Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bomb kills at least 30 in port city

I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau.

Two suicide bombers killed at least 30 people and injured 55 in a mourning procession in Chabahar on Wednesday morning, according to news reports in Iran.

The Jundullah armed group, which was designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization in November, took responsibility for the attack in a statement posted to the Internet today.The group published photos of two young men wearing explosives vests and purported to be the suicide bombers, who were identified as Seifolrahman Chabahari and Hessan Khashi. (This blog will not post the photos glorifying the suicide bombers) The statement said that the attack had been carried out to avenge the Islamic Republic's execution of Jundullah's leader, Abdol Malek Rigi, in June of this year.

Information from official sources was confusing, at times contradictory, in the immediate aftermath of the bloody attacks which took place between Farmandari Square and Imam Hossein mosque in this balmy port with a free-trade zone on the Gulf of Oman.

Chabahar is situated in the southern fringes of Sistan-va-Baluchistan province which has a large Sunni Muslim population and has been the scene of terrorist attacks by the Jundullah armed group which proclaims that the country's majority Shiites persecute Sunnis. The Interior Ministry was prompt in blaming foreign governments, particularly the U.S. 'The equipment and logistical support of the terrorists indicate that these elements were backed by advanced intelligence services of the region and the United States,' said a statement.

The head of the country's Red Crescent and emergency services, Mahmoud Mozaffar, declared that 36 people had perished, before revising the figure to 31. Some injured victims who were subsequently revived had been counted among the dead, according to Mozaffar. Mohammad Yaghoub Jadgal, the parliamentary representative from Chabahar, told the state news agency IRNA that 50 to 60 injured had been transferred to hospitals.

The following video shows security forces and emergency workers in the area, shortly after the attack:

Witnesses spoke of two explosions in front of Imam Hossein Mosque on Imam Boulevard that cuts the city in two, along an east-west axis. The city's predominantly Sunni population worships at the much larger Jameh Mosque, a few blocks to the east. The attacks came on one of the holiest days, Tasoua, of one of the holiest months, Moharram, of the Shiite calendar. The first ten days of Moharram are devoted to mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, one of the most revered figures in the Shiite faith, culminating in the commemoration of Ashura tomorrow.

View Chabahar, Iran - Imam Hossein Mosque - 15 Decemeber 2010 in a larger map

Today's attack took place in the official mourning procession of fishery workers and their families, according to Mehr News.

Deputy Interior Minister in charge of security Ali Abdollahi told reporters that two bombs went off in close proximity between 10:00 and 10:30 AM, but subsequent news releases said that one of the two blasts was an acoustic bomb. It now appears that the latter conflagration was from the detonator of a second explosive device that did not go off.

Local intelligence and security sources informed Mehr News that three assailants had been involved and that the 'main instigator' had been arrested, while another had been killed when his explosives vest blew up. Mehr News reported that the third individual had been shot by the police. Chabahar Governor Ali Bateni denied that three men were responsible for the attacks, but he confirmed that the 'main element in the terrorist attack' has been arrested.

The official line slowly emerging from the chatter seems to be that two suicide bombers carried out the attack, that only one succeeded in exploding his device, and that both men are now dead. 'One explosion had a lower toll because the assailant was identified before the blast,' said Deputy Interior Minister Abdollahi in a later statement; 'The individual was identified by the police and shot. But he managed to detonate the device which did not cause much damage.'

Sistan-va-Baluchistan Governor Ali Mohammad Azad told the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network that the 'two terrorists waited along the procession's route because they had not been able to approach the official stand. They were suicide bombers. As soon as the security forces became suspicious of them, the first individual exploded his device, martyring and injuring some of our loved ones. The second individual who intended to blow himself up at the same time was identified by the security forces and shot and killed. Some 30 loved ones were killed and 55 injured thus far.' (see video below)

So no terrorist was arrested? 'Both were killed,' said Governor Azad. 'The second individual's belt did not function because he had been shot. Only its detonator exploded. This second one did not cause any casualties.'

Opposition groups have announced that they will participate in tomorrow's Ashura ceremonies. Last year's ceremonies turned into a bloody protest against the regime, during which security forces killed demonstrators, at least in two documented instances by running over them with police vehicles.

It is unclear whether today's blasts will result in tougher security measures tomorrow.


The following is further footage from state television. I apologize for not having the time to translate:


Monday, December 13, 2010

Atom chief becomes acting foreign minister

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has unceremoniously replaced Manouchehr Mottaki, the longtime foreign minister of the Islamic Republic, with the head of the country's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, according to a terse statement posted to the presidency's site early Monday afternoon.

Salehi was named the caretaker of the ministry as any change to the cabinet must be confirmed by the legislature before it becomes official. Article 135 of the constitution allows the president to name a caretaker minister for a maximum of three months.

This development may signal a new round of acrimony between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Majlis. Mottaki reportedly enjoyed broad support in the parliament and had been endorsed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a televised meeting with the government on August 30. 'If Mottaki is replaced, the president should expect a strong reaction from the Majlis,' Mohammad Karamirad, member of the national security and foreign affairs committee of the legislature, had said around the same time.

The president's office published a two-sentence decree appointing Salehi and a separate short letter thanking Mottaki for his service. No further information or explanation was provided in the statement.

The dismissal appears particularly brusque since Mottaki is currently in Senegal, bearing a message from Ahmadinejad to President Abdoulaye Wade.

Alaeddine Boroujerdi, the chairman of the national security and foreign affairs committee, told Khabar Online's reporter that he was unaware of the news. 'Isn't Mr. Mottaki on a trip?' he asked the reporter. 'You mean the dismissal decree was issued while he was on a mission?'

Boroujerdi directed the reporter to contact Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast for more information.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Student Day scrapbook - 7 December 2010

Updated 3:30 PM GMT, 8 December 2010.

I have started compiling video, photos, and information concerning protests on Student Day, 7 December 2010, at 3:15 PM GMT. My aim is to give a raw idea of today's events. This should not be considered a live blog. I will update and bring a semblance of organization as the day progresses.

Young Iranians living abroad have launched a campaign called 'Where is my classmate?' to promote awareness of jailed students in the Islamic Republic. Posters show an empty classroom chair. The tag line is reminiscent of last year's 'Where is my vote?'

Sistan-va-Baluchistan University

A declaration demanding the release of all jailed students was read at a candlelight vigil at this university in southeastern Iran. The students also stressed that neither the threat of imprisonment, nor death, would diminish their resolve.

What appears to be back entrance of Amir Kabir University

Protesters sing student anthem Yareh dabestaniyeh man. This song will probably feature prominently in today's rallies. (click here to hear a fantastic new version of the song with an animation subtitled in English)

The song, once again. Then, 'Students would rather die than be humiliated.' Notice security agent at 1:15, talking into a walkie-talkie as he climbs a light post. Later, 'Mir Hossein!' referring to Green leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

A public circle dance...

Basijis try to disrupt the protest by forcing their way to the center and beating their chests (0:21). Cameraman says, 'Less than fifty [Basijis] keep sticking to the crowd like ticks.'

More footage of a few dozen Basijis staging a counter-demonstration next to the hundreds of green students.

Various student sources report four arrests in Amir Kabir University today. Bagheri and Zowghi (no first names available), members of the university's security forces, were particularly active in clashes against the students. Basijis prevented students from unfurling a poster of Majid Tavakoli, jailed student leader who was arrested here last year.

The following image shows Tavakoli. 'We will never forget you,' read the top two lines. 'We are speaking in the heart of oppression. We shout out, strengthened by our beliefs. We stand alongside each other... Majid Tavakoli, the dignity of the student movement.'

