On the offensive
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.'
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.'
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 114In 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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.'
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?'
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.'