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The president and his supporters in the IRGC have been advancing the idea in recent months of running Iran with minimal clerical influence and based more on nationalism than revolutionary Islam. This is a direct threat to members of the clerical establishment, who have grown fat and fabulously wealthy in the current system, receiving kickbacks and payments from various companies and ministries. Giving some of those plums to IRGC commanders has increased Ahmadinejad’s independence — a threat not only to Khamenei’s rule but to the concept of the Islamic Republic itself. What’s worse, Ahmadinejad’s preferred successor, his close confidant and former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has made it plain that he believes in an Iran without a Supreme Leader. This has caused Khamenei loyalists to refer to Mashaei as a “deviant current” in Ahmadinejad’s inner circle — a warning that Ahmadinejad should distance himself from his friend and advisor.
The power struggle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad played a role in the recent release of three American hikers who were captured in 2008 and held for two years in an Iranian prison. They were eventually tried and convicted of espionage, but released after posting “bail” of $500,000 each.
The Iranian president got in trouble with the judiciary — dominated by Khamenei loyalists — by announcing the release of the hikers before the judges had signed off on the deal. Ahmadinejad had also requested leniency for the hikers, but the judge gave them 8 years. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time that “the sentencing is also likely designed as a check to the president’s power.” CSM also quoted an analyst in Tehran who said that the “judiciary doesn’t want to hand the government any victories or to be dictated to by the government.” Khamenei’s stranglehold on the judiciary has blocked Ahmadinejad on other issues as well.
And now speculation about the recently uncovered assassination plot targeting the Saudi ambassador is including the possible attempt to embarrass either Ahmadinejad or Khamenei. The key to the affair for many analysts is that the plot — called “amateurish” by some — is that it’s seeming unprofessional execution was deliberately done so that the attack could be exposed before it came to fruition.
Using an Iranian used car salesman to contact a Mexican drug gang and act as a go-between with the IRGC seems incredible in almost any context, given past attacks sanctioned by the Guard and the manner in which it carefully covers its tracks. However, no matter how unlikely, the fact that $100,000 was transferred from a bank account belonging to a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards in payment to the assassins gives credence to the seriousness of the plot.
Iranian analyst Meir Javedanfar, writing in The Diplomat, believes it is possible that the plot was fomented to embarrass the Supreme Leader. He asks, “Why would Khamenei make himself and his regime so vulnerable by wiring money directly? Why wouldn’t Iranian security officials use third parties operating through third countries?”
Javedanfar further speculates:
The fact is that looking at Khamenei’s background, such a reckless initiative as the one he is accused of is almost too radical, the costs too high for his regime. This is why it seems at least plausible that elements within the Iranian regime could have orchestrated this to hurt him, with the goal of eventually pushing him out of power.
The Iranian regime is already fractured, and the business interests of many officials are being undermined by Khamenei’s nuclear policies. Meanwhile, the children of former officials such as Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, are reportedly in jail because of their opposition to the regime. Anyone who wants to hurt Khamenei from within would have plenty of reason to undertake such an initiative, especially as it would ultimately tar the supreme leader.
Other speculation centers on Khamenei using the Qods force — the primary mover behind the plot — “to embarrass and discredit the president in the region and on the world stage,” according to CNN. Either gambit is possible, but no evidence exists that would confirm or deny any such allegation.
With tensions rising between Iran and the US, and Khamenei threatening “decisive action” against the US if America attempts to retaliate, as well as Iran apparently losing influence in Arab states that are in revolt (including close ally Syria), the internal struggle for the “soul” of Iran may be a weakness that could be exploited. Regardless, it is unlikely that either Khamenei or Ahmadinejad will lose their positions as a result of the conflict, which means there will be no change of course for the Iranian regime either domestically or in foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
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