Elm-o-Sanat (Science and Technology) University

A silent protest, which began in what students have started calling 'Martyr Asa Park,' in memory of Kianoush Asa. Asa was killed in last year's anti-regime demonstrations (For more information on Kianoush Asa, click here.)

Entrance of Sharif University

We hear a part of a popular ditty from the revolution. The words have been changed, making Ahmadinejad rather than the Shah the target of the lyrics:
Mahmoudeh Khaen, avareh gardi,
To in vatan ra, viraneh kardi,
Koshti javananeh vatan, Allaho akbar,
Kardi hezaran dar kafan, Allaho akbar,
Marg bar to, marg bar to,
Marg bar to, MARG BAR TO.

Mahmoud the traitor, may you become a displaced person,
You have destroyed this country,
You've killed the youth of the nation, Allaho akbar,
You've put thousands in burial shrouds, Allaho akbar,
Death to you, death to you,
Death to you, DEATH TO YOU!

The demonstrators then chant, 'Honorable Karroubi, come to the nation's aid!' referring to Green leader Mehdi Karroubi. This slogan is followed by 'Coup government, this is your last warning. Iran's green movement is ready to rebel.' Security officers stand, arms folded, in front of the sit-in.

Ghazvin University

(For close-up analysis of last year's protest at this university, please click here)

The students take security officials to task for breaking up their rally.

Security official: It is illegal.
Young woman: Everything is illegal in this country.
Young man: They've turned the university into an army barracks.
Young man: The 16th of Azar (December 7) is not illegal.
Young woman: Today is Student Day. It's our day. It's our day, mister.

'Death to the dictator!'

Tehran University

New video showing yesterday's protest.

College of Arts

Screen blocks view of the entrance of Tehran University...

Technical College (photo courtesy Radio Farda). Photo could be of yesterday's protest.

Zahedan University

Candlelight vigil. One protester holds up a photo of slain student Kianoush Asa. Another shows a sign which reads 'Silence...' A third displays a photo of student Amir Javadifar, killed by torturers in Kahrizak detention center.

Babol University

And now a comic moment... Basiji rally attracts two dozen people, chanting 'Death to England!' and similar slogans, as students file past them without casting a glance.

Gilan University

After Babol, staying in the north of the country. 'Students would rather die than accept humiliation...'

Hamedan's Bou Ali Sina University

Yesterday, green students hijacked the screens of the computers in the common area.


Enghelab Square, Tehran

Heavy security presence...

Niayesh Highway, Tehran

Green banner proclaiming '16 Azar' (Student Day, December 7)...


Though only a small group of demonstrators in Tokyo voiced their support for Iranian students on December 5, it's an opportunity to hear this version of Lean On Me, by Iranian singer Andy, Jon Bon Jovi, and Richie Sambora...


Demonstrators congregated in front of the IRI embassy in Greece and protested the presence of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the regime's oppressive acts, including the persecution of Iranian Christians.

Tabriz's Sahand University

Student sources claim these photos are of yesterday's official ceremony in which protesting students chanted slogans and held up signs.

'A star in your file = the student's share of justice.' Stars are attributed to dissident students by disciplinary committees.

Student reads flier with photo of Mir Hossein Mousavi.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Protests on eve of Student Day

Students at Tehran University's Technical College defied a security clampdown to stage a protest on their campus on the eve of Student Day, according to videos posted on YouTube by Unity4Iran.

Student Day in Iran, December 7, is different from International Student Day which takes place on November 17. While celebrating student activism in general, the Iranian event is also a commemoration of the slaying of three Tehran University students by the Shah's police in 1953, shortly after the coup that brought Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to power.

Students organized mass rallies against the regime on this day last year. (For a look at a live blog of December 7, 2009, please click here. For a detailed analysis of one video taken at Ghazvin University, please click here). Reports from Iran indicate that the regime has bolstered security in an effort to prevent similar incidents from occurring tomorrow.

The following videos were taken at Tehran University at approximately 3 PM, 6 December 2010, Unity4Iran explained in an e-mail exchange.

'Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein,' the students chant in support of Green leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. 'Death to the dictator!'

'With God's help, victory is near,' they shout. 'Death to this deceitful government!' And later: 'Students will die before they accept humiliation.'

'Political prisoners must be freed!'

Friday, December 3, 2010

Messianic or messy antics: The politics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - Part 2

I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau. This is part 2 of a series of two articles, which explore whether Ahmadinejad is a religious fanatic or a populist. Or perhaps a mixture of both. For part 1, please click here.  

On the offensive

On July 10 of this year, Panjereh magazine published an interview with Seyed Morteza Nabavi, which was picked up in full the next day by Jahan News, considered close to the intelligence unit of the IRGC. The piece was entitled 'A Deviant Faction is Being Formed Within the Principlist Camp.'

Nabavi is considered a theoretician of the regime whose influence surpasses his official functions within the political organization he helped found, the Islamic Society of Engineers. Though Ahmadinejad is also a member of the ISE, the group supported one of Ahmadinejad's rivals, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, in the 2005 presidential race. Nabavi is also close to the Islamic Coalition (Mowtalefeh) Party and the conservative Combatant Clergy Association, not be confused with the reformist Association of Combatant Clerics of which ex-President Mohammad Khatami is a leading voice. He runs the Resalat newspaper and has stated that 'The main concern of Resalat is the ruling ideology.'

Nabavi had this to say about the 'deviant faction' mentioned in the interview's title. 'Young Principlists must be very careful not to fall into this trap. [...] This is a faction whose deviance is plain to see. They say that they have a direct link to the Imam Zaman. They want to put aside the clergy in all matters of religion, law, and politics,' Nabavi warned, before adding, 'This faction of Principlists seeks Principlism minus the clergy.'

It was unlikely that Nabavi had chosen this last phrase by accident. 'Principlism minus the clergy' (osoulgarayi menhayeh rohaniyat) is clearly reminiscent of 'Islam minus the clergy,' a concept made famous by Ali Shariati, a prominent Islamic thinker and considered an ideologue of the 1979 revolution, even though he was at odds with the mullarchy and passed away in 1977 in Southampton, England, before the fall of the Shah. 'Theocracy is a system in which clerics, instead of politicians, assume political and governmental positions. In other words, theocracy is the rule of clerics over the nation. The natural outcome of such a [system] is despotism because the cleric considers himself the surrogate of God and the executor of His affairs on Earth,' Shariati wrote. In another instance, he wrote, '[In Islam], an organization known as the "clergy" does not exist and no one becomes a professional cleric. In Islam, there is no middleman between the people and God. Everyone is in direct contact with Him.' Supporters of the regime will of course argue that Iran is an Islamic republic and not a theocracy.

Without getting into the details or merit of Shariati's philosophy which cannot be summarized in the two quotes above, it should be noted that his blend of Marxism/Socialism and Islamic reformation was extremely popular among the idealistic youth of the period. So much so that in the years leading up to the revolution, and despite numerous fatwas against him, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did not take an official stand against Shariati. Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a confidant of Khomeini, wrote the founder of the Islamic Republic a letter in which his frustration is palpable: 'The least of [Shariati's] sins is that he has given a bad name to the clergy. He described cooperation between the clergy and unjust governments against the masses as a general social principle. [In other words, he claimed] that the blade, gold, and prayer beads lie alongside one another and share the same goal.' (The Martyred Sheikh, Sadra Publications, p.39-46)

In his interview with Panjereh magazine, Nabavi was issuing a warning against an idea -- 'Principlism minus the clergy' -- that, while not as extreme as 'Islam minus the clergy,' still had the potential to be immensely popular. So who are the 'deviants,' whom Nabavi spoke of, who would exploit this popular idea?

