Ira­nian pres­i­dent un­der fire at home

The op­po­si­tion, mod­er­ates and even hard-lin­ers openly crit­i­cize Ah­madine­jad.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Bor­zou Dara­gahi re­port­ing from beirut Ramin Mostaghim re­port­ing from tehran

In New York, Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad can boast that he’s the talk of the town, ap­pear­ing on tele­vi­sion shows with the likes of Chris­tiane Aman­pour and Larry King, hob­nob­bing with fel­low heads of state and ad­dress­ing the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly on Thurs­day.

In Tehran these days, the out­spo­ken hard-line politician is un­der with­er­ing at­tack from all po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tions. His de­trac­tors in re­cent weeks have in­cluded as­sorted fun­da­men­tal­ist cler­gy­men who have ac­cused him of in­ter­fer­ing in re­li­gious af­fairs, a ju­di­ciary that hu­mil­i­ated him by de­lay­ing the re­lease of Amer­i­can hiker Sarah Shourd, the edi­tor of a right-wing news­pa­per hand­picked by supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, the mod­er­ate head of the pow­er­ful Assem­bly of Ex­perts, and a mem­ber of par­lia­ment who con­demned him for prais­ing the pre-Is­lamic Per­sian king Cyrus, who is an icon of sec­u­lar na­tion­al­ists.

“The pres­i­dent should be aware that he is ob­li­gated to pro­mote Is­lam and not an­cient Iran, and if he fails to ful­fill his obli­ga­tion, he will

‘In the past 30 years, de­spite war, ag­gres­sion against us and our be­lea­guered revo­lu­tion, we have never been un­der so much threat. I would like you to take all the sanc­tions se­ri­ously and not as a joke.’ — Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani,

ad­dress­ing Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad

lose the sup­port and trust of the Mus­lim nation of Iran,” said law­maker Ali Mot­ta­hari, who is loyal to a ri­val con­ser­va­tive fac­tion.

Strife among re­formists, con­ser­va­tives, hard-lin­ers and ex­treme hard-lin­ers has long shaped Iran’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. But in re­cent months, the ar­gu­ments and in­fight­ing have taken on a far sharper tone, with attacks grow­ing more vir­u­lent and vo­cal. At the heart of the mat­ter, an­a­lysts say, is Ah­madine­jad, a di­vi­sive fig­ure whose heav­ily dis­puted re­elec­tion last year trig­gered Iran’s worst po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in decades.

That bat­tle, be­tween the coun­try’s se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus and re­formist op­po­si­tion, con­tin­ues to make waves through­out the coun­try. On Mon­day night, as Ah­madine­jad set­tled into his role as a Man­hat­tan me­dia mag­net, op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers in Tehran took to their bal­conies and rooftops for the first time in months, chant­ing protest slo­gans as pro-govern­ment Basiji mili­ti­a­men swarmed through neigh­bor­hoods blow­ing whis­tles.

“Harsh re­pres­sion has ap­par­ently given some ex­tra oxy­gen to the regime,” said Michel Makin­sky, an Iran spe­cial­ist at the Poitiers School of Busi­ness and Man­age­ment in France. “But the fire is still burn­ing. There is a divorce be­tween so­ci­ety and the regime.”

In­stead of at­tempt­ing to heal wounds caused by the elec­tion, Ah­madine­jad dur­ing the first year of his sec­ond term em­barked on an am­bi­tious and ram­bunc­tious for­eign and do­mes­tic pol­icy agenda, which fur­ther alien­ated the mid­dle class and an­gered ri­val con­ser­va­tive fac­tions long sus­pi­cious of him and his en­tourage.

Re­cently the edi­tor of the daily Kay­han, a hard-line mouth­piece, ac­cused the pres­i­dent of be­ing un­der the Sven­gali-like sway of his chief of staff, Es­fan­diar Rahim Mashaei. The news­pa­per de­scribed the aide as an en­emy of Iran du­ty­bound “to cre­ate ri­