The Iranian regime’s plans for regional domination have hit a bump: Its own leaders’ thirst for power. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have had a falling out, and the number of parliamentarians seeking Ahmadinejad’s impeachment is quickly growing.
Much of the in-fighting surrounds Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff and reportedly, his best friend. Mashaei’s daughter is married to one of Ahmadinejad’s sons and it is widely believed that Mashaei is Ahmadinejad’s pick to succeed him. Mashaei was appointed as Vice President in 2009, outraging conservatives because of his attendance at events featuring female musicians and dancers. He also stated that Iran is a friend of all nations, including Israel and the U.S.
Khamenei ordered Ahmadinejad to immediately fire Mashaei, so Ahmadinejad made him his chief of staff. He later came under fire in August for making statements that elevated nationalism above Shiite Islam. In April, Mashaei was demoted because of the controversy surrounding the documentary, The Coming Is Upon Us.
The film made the case that Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah are prophesied about in the Hadith as the ones destined to bring about the appearance of the Mahdi. It was rebuked by the state-owned Kayhan newspaper, and the top seminary in Qom. Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani also condemned it, saying it would “weaken the very belief of Muslims.” Mashaei denied overseeing the film’s creation but the pressure forced his removal as chief of staff. Nevertheless, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad remain close allies.
In May, 25 associates of Mashaei were arrested for alleged involvement in sorcery and witchcraft; an accusation that essentially calls them apostates. A former supporter of Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, even claimed that Ahmadinejad has been “put under a spell” and that explains why he is acting “unnatural.”
This is just the latest in a series of clashes between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. In December, the President fired Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki without even telling the Supreme Leader. In April, Ahmadinejad fired the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi, after he dismissed a deputy tied to Mashaei and tapped Mashaei’s phone. Khamenei ordered that Moslehi be put back into the post. Various reports claimed that Khamenei told Ahmadinejad to publicly support Moslehi or resign. Ahmadinejad has denied these reports. Far from being loyal, Ahmadinejad has given Moslehi a list of 45 senior officials in the Interior Ministry that he wants replaced with his own choices.
Now, Ahmadinejad has consolidated eight government ministries into four and fired the ministers of oil, welfare and industries. He declared that “I am the caretaker of the Oil Ministry.” The parliament is up in arms, claiming that such a move must be first approved by the body. The Guardian Council has sided with the parliament. Ahmadinejad just publicly reaffirmed his allegiance to Khamenei, and is accusing “enemies” and political opportunists are making up the reports of a rift. Mashaei also confirmed his loyalty to Khamenei.
This month, the number of parliamentarians supporting impeachment proceedings against Ahmadinejad jumped from 12 to 90. Eighty-five more are required for the process to begin. The battle between Ahmadinejad and the parliament has gotten fiercer over time. The body’s speaker, Ali Larijani, forcefully butt heads with Ahmadinejad when he tried to take control over the private Azad University tied to Larijani and former President Rafsanjani. Larijani criticized Ahmadinejad’s “extremism and delusion,” and insulted him and his supporters as “vicious, illogical loudmouths.” Members of the Basiji threatened to set the parliament building on fire. Khamenei ultimately took action, issuing a “serious warning” to stop the in-fighting.
The movement to impeach Ahmadinejad started gaining significant traction around November, with members of parliament talking of hitting the President with 14 charges of illegal conduct. Ayatollah Khamenei personally intervened on the side of Ahmadinejad. This did not stop the bitterness, particularly once Ahmadinejad implemented deeply unpopular subsidy cuts that united Iranians of all social classes against him.
The Iranian regime appears strong in the wake of the Arab Spring, as it has not faced protests like those seen in 2009. Extraordinary security measures have made it difficult for the Iranian people to demonstrate, but the regime remains very weak. Iran expert Michael Ledeen says the top opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, “designed a strategy that would lead to the implosion of the regime, not its overthrow in a dramatic confrontation. He believes that the internal conflicts are so severe that if only pressure can be maintained, the system will come down.”
The struggle within the regime is only going to intensify as the parliamentary elections of 2012 and the presidential election of 2013 come nearer. Additionally, Ayatollah Khamenei is of old age, and in very poor health. His demise will escalate these internal conflicts to an unprecedented degree. The Iranian regime is now engaged in a deadly battle with its worst enemy: Itself.