One indication comes from an interview given by Deputy Minister of Islamic Guidance Mohammad Ali Ramin in September. 'Instead of being active behind the closed doors of political parties, NGOs, or other Western-style institutions, our clergy should return to their mosques,' said Ramin. He tempered his words by adding that he meant that the clergy could restore the central position of mosques in Iranian society and re-mobilize the vitality of the devout population which had stopped going to mosques.

The mullahs however took a very dim view of what Ramin had said. The head of the clerical faction of the Majlis, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, contended, 'Nobody pays attention to what the deputy minister says. [...] The main goal of individuals making such remarks is to remove the clergy from the [national scene] and take religion out of the government and politics.' When radio host Ahmad Tavakoli (no relation to the Majlis MP of the same name) questioned Ramin about his remarks on a live show, the deputy minister lost his cool and insulted Tavakoli with a phrase that means, 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' (Shoma ghalat kardid...) (Listen to the show below)

Ramin lived in Germany from 1971 until 1994, when he was deported, allegedly for his links with neo-Nazi and far-right parties. He was unknown on the national stage until Ahmadinejad's first term, when he became a presidential adviser, most notably contributing to the president's negationist positions on the Holocaust. He was the organizer of the infamous Holocaust Conference in Tehran, to which he invited old friends from Germany, including Benedikt Frings of the NPD (National Democratic Party). It is doubtful that he would have made the comments about returning the clergy to mosques without the consent of Ahmadinejad, who has yet to chastise him.

Ahmadinejad's aides presented other novel ideas about Islam and Iranian society over the summer. 'There are many takes on the school of Islam, but our understanding of the reality of Iran and the reality of Islam is the school of Iran, and we must henceforth introduce the school of Iran to the world,' said Chief-of-Staff Rahim Mashai at a conference for Iranian expatriates in August. The identity and mythology of the regime is Islamic, the basis for its power has been Islamic, and here was a very senior government official touting the school of Iran (maktabeh Irani), and not even the school of Iranian Islam.

The reactions from regime insiders were swift and unequivocal. General Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, Armed Forces joint Chief of Staff said, 'We consider such words to be a deviation and a crime against national security and an attack on the values of the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution.' Regime officials almost always refer to the Islamic Republic and not the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As Habibollah Asgaroladi, secretary general of Supporters of the Line of the Imam and the Leader (a coalition of a dozen parties under the Principlist umbrella), said in response to Rahim Mashai, 'The basis for the Islamic movement and revolution was Islam, and the republic was based on the meaning of Islam. Imam Khomeini, at a time when there was mention of an Iranian Republic or a National Democratic Republic, declared an Islamic Republic, not one word less, not one word more.' And to stress the dangers of forsaking Islamic identity to patriotism or national identity, he added, 'The Imam [Khomeini] tried very hard to make the Arabs understand that as long as they called Palestine Arabic it would come to no good and that Palestine was Islamic.'

'If Rahim Mashai persists in his errors, we will not remain silent in the face of these perverted, nationalistic acts of conjuring schools (maktab-sazi enherafi nasionalisti),' said Ayatollah Abbas Kaabi of the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers and a member of the Assembly of Experts. 'Mr. Mashai's remarks about a school of Iran were all about conjuring up a nationalistic school [of thought] for Islam.'

And therein lies the crux. Nationalism and patriotism are extremely popular in Iran, perhaps more so than religion. Two of the most noteworthy slogans chanted in last years opposition demonstrations were 'Neither eastern, nor western, but an Iranian Republic' and 'Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon. I give my life only for Iran.' The patriotic song 'Ey Iran,' written in the aftermath of World War II, has long been a favorite of Iranians and it has become something of an opposition anthem in the past years. Is it an accident that Ahmadinejad's chief of staff has brought up the idea of a 'school of Iran' so soon after last year's unrest? Perhaps not.

Not only has the president not disavowed Rahim Mashai's remarks, he has endorsed them despite the outcry by conservative clerics and regime insiders. 'What we say is very clear. the government speaks with only one voice. [Rahim Mashai] says the same thing, perhaps with a different vocabulary. Iran has had a singular role in developing a pure Islam. This is not nationalism,' he insisted at a press conference shortly after the incident. He maintained his support in a speech at last month's conference on 'Soft War' -- regime-speak for velvet or color revolutions -- held at Tehran University. 'There are many takes on Islam [...] in the world. The understanding of Islam which is worthy of consideration for us has to be Iranian,' he told the participants. 'We believe Iran's culture and understanding of truth to be the closest to truth,' he added.

Ahmadinejad's feigned crowd-pleasing statements, the Third-Worldism he shares with the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, his attempts to gain a holy mantle, while tapping into quasi-reformation and anti-clerical ideology, and the appeals to the powerful social forces of nationalism and patriotism, give the appearance of a cynical, populist streak in the president. Whatever his plans, not many observers believe that Ahmadinejad will simply disappear from the political stage after serving his second term. 

The president is not the official head of any party, which would have allowed him to maintain a voice in the Islamic Republic's affairs. He seemed to be addressing this issue at the national gathering of representatives of the Supreme Leader in July when he stated, 'The velayat and the revolution have but one party and that is the velayat party and God's party.' Velayat can be a reference to the Supreme Leader or the rule of the Imam Zaman. In both cases, Ahmadinejad may believe that he can occupy a central position within such a nebulous entity at the expense of the established groups. Certainly, the quick reactions of various political figures showed that that was their interpretation of the president's words. 'The velayat party has no basis in reality and the Imam [Khomeini] and the Supreme Leader have not referred to it even once. [...] Some people are creating disturbances among Principlists and we must be aware of this,' Islamic Coalition Party chairman Mohammad Nabi Habibi was quoted in Khabar Online, a news site close to Majlis Speaker Larijani.

The president may be taking concrete steps to place his ideological stamp on the regime. In August, Jahan News reported that a 'Principlist manifesto' (Ahmadinejadism?) was being drafted and that it would soon be submitted to Ahmadinejad. 'This manifesto, which will provide a clear description of Principlism, will restrict the scope of Principlism to such a degree that individuals such as [Tehran mayor] Ghalibaf and [Majlis Speaker] Larijani will no longer be considered Principlists,' wrote the news outlet close to the intelligence unit of the IRGC. (Ghalibaf and Larijani also ran in the 2005 presidential election, but failed to make it to the second round.) Majlis representative Ali Motahari reached the same conclusion in an interview with Aftab daily, accusing 'Principlist extremists' of devising the manifesto in order to eliminate Ahmadinejad's rivals. Motahari surmised that certain Principlists were taking this step in order to prepare for the next elections.

'It is a pity that the presidency only lasts two terms, because Ahmadinejad's record in this term has been much better than the previous one,' said Mohammad Javad Larijani, Khamenei's adviser and head of the human rights commission of the judiciary, in May. Whether Larijani was attempting to gain the support of the president's loyalists for his brother, Speaker Larijani, or whether he was putting on a show of impartiality, the statement did provoke some discussion about a possible amendment to the constitution. If Khamenei were to consider such an amendment to be expedient, it is quite possible that it would be railroaded through the legislature and Guardian Council.

However, it must be noted that unlike in the US constitution, where the 22nd amendment clearly sets two term limits on a president, the Islamic Republic's constitution says the following on the issue:

Article 114
The President is elected for a four-year term by the direct vote of the people. His re-election for a successive term is permissible only once.
In other words, a former president who has served two terms can run again after a lapse of one term. That is why Mohammad Khatami was able to consider (and reject) becoming a candidate again in 2009 and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ran in 2005 even though he had already served two terms in the 1990s.  

