-hit region because of its own internal political conflicts, disputes that will lead to ‘further polarization, further disunity and rivalry.’…Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had signaled that he had backed down in a power struggle with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after his apparent boycott of Cabinet meetings last week….Despite Iran’s claims to be a regional power, its internal rifts will keep it from having an impact in the ongoing processes sparked by the ‘Arab spring’ of opposition demonstrations….Iran has been the biggest ally of Syria for more than 30 years; however, when Syria is in the midst of a political turmoil now, we hear Turkey’s name more than we hear Iran’s name in the process…. Iran has turned into itself and it looks like it has been struggling with its own internal conflict right now.’”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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