The in-fighting inside the Iranian regime has become so intense that Ayatollah Khamenei has been forced to give a “serious warning” to the competing factions that they must reconcile. His intervention shows that the regime is now divided against itself and the Supreme Leader has become genuinely worried. It is encouraging to see the regime’s foundations shake, but Iran may now lash out in the hopes of solidifying its ranks against a common enemy.
A series of internal rifts have compelled Ayatollah Khamenei to publicly discipline his government. The latest dispute surrounds a man named Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son. Mashaie was chosen by the President to become Vice President but he was fired by Khamenei last summer. His appointment had caused outrage among hardliners disgusted that he once said that Iran’s conflict with Israel is limited to their government and that the country is a “friend” to the people. Ahmadinejad publicly defended Mashaie and then chose him as his chief of staff.
On August 6, Mashaie got into more trouble after he made comments that appeared to put Iranian nationalism above Shiite Islam. Prominent officials condemned him for allegedly harming the security of the country, essentially calling him a traitor. Two hundred members of parliament signed a letter demanding that he be fired. Ahmadinejad refused to back down and upped the stakes by appointing Mashaie as the special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs.
This follows another clash between Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majiles (parliament) and Ahmadinejad. The two have been at odds over domestic policy for some time, with Larijani going so far as to say the country is being ruled by “extremism and delusion.” Their battle escalated when Ahmadinejad’s camp tried to take control of the privately-owned Azad University that is tied to Larijani’s camp, Ayatollah Rafsanjani and other opponents. During the public fight, Larijani called Ahmadinejad and his supporters “vicious, illogical and loudmouths” and Basiji members threatened to set the parliament on fire. Ultimately, the Majiles sided with Larijani.
Amil Imani, an Iranian dissident, told FrontPage that Larijani and other Iranian officials are sensing the rising anger against Ahmadinejad and are positioning themselves to gain politically.
“Ali Larijani and his older brother Mohammed Jawad have moved across the Iranian political spectrum… [they] were considered pillars of the moderate wing in the political spectrum, and the ease with which they changed sides and moved to the conservative bloc was perceived as a case of blatant political opportunism,” Imani said.
The pressure over human rights abuses is also causing a division. The parliament has reported that Saeed Mortazavi, the Prosecutor-General of Tehran during the summer 2009 uprising, was responsible for ordering the torture of at least 147 political prisoners and holding them in inhumane conditions. He and two other officials were blamed for the deaths of at least three specific protestors and were suspended. One of the victim’s attorneys argues that the report opens up the door for Mortazavi to be prosecuted, although it is unlikely Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would allow anything serious to happen to such a loyal servant. Already, Ahmadinejad has named him as the director of an anti-smuggling body.
At the same time, there are signs of disunity among the security forces. As Michael Ledeen reports, an Iranian drone was shot down near the Bushehr nuclear reactor by the country’s own Air Force because of a lack of communication. In late July, after the commander of the Revolutionary Guards publicly admitted to the existence of dissent in his force, 250 officers resigned. There are consistent acts of sabotage against the petroleum industry and there is now an unconfirmed report of a shootout between operatives of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Revolutionary Guards.
Iran is also suffering from economic distress that is causing further tension over the government’s domestic policies. The country is facing a severe gasoline shortage because of rising consumption, a dependency on gasoline imports and the sanctions. In July, at a time when normally 11 to 13 gasoline cargoes would arrive, only four came. In August, gasoline deliveries were only half of the previous month and 90 percent less than at the same time last year. Workers are also sporadically going on strike as many go five months without pay and factories are forced to shut down.
The regime is reacting to the instability with increased oppression. There has been a steady pace of executions and the regime has completely banned news coverage of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi or Mohammad Khatami. Their names cannot even be mentioned. The Ministry of Education is sending mullahs to the schools to counter Western influence. Security forces are going to popular shopping areas and searching cars driven by youth as Iran. Young Iranians are reportedly being arrested for their attire and what they listen to on the radio. Several converts to Christianity have also been arrested for having Bible discussion groups and services in their homes.
Imani says that Ayatollah Khamenei is engaged in a desperate balancing act and is running out of options.
“The horrible and deteriorating Iranian economy is taking its toll on Ahmadinejad’s struggle to survive. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric against the West and Israel has no longer any buyers in Iran. He is doomed either way. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei has been trying to keep the balance between all the branches of Islamic government, however, the future of Iran seem very gloomy, no matter from what corner you look at it,” he told FrontPage.
The government cannot allow this internal battle to continue indefinitely. The regime will likely try to instigate a foreign crisis if Khamenei fails to convince the squabbling elements to reconcile. Such an opportunity may have presented itself in the announcement that direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will continue. Hamas will be eager to torpedo the negotiations and Egypt has seized massive shipments of weapons including about 300 anti-aircraft missiles on their way to the Gaza Strip along with a large amount of other weapons. Unfortunately for Israel and the West, picking a fight may be the only card the regime has to play.