Some analysts believe that Ahmadinejad may attempt a 'Putin-Medvedev shuffle.' Former Russian President Vladimir Putin handpicked his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008 when he faced the same type of constitutional restriction. He subsequently became the prime minister and is expected to run for president again in 2012. There have been persistent rumors that Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, whose daughter happens to be married to Ahmadinejad's son, would play the Medvedev role in the Iranian scenario.

As explained previously, Rahim Mashai is not popular among many conservative clerics and portions of the Principlist camp, who managed to convince Khamanei to block his nomination to the post of First Vice President last year. Ahmadinejad enraged his rivals by quickly naming him as his chief of staff, which could not have occurred without the acquiescence of the Supreme Leader. This suggests a certain symbiotic relationship between the president and Khamenei, each considering the other as necessary to advance their own goals.

It would not be outlandish for Khamenei to accept Rahim Mashai in the highest elected office of the land. He is one of Ahmadinejad's closest aides who has voiced many of the same populist positions as the president. He is considered more amenable to some reformist demands and maintains ties to the trendy artistic community. He could therefore bring some of the opponents of the regime back into the fold. If he were to become president, Khamenei would be able to maintain the delicate, yet tense, balance within the power structure and regain some luster as an arbiter.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to disdainfully dismiss the preferred candidate of the Ahmadinejad camp, given the official claims that he garnered 24 million votes. 'Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Mashai have pushed the Principlists into a corner in the sense that they say, [...] We have more votes than anyone else,' Alireza Namvar Haghighi, a political analyst in Tornonto told Radio Farda. 'This is the Principlists' paradox. Either they have to say that these are not your votes or that there was some fraud in the elections. Therefore, they must come to some skewed compromise with [Ahmadinejad and Mashai].' 

Ahmadinejad's supporters seem to be laying the groundwork for a Rahim Mashai run for the presidency. In September, Principlist Majlis representative Behrouz Jafari announced the formation of the Justice and Welfare Front (Jebheyeh edalat va refah), a coalition of a dozen pro-Ahmadinejad groups in the legislature. Anti-Ahmadinejad conservative news outlets including Tabnak, controlled by former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, and Alef, run by Malis research center head Ahmad Tavakoli, reported that the coalition's main function was to support Rahim Mashai. But the Justice and Welfare Front's secretary general, Hojjatoleslam Amirifar, denied the allegation and added, 'Mr. Rahim Mashai has not even declared that he will be a candidate [in the 2013 presidential race].'

'Some people seem to have an abnormal sensitivity towards Mr. Mashai,' Ahmadinejad said in a recent interview broadcast by the 20:30 news show. 'I have complete confidence in Mr. Mashai. I know him as someone who believes in the principles of the Islamic Republic, the values of the revolution and the Iranian nation. He is a person who believes in the line of the velayat. He is a pure individual.'

Beyond the official political organizations, Rahim Mashai can also count on the support of the President's Young Advisers, a broad network of up-and-coming activists present in various ministries, presidential offices, and provincial governments. Rahim Mashai happens to head this group, one of the dozen or so functions that he fills in the administration. Before the summer, he named Abbas Masjedi as his plenipotent representative within the group and instructed him to 'expand the Young Advisers network throughout all ministries, independent organizations, vice-presidential offices, and provincial governorships by the end of the [Iranian year],' according to the Ahmadinejad administration's news outlet. The president and Rahim Mashai received a rousing welcome at the 4th Conference of Young Advisers on October 10.

A week later, Hamid Reza Afrashteh, Young Advisers deputy chief in charge of provincial affairs, spoke at a gathering organized by Islamic Iran's Group of 72, and compared Rahim Mashai to some unlikely luminaries. 'The Western world began a new life with thinkers such as Adam Smith in the field of economics, Russell in the social sphere, and Montesquieu in politics, and it began developing knowledge. Meanwhile, on this side of the world, we have continued our existence with passivity,' said Afrashteh, according to Afkar News. 'Now that one person [Rahim Mashai] has taken a leap and and has entered the difficult field of developing ideas and turning them into models, some people unfortunately do not tolerate him.'

And while Ahmadinejad and his supporters have advanced their agenda, they have continued to confront their rivals, not only among the Greens, but within the Principlist camp itself. Speaker Ali Larijani has been the main target of such attacks, which have splintered the Principlist faction in the legislature and managed to erode his support within the Majlis.

On Sunday, November 7, Larijani barely squeaked by as the central committee of the Majlis's Principlist faction elected its chairman. Larijani, the incumbent, garnered 25 of 47 votes, while his opponent, Shahabedddin Sadr received 20 ballots. Khabar Online, close to Larijani, falsely stated that he had received 44 votes, while IRNA, the governmental news agency run by former Ahmadinejad media adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, correctly reported that the Speaker had won by 5 votes. (Clear election results apparently remain a rarity in the Islamic Republic. An explanation of the discrepancy will be the subject of a future article.) Pro-Ahmadinejad Majlis representative Hamid Rasaee wrote on his blog, 'How will Ali Larijani's "crisis of appeal" end?' 

The G-72 web site claimed in an article last month that Larijani supporters within the Assembly of Experts were seeking to modify the constitution so that the president would be elected by the Majlis because 'they know for a fact that it is impossible for Larijani's name to come out of a ballot box, so their only recourse is to change the manner in which the president is elected.' Raja News wrote that Larijani had urged his brother-in-law, Majlis representative Ali Motahari, to try to collect signatures from fellow legislators in order to force the president to come before the Majlis to answer questions about his policies, but had only garnered less than 10 signatures. Motahari had engaged in his nefarious campaign against the president 'at the same time of the son of the nation's visit to Lebanon,' Raja News reported with an outraged tone, before turning to mockery: 'Motahari obtained only two votes in the election for the central committee of the Principlists. Given that he cast one ballot for himself, only one other person voted for him.'

The most noteworthy, and sinister clash, took place when pro-Ahmadinejad goons held a threatening rally in front of the Majlis in June.The Ahmadinejad administration had been involved in a struggle to gain control of the assets of a vast network of universities run by Rafsanjani loyalists. Larijani managed to sway the Majlis vote in favor of the Rafsanjani camp, thereby incurring the wrath of the demonstrators in Baharestan Square, in front of the legislature. One banner lofted by the protesters read 'A thief in the nation's house,' while another insultingly asked, 'Larijani, who the hell do you think you are to go against the Leader's opinion?'  

Regardless of his apparently premeditated skirmishes with the conservative clergy and some Principlists, Ahmadinejad has been careful to exude loyalty to Ayatollah Khamenei and the principle of velayateh faghih. His aides and supporters have followed suit. Mohammad Ali Ramin, Deputy Islamic Guidance Minister in charge of the press, who had suggested that the clergy should return to their mosques last summer, had an altogether obsequious attitude towards the Leader's 'historic' visit to Ghom (see video below). 'One of the most beautiful headlines of recent years that I can remember was one that I saw in one of these newspapers a couple of weeks ago, on the occasion of Imam Khamenei's visit to Ghom,' he told a television interviewer (italics are mine). '[The headline] was "Ghadireh Ghom." This was a very beautiful take on "Ghadireh Khom," meaning the people of Ghom had risen up to welcome the surrogate of the Imam Zaman.'

