Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Factional Strife in Iran

Each day brings new moves in the factional war in Tehran, invalidating the previous day's understanding of "kto-kvo" [who, to whom], as a student of Stalinism might say.

Ahmadinejad has fired his intelligence chief, Mohseni-Ejei. This was reported in a none-too-friendly article in the hardline Kayhan newspaper. Here is what Global Security had to say about him (apparently in 2005):

Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei is a graduate of Qom's Haqqani School, and many other alumni are active throughout Iran's government, sine in some of the most sensitive positions of power. The Haqqani School is noteworthy because it serves as a connection between so many individuals, but nowadays it also denotes an extremist school of thought advocating violence against one's enemies and strict clerical control over social and governmental affairs.

Judging from the above analysis, the struggle over control of the Ministry of Security and Intelligence amount to a fight between the ascendant IRGC faction and the retreating clerical faction. From the perspective of the Iranian man in the street, it is hard to discern any “good guys” in this struggle. Power corrupts, as the occasional thinking American or Israeli will understand all too well.

In any case, a purge of the intelligence ministry now appears under way, a step that one could be excused for finding rather curious when the Ahmadinejad Administration is simultaneously advocating a purge of reformers. The explanation may be that Ahmadinejad and his IRGC backers simply do not view popular pressures for civil rights or electoral reform as a significant challenge and perhaps indeed welcome the protests because it gives the military an opportunity to equate chaos in the streets and democracy and the “foreign threat” with its real enemy – the old clerical revolutionary generation. Rafsanjani’s well-known corruption just makes it all the easier for the IRGC to pose as the nation’s savior while it consolidates power. (For an analysis of Ahmadinejad’s predicament, see here.) As for Rafsanjani, he has been humiliated again by apparently being forced out of the normal rotation to deliver the Tehran Friday prayer sermon, yet another sign that the clerical faction favoring compromise is on the defensive.

As for the winners, two men are emerging in control of intelligence: the commander of the Basiji, Hojjatoleslam Hossein Taeb, and Hojatoleslam Ahmad Salek, Khomenei’s representative in the IRGC counterintelligence department. Salek has been accused of overseeing the torture of arrested protestors.

Two questions are immediately pertinent:

  1. Ahmadinejad’s fortunes are greatly buttressed by fervent support from some highly-placed clerics (e.g., Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi). How long will Ahmadinejad be able to count on splitting the clerics? Will they become uneasy at the prospect of taking orders from the IRGC, especially now that hardline cleric Mohseni-Ejei has been fired? Interestingly, Mohseni-Ejei is from the Haqqani Seminary in Qom founded by Ahmadinejad’s mentor Mesbah-Yazdi.
  2. Will the unity of the IRGC collapse?

Clearly, the Western image of the Iranian regime against the masses is far too simplistic. The image articulated by Ahmadinejad supporters of a strict IRGC combating corruption is hardly persuasive, given the extraordinary degree of IRGC corruption. But the recent removals of some clerics high in intelligence circles and their replacement by other clerics who seem equally conservative and have military/intelligence backgrounds indicates that the image of the IRGC against the clerics is also too simplistic.

It is hard to imagine what a conservative Shi’ite clergyman who risked his life for the revolution against the Shah’s corruption and oppression can be thinking today. Indeed, the Shah would be increasingly comfortable in the militarized Iran that seems to be emerging.

Curiously, Salek vociferously opposed Ahmadinejad’s effort to appoint a first vice presidential candidate in the face of the opposition of Khamenei himself. Could this be a hint that what is really happening is that a Khamenei-conservative clerical old guard-IRGC faction is emerging in opposition to moderates, corrupt clerics, protestors…and Ahmadinejad, whose temperament may be making him an unwanted ally?

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