Not only did Ramin refer to Khamenei as Imam, rather than Ayatollah or Supreme Leader, but he compared him to one of the most inspirational figures of Shiite Islam, Imam Ali. It was at Ghadireh Khom or the pond of Khom that the Prophet Mohammad appointed Ali, his son-in-law, as his successor in 632 AD.

But what was on Khamanei's mind as he arrived in Ghom and gave his first speech?

'The debate about Islam minus the clergy... Of course, these murmurs were voiced before the revolution,' said Khamenei (see video below). 'The presence of the clergy in the revolution and their leadership in the revolution temporarily expelled this idea from the scene. But they have started it again. Islam minus the clergy is one idea, and Islam minus politics, the separation of religion and politics, is also among the things that they insist on spreading through the press, in their writings, and on the Internet.'

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Real Arab support for Iran war or "possibility of a disinformation campaign"

Paul Jay, senior editor at the The Real News Network, sat with Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, to discuss references to Iran in the cables divulged by Wikileaks, particularly the alleged calls by Arab leaders to attack the Islamic Republic.

Wilkerson, a retired colonel, currently teaches a senior seminar at George Washington University entitled 'National Security Decision-Making.' He was responsible for vetting the intelligence reports used for Powell's infamous 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council, in which the Secretary of State argued for -- some would say, was duped into arguing for -- the Iraq War. Wilkerson only had a week to review the material which was riddled with inaccuracies. His subsequent disillusionment led to his resignation and vocal stance on what he termed 'a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.' (Click here for a detailed Washington Post article on Wilkerson's background, his position on the Iraq War, its aftermath, and the Bush administration.)

He has kept an understandable level of skepticism, as can be witnessed in the following interview:

More at The Real News

(To donate to The Real News Network, which operates solely on such generosity, please go their web site)

Tehran bomb blasts target nuclear scientists

An Iranian nuclear scientist was killed and another was slightly injured in separate bomb attacks as they drove to work in Tehran early Monday morning, November 29. Reports of a third explosion in the Mahalati district, northeast Tehran, were not confirmed by police sources, according to Mehr News.

In both incidents which took place between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, motorcyclists attached explosive devices to the victims' cars in morning traffic, before fleeing the scene.

Dr. Majid Shahriari, an elementary particle physicist and a member of the scientific board of Beheshti University, died in the blast that tore through his automobile near the intersection of Imam Ali and Artesh freeways. His wife and driver were wounded in the attack. Artesh Freeway runs south of the Mahalati district and it is unclear whether the sound of the conflagration that killed Shahriari was the source of confusion about a third attack in that district.

Dr. Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, an assistant professor of nuclear engineering at Beheshti University and an expert in lasers, and his wife were lightly injured in the explosion that blew off the driver's door of their car in a square near Beheshti University in the Velenjak district. They dashed out of their Peugeot seconds before the device exploded, an eyewitness told the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting corporation (IRIB). 'I was behind the damaged car. I saw the car stop and the driver jump out. He ran to his wife's side and got her out as well. They were two meters away from the automobile, when it blew up,' said the eyewitness to IRIB's Channel 1 news.

Abbas Davani and his wife were treated for their wounds at Taleghani Hospital, less than a mile from the attack, and released shortly before noon.

The public relations office of the greater Tehran police force declared that both spouses of the nuclear scientists also worked for Beheshti University, although it did not explain in what capacity. 

View Tehran - Bomb blasts target nuclear scientists - 29 November 2010 in a larger map

General Hossein Sajedinia, commander of greater Tehran's police force, told reporters that no group or individual has taken responsibility for the terrorist acts and that no suspects were in custody. He denied previous reports that a Peugeot 206 had been involved in the attacks and had been pursued and shot at by the police in the vicinity of Beheshti University. However, he attributed the criminal acts to 'lackeys of the Zionist regime.' Media outlets have echoed such sentiments, adding Britain, the United States, and the MKO to the list of suspects.

'Both attacks were carried out by motorcyclists who, according to witnesses, attached the explosive devices to the cars with magnets. The bombs exploded a few seconds later,' he added.

'The protection of professors is the responsibility of the universities and the Defense Ministry,' police commander Sajednia said. 'They are the ones who must answer for this.'

Another nuclear scientist, Dr. Massoud Alimohammadi, was killed by a bomb attached to a motorcycle outside his Tehran home on January 12. The device was detonated by remote control as Alimohammadi left for work. The Islamic Republic blamed foreign governments and banned opposition groups for that attack, but Alimohammadi's involvement in the country's nuclear program is far from established and it has been revealed that he was a supporter of Green leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Alimohammadi knew both scientists who were targeted today. Shahriari was one of two Iranian advisers (Dr. Javad Rahighi was the other) on the Sesame Project, which stands for 'Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East,' an international scientific project under the auspices of UNESCO. Alimohammadi was one of the Islamic Republic's two official representatives on the project. Dr. Babak Shokri, the other official representative, and Rahighi are the surviving members of the initial four-man team.

Fereydoun Abbasi Davani and Alimohammadi were both non-resident researchers at the the Institute for Research in Fundamental Sciences (NB Pajouheshgah Daneshhayeh Bonyadi, also knows by its acronym IPM, which stands for the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics). The two scientists were allegedly colleagues at Imam Hossein University, which is divided into two institutions, one for training officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the other which is open to the general public. Finally, Alimohammadi and Abbasi Davani have both been linked to the Institute of Applied Physics (IAP), which reportedly conducts research for the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. 

Though proof of Alimohammadi and Shahriari's alleged ties to Iran's military nuclear program and the regime is tenuous, there were sufficiently compelling indications to place Abbasi Davani under international non-proliferation sanctions as a person 'involved in nuclear or ballistic missile activities.' He appears in Annex I of UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which was adopted on 24 March 2007 and calls for member states to freeze his assets and exercise vigilance in allowing him to enter or transit through their territories.

Abbasi Davani has been a member of the IRGC since 1980 and saw three tours of duty during the Iran-Iraq war, according to Mashregh News. Aty News, close to the regime, reports that he teaches at the Superior National Defense University. He reportedly runs the physics program at Imam Hossein University, where he works closely with another Guardsman and physicist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, who is also under UN sanctions.

Abbasi Davani was honored by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at an awards ceremony for 21 top academics in 2007, according to Ebtekar News. In October of this year, he was one of sixty award recipients at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the creation of Beheshti University (formerly National University, Daneshgaheh Melli).

Abbasi Davani is cited as a co-author on two recent scientific articles entitled 'Implementation of main waveguide cavities of electron linear accelerator using integrated and separable methods and comparing their performance' and 'Design and construction of pulsed neutron diagnostic system for plasma focus device (SBUPF1).'

Monday, November 29, 2010

Messianic or messy antics: The politics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - Part 1

I originally wrote this article for Tehran Bureau. Khamenei's trip to Ghom which is used as a reference point in a timeline, actually took place in mid-October and not 'three weeks ago.' 

This is part 1 of a series of two articles, which explore whether Ahmadinejad is a religious fanatic or a populist. Or perhaps a mixture of both. 

On a Tuesday three weeks ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei went to the holy city of Qom to regain some of his legitimacy as the ruler of the Islamic Republic.

In many ways it has been a difficult year for the Supreme Leader. Though the security apparatus has managed to preserve his power at the pinnacle of the regime, it has come at a heavy price. The Islamic Republic's claims of justice and democracy ring hollow now more than ever. Khamenei is no longer considered an impartial arbiter between factions in an ever-tightening circle of insiders, which now appears to include only Principlist conservatives. (NB The term Principlist which appears throughout this article refers to pro-regime conservatives who seek a return to the founding principles of the revolution. It is a translation of the word osoulgara) Even this restricted camp is unable to stop feuding despite the Leader's exhortations to maintain unity.

And perhaps most importantly, differences between the grand ayatollahs and the regime have bubbled to the surface, imperiling the religious identity of the regime. 'Today, the fate of the clergy and Islam in this land depends on and is intertwined with the fate of the Islamic regime,' Khamenei warned a gathering of seminary students and basij militia members in Qom. His speech had an uncharacteristic tone of alarm (see video below). 'If the Islamic regime is harmed in the slightest, the clergy and the Islamic jurists will undoubtedly suffer more than any other portion of the people.' He ended with words of reassurance. 'Of course, the regime is alive, the regime is standing, the regime is powerful. I say with complete confidence that the regime will triumph over all the challenges that lie before it.'

Already in early December of last year, the Basirat web site, under the control of Hojjatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Khamanei's representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), published a report decrying 'a growing rift between the grand ayatollahs and clergy [on one side], and the Supreme Leader [on the other].' This was before pro-regime thugs raided Grand Ayatollah Youssef Sanei's home and office in Qom in June and Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Dastgheib's Ghoba mosque in Shiraz in September.

So it was that Ayatollah Khamenei arrived in Qom for a crucial nine-day visit to mend his image and gain the support of senior clerics.

And where was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this all-important day? He was in Tehran, welcoming a friend and kindred spirit -- some would say a fellow practitioner of provocative antics on the international stage -- none other than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The contrast between these two events and what they symbolize -- power through religion or populism -- raises fundamental questions about Ahmadinejad and his place within the Islamic Republic. Is he a true believer? Is he a religious fanatic hell-bent on pushing the world towards Armageddon to precipitate the coming of the Mahdi, the Shiite messiah figure? Or is he a populist using religion for political gain? The answer is not only significant for understanding the complex power structure of the regime and the fault lines between the various factions, but it also has repercussions on the future of the democracy movement, foreign policy, and the nuclear issue.

The background

The Assembly of Experts designated Ali Khamenei as the Leader of the Islamic Revolution shortly after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Without getting into the intriguing story of how this occurred, it is important to note that Khamenei was, at the time, a mid-level cleric -- a hojjatoleslam -- and that he was transformed into an ayatollah overnight for reasons of political expediency. This fast-track promotion placed the Leader's religious credentials under a question mark which dogs him to this day. 'There was no hiding the fact that Khamenei’s religious credentials were inferior, and the decision raised the ire of the country’s clerical elites in Qom,' writes Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader.

The position of Leader is enshrined in several articles of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, notably this one:

Article 5
During the Occultation of the Vali al-Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the velayat and leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just and pious faghih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, he will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107. 

The italics are mine. Vali al-Asr or ruler of the ages refers to the Shiite messiah who is alternately called the 12th Imam, Imam Mahdi, Imam Zaman, the Hidden Imam... He is said to have disappeared at the age of five in 874 AD, which is the start of the period of occultation or absence. Shiites believe that Imam Zaman will return to this world to bring universal justice and brotherhood. This constitutional article describes the principle of velayateh faghih (rule of the jurisprudent) from which Khamenei derives his power as a kind of 'surrogate to the Imam Zaman,' a title which is used by the regime with increasing frequency. 

But obedience to a surrogate of the Imam Zaman with questionable religious credentials -- particularly after the mass protests following the disputed presidential election of 2009 -- apparently does not come easily to some people. Khamenei felt compelled to issue a fatwa or ruling in response to an alleged follower's question on the topic last summer:

Q: Could you please explain 'commitment to the velayateh faghih.' In other words, how must we act in order to know we completely believe in and are committed to the rightful surrogate of Imam Zaman?
A: The velayateh faghih is the rule of the Islamic scholar endowed with all the necessary qualifications in the age of Occultation and is a branch of the guardianship of the infallible imams and the Prophet, and obeying the administrative orders of the [Leader] is sufficient to show commitment to it.

Other senior clerics and grand ayatollahs found the comparisons to the Prophet and the infallible imams less than evident and, after a period of equivocation, the fatwa was quietly removed from Khamenei's web site, although it still remains on some pro-regime sites, including Tabnak which is run by Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the IRGC. Not exactly the sign of a Leader entirely confident of his position within the clerical hierarchy.

Ahmadinejad is not a cleric. He is, in fact, the first non-clerical president of the Islamic Republic since the early 1980s, when Abolhassan Bani Sadr fell victim to infighting and impeachment  after a year and a half as president (he currently lives in exile in France), and Mohammad Ali Rajai was killed by a terrorist bomb less than a month after he took office.

Ahmadinejad is also the first president to emerge from the generation of veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. Not that he is recognized as a front-line warrior, despite the best efforts of his supporters and the misleading text of the official biography on his web site. Here is what Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who at the age of 22 was the commander of the Panj Nasr division during the war, had to say last year about the president's record:
Ahmadinejad does not have even one day's experience of revolutionary struggle, he did not receive even one slap for the cause of the revolution. If he did something, he should come and tell us where. Ahmadinejad did not see the war or the front. If he had been on the front for only one day, he would have boasted about it for a thousand days.
He also added:
I don't consider Ahmadinejad a revolutionary or a member of the party of God or a follower of the Leader or a manager or honest. Mr. Ahmadinejad, with all his being, fools himself and then fools everyone else.
Readers can decide whether Ghalibaf is describing a populist or not.

The Populist?

One of the most active civil movements of the past decade  has been the Campaign for One Million Signatures to abrogate gender-discriminatory laws in the Islamic Republic. And one of the most visible elements of that discrimination has been the morality patrols' enforcement of proper Islamic dress. Ahmadinejad's actions seem to indicate that he, or at least close advisers, recognized this as a wedge issue.

In early 2005, Ahmadinejad was running for president on a man-of-the-people, oil-wealth-distribution platform with the slogan 'It can be done and we can do it' (Mishavad va mitavanim). 'He cultivated his working-class image along with his piety to good effect,' writes Houman Majd in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. 'His style, the bad suits, the cheap Windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut, [...] is a signal to the working class that he is still one of them.' But he wanted to cast his net as wide as possible by also appealing to those who seek greater freedom.

'Are our children's hairstyles the real problem facing our people now? Our children want to wear their hair any way they want. What's it to you and me,' he said in a television interview prior to the 2005 election (video below). 'We have to focus on the main problems of the country. The government has to expand the economy, calm the climate in the country, make people feel safe, support the people.'

That Ahmadinejad reneged on those promises of a more tolerant government -- that his administration in fact supported stricter enforcement of morality and hijab laws compared to the relative springtime of the Khatami years -- is a matter of record. But it is interesting that he was willing to make such crowd-pleasing statements even if they ruffled some clerical feathers.

More recently, in another television interview in June, Ahmadinejad again paid lip service to a freer society, perhaps as a remedy for his crumbling popularity. Sitting in the casual setting of the presidential gardens, the journalist asked, 'Why is it that every time we talk about culture or society, women are the first people who are targeted? When we talk about the hijab or chastity or these confrontations that take place in our society... People talk about morality patrols, hundreds of thousands of toumans in fines... just because two strands of hair can be seen or a garment has problems.'

'Let me say in one word, this has nothing to do with the government,' responded Ahmadinejad (video below). 'The government does not meddle in these things. We consider these things to be insults. To have a man and a woman walking in the streets and then someone comes up and asks, What's your relation to each other? None of your business! We don't have the right, no one has the right to ask.'

Ahmdinejad had to know that his words would trigger a wave of condemnation from conservative clerics, and perhaps he welcomed this. It allowed him to position himself as apart from the conservative clergy, a champion not only of the economically disenfranchised, but also of some aspirations of the reformist camp whom he still considers important enough to woo. 'Nobody has the right to prevent the police from acting against unsuitable hijab,' countered Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, during Tehran's Friday prayer. 'Those who voted for you were the fully veiled people,' said Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Khatami, taking a more direct approach (no relation to former reformist President Mohammad Khatami). 'The badly veiled "Greens" did not vote for you, so you'd better consider what pleases God is not pleasing a number of corrupt individuals.' Ahmadinejad's own adviser on religious affairs, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Nasser Biria, resigned over this issue and was subsequently reinstated following Khamenei's intervention.

A month later, on the occasion of the Chastity and Hijab Festival, the Islamic Guidance Ministry of the Ahmadinejad administration held a press conference which was related in comical fashion by the international press. At the gathering, government officials unveiled photos of male haircuts which were deemed sufficiently Islamic and therefore permissible.

So if Ahmadinejad claims that he is not responsible for the strict enforcement of hijab laws, who is?

During the heady days of the 2009 presidential race, journalist Masih Alinejad was in Tehran, preparing a documentary, and she asked the same question on a visit to Ahmadinejad's campaign headquarters near the corner of Enghelab and Vesal Shirazi streets. The response revealed more than the participants may have wanted (video excerpt below):
Younger man: Mr. Ahmadinejad came on television and said, Are our youth, their clothes and haircuts, the problem? He said we have bigger issues. But after he was elected, his opponents put morality patrols on street corners in order to tarnish Mr. Ahmadinejad. And they did tarnish him. I see young people on the streets today and they say, We have no problem, just take away the morality patrols and we'll all vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad [...].
Masih Alinejad: But the security forces are under the supervision of Mr. Ahmadinejad's Interior Ministry.
And then, in an extraordinary moment, the younger man and the older man behind the desk blurted out almost simultaneously:
Older man: No, they're under the control of the Leader.
Younger man: No, they're in the hands of Mr. Ahmadinejad's opponents.

The enforcement of morality laws is only one of the wedge issues exploited by the president in the past years.

Soccer is arguably one of the most popular pastimes of young Iranians -- men and women. In April 2006, as soccer fever attained new heights due to Iran's qualification for the World Cup in Germany, Ahmadinejad announced with great fanfare that he would lift the ban on women in stadiums. A month later, he reversed the decision, but not until he made it very clear who was responsible. 'The president has decided to revise his decision based on the Supreme Leader's opinion,' government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said.

Or take Ahmadinejad's remark on the judiciary, which has become one of the most hated institutions of the regime after months of show trials, executions, and stiff arbitrary sentences for journalists, human rights activists, or politicians. Speaking at a ceremony for the new head of the Islamic Republic News Agency in February, the president said something which most Iranians could only applaud: 'The Islamic Republic's judiciary has a dictatorial spirit. Unfortunately the relevant authorities overlook the law and pursue individuals because they have criticized such and such a member of parliament, a judiciary official, or a group. And then they say, you must be put on trial.'

His remark was not widely publicized by the state media, but the uncensored version was published by Raja News, which is run by Fatemeh Rajabi, Gholam Hossein Elham's wife. It should be pointed out that Ahmadinejad was condemning the prosecution of media outlets that were close to his government and had insulted his political rivals, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and Assembly of Experts head Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The head of the judiciary is Sadegh Larijani, brother of Ali Larijani, and he was named to his post by Khamenei. 

Ahmadinejad has also attempted to curry favor with the people through declarations of government largesse, most notably during his record number of tours of the country. A prominent feature of his presidency, the three rounds of provincial visits he has conducted thus far (the first two rounds took place during his first term) have allowed Ahmadinejad to promote his popular message to 'put oil money on people's tabletops.'

Ahmadinejad not only announced grand projects, from public housing to water purification plants, which would translate into jobs and prosperity, but he actively encouraged the people to petition him with letters for personal aid on these trips. The government proudly announced that 2.2 million such letters were received just during the first round of provincial visits and that $250 million (250 billion toumans) had been allocated to these requests.

Reality has caught up with the disingenuous statements. Shortly after being confronted with questions about how the government could verify the validity of such large numbers of requests and assuring that '90% of those who received aid were truly deserving,' relief fund head Hossein Anvari announced in January of this year that such letters would no longer be accepted during Ahmadinejad's third round of provincial visits. In April, Hojjatoleslam Mostafa Pourmohammadi, head of the country's General Inspection Organization, said that Ahmadinejad's decrees concerning projects were 'over and beyond the government's capabilities and do not correspond to the financial means and time lines. Most of these decrees do not get off the ground and the projects face delays.'

Ahmadinejad appears to be positioning himself alongside Bolivian President Evo Morales -- who was incidentally in Iran two weeks ago -- and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an anti-capitalist front, said Real News Network senior editor Paul Jay in a recent broadcast. During his last trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad met with one hundred anti-war, labor, and 'progressive' leaders, according to Fight Back News, one of the organizations present at the meeting.

The Islamic Republic's president ticked all the right boxes for the attendants -- who included former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, and poet Amiri Baraka, formerly LeRoi Jones -- as he declared, 'Violent capitalism is based on superiority, hegemony and violation of rights. [...] Capitalism has come to an end. It has reached a deadlock. Its historical moment has ended and efforts to restore it won’t go very far.'

'Speaking with Mrs. Ahmadinejad [Azamolsadat Farahi] and hearing the president reinforced the importance of struggling against the US campaign to isolate and demonize Iran,' Sarah Martin of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization told Fight Back News. 'I think the meeting was important because we had the opportunity to meet with so many dedicated grassroots activists from all over the country and share our hopes for peace and justice with the Iranian people through their president and his wife,' gushed Margaret Sarfejooy of Women Against Military Madness.

Nader Hashemi, author of Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, reacted starkly to Ahmadinejad's attempts to frame himself as a defender of the poor and a Chavez-style anti-capitalist. 'It's an exercise in hypocrisy,' he told the Real News Network. '[...] The fundamental issue that matters is to maintain political power. They will invoke any argument, whether it is in favor of capitalism or socialism to rally opinion, whether globally or internally.'

Hashemi also questioned the readiness of some activists to accept that Ahmadinejad 'is leading a populist fight for the poor.' 'Ahmadinejad is trying to pass through parliament, legislation [the subsidy reform bill] that will remove subsidies from basic commodities and products, the things that the average poor person needs to survive,' he said. 'The reason he is doing that is that Iran's economic house is in a mess. He wants to reduce subsidies so that the government will have an influx of cash which it can then spend as it pleases in order to entrench its own power.'

The Ahmadinejad government's consistent efforts to crush any independent labor movement and imprison union leaders, the very representatives of the poor workers whom the president professes to defend, also belie the official line. Mansour Osanlou, leader of the Tehran Transit Workers' Union, is only the most prominent of a long list of labor leaders who have been jailed and tortured by the Islamic Republic.

Why would Ahmadinejad make public remarks that ultimately get him into trouble with the conservative clerics and other regime insiders? The answer may lie in a remarkable statement made by his current chief of staff and one of his closes advisers, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, in August 2009. 'Of Ahmadinejad's 24 million votes, 20 million are critics of the regime and they are even more serious in their criticism than the 13 million [who voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi] because those 13 million people only put the Ahmadinejad government under question, whereas the 20 million said no to the total process of the years prior to Ahmadinejad,' Rahim Mashai said. 'In reality, Ahmadinejad only had 4 million votes of approval.'

'I believe that Mr. Ahmadinejad is seeking his social base in a place where the clergy is not popular,' reformist cleric and political analyst Mohammad Javad Akbarin, who currently resides in France, told Radio Farda a few months ago. 'He prefers to attract a section of the people by employing populist methods that he has used in the past. He knows that the people do not defer to the clergy as much as they did. By making such statements, he managed to defeat Hashemi Rafsanjani [his rival in the presidential race of 2005], who was a cleric and an individual with deep roots.'

Direct link to Imam Zaman? 

'This is the government which has employed the highest level of religious discourse,' the president declared at a press conference in August. 'We are standing firm on divine goals and values.'

In another speech delivered to local leaders in Ghazvin province on November 12, Ahmadinejad said, 'All of religion and all of the universe is summarized in one word and that word is the Imam [Zaman]. All of creation is for the Imam, without whom the Kaaba has no meaning (NB The Kaaba is the small building at the center of Mecca's Great Mosque around which pilgrims turn and towards which all Muslims pray). Everyone turns around the Kaaba and the Kaaba revolves around the Imam. The way to God is the Imam. The Imam is both the path and the destination. The scent of the Imam has spread through the world and the world is rapidly entering a phase in which it will know that its only path is to be linked to the Imam.'

And then he concluded by linking the temporal to the divine: 'Therefore, work in such a way that whenever the Imam appears, he retains us in our positions.'

Ahmadinejad's actions and statements seem to indicate that, although he is not a cleric, he understands that he must endow himself with some religious legitimacy in order to appeal to the devout and, more importantly, to maintain a central place within the regime. And in this respect as well, he has not shied away from conflict with the clergy.

In September of 2005, Ahmadinejad made the first of his annual visits to New York for the UN General Assembly. While the international media concentrated on his speech at the United Nations and his comments concerning the nuclear issue, most Iranians became fascinated by what he did upon returning to the country. The president visited a number of senior clerics in Qom, among them Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, the city's Friday prayer leader. It was at Javadi Amoli's house that the infamous 'halo of light incident' took place and was forever documented in a video taken by the ayatollah's staff (see video below).

The film shows the recently-elected president sitting on the floor alongside the other congregants at the private gathering and describing his trip to New York. 'They threatened me with arrest. [...] But I said, the Agha [Khamenei] had ordered it, so the visit had to take place. They had said so many things against us that all eyes and ears were focused on us. Who is this person? When we walked in the street or entered a building, all attention was on the Iranian delegation. The others didn't even exist,' said Ahmadinejad in an understandable moment of grandstanding. But then came a more fantastical claim:
That day when I made my speech, someone who was in the audience came and told me afterwards, When you started by saying 'In the name of God,' a light surrounded you and you were inside it until the end. I felt it myself. I felt that the surroundings had suddenly changed. For the next 27, 28 minutes, the world leaders did not blink. When I say they didn't blink, I'm not exaggerating. I was watching. They were all immobile, as if a hand was holding them.
The quest for religious legitimacy had become an act of attributing sacred qualities to himself.

The clergy and other observers grumbled about the president's blatant foray in to the realm of the sacred and Ahmadinejad, true to himself, denied the incident ever occurred. 'When did I ever say such a thing? Where would I have a halo of light?' he said during an impromptu interview on a flight taking him on a provincial visit (see video below). 'Of course, anyone who repeats the word of God, well the word of God is light itself.' Government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham declared that he had never heard the president talk about a halo of light and that the video which had been broadly distributed among Iranians had been doctored. Elham, as can be seen in a still shot of the video, was not only present at the meeting with Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, but was sitting to the president's right and could not have failed to hear him. Ahmadinejad made the same denial during a presidential debate with Mehdi Karroubi in 2009. Javadi Amoli's office promptly issued a communiqué contradicting Ahmadinejad.

Last year at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of Fatemeh Zahra, the Prophet Mohammad's daughter, Ahmadinejad was again caught on tape as he took on a mantle of holiness. Standing on stage, rhythmically beating his chest in mourning, Ahmadinejad is seen conferring his blessing on a scarf by kissing it and handing it to a cohort (see video below). 'I am sorry that, after 30 years, this is the outcome of the Islamic revolution [...]', said the recently-exiled reporter who filmed the scene. 'Think of the holiness that he assumes for himself, to kiss a headscarf or a keffiyeh and present it to the people.'

Ahmadinejad's closest aides have also extolled the president's sacred qualities. Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute recounts one such story -- featuring current First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi -- in a piece entitled Ahmadinejad Versus the Technocrats. 'In Syria, in the historical city of Basra which may be unknown to some, a Muslim told me that he believes that if there was to be a prophet after the prophet [Mohammad], it should be Ahmadinejad,' said Rahimi in the presence of Ahmadinejad in 2006. Rahimi was director general of the Supreme Audit Court at the time and the incident is also related in the Alef news site, which is run by Principlist Majlis representative and head of the legislature's research center Ahmad Tavakoli.

One group of Ahmadinejad's supporters in universities and within the clergy took a more subtle approach when they formed a grass-roots organization, Islamic Iran's Group of 72 also knows as the G-72, in late 2008. Neither the number of founding members, nor the current membership is 72, but a gathering of 72 individuals fighting for a cause is particularly evocative for Shiites. One of the most seminal events in Shiism is the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 680 AD at the battle of Karbala, which is commemorated on the day of Ashura, the 10th of the holy month of Moharram. The battle pitted thousands of Umayyad Caliph Yazid's troops against Hossein and his companions, who according to various accounts numbered a mere 72. For Shiites, Hossein embodies the themes of martyrdom and fighting for justice against overwhelming odds. (In all fairness, the Green movement has also tried to invoke this type of symbolism, most notably in their provisional list of 72 dead protesters, which I believe was not expanded deliberately, although many more casualties had been identified. It is also interesting that Ayatollah Khamenei's favorite, and most expensive, horse is called Zuljanah, in reference to Imam Hossein's white stallion.)

In addition to the religious allusions to Ahmadinejad as a man seeking justice against all odds, the G-72 web site paints a picture of the president as a selfless man of the people. (A look at the advertisements on the web site provides an amusing and anecdotal indication of the target audience and their interests: the final season of Prison Break and the complete works of Islamic thinker Ali Shariati. More on Shariati later.) The latest post on the site quotes Tehran provincial governor Morteza Tamaddon, who accompanied Ahmadinejad on a visit to the 'common folk' on October 28 and deserves a prize in sycophancy:
As usual he listened to the remarks and grievances of the people with patience and tolerance and a smiling face. And then he would [attentively] issue the necessary orders to resolve the problems of the people whom he loves with all his being. Towards the end of the meeting, the whispers of the attendants told me something was afoot until one of them came to me and said, 'Today (October 28) is the doctor's [Ahmadinejad's] birthday.' I cast a glance at the president. He was so submerged in dealing with the people's problems that I could not allow myself to remind him of this news. After the meeting, as we and a few friends were preparing for noon prayer, I told him, 'Happy birthday, Mr. President.' And I immediately asked him, 'Mr. President, did you know that today is your birthday?' He stared at us for a moment, then a smile crossed his lips. I said, 'If I'd known earlier, I would have prepared a birthday cake.' He laughed and said, 'Instead of these things, it's best if you concentrate on the people's affairs.' Another friend jokingly said, 'Doctor, you should hand out some sweets.' He responded, 'Usually people give presents and sweets for someone's birthday, they don't receive them. But in any case, let us distribute the sweet experience of resolving the people's problems among ourselves.' [Ahmadinejad], who loves the people, even spent his birthday in sweet servitude to God's people.

For part 2, please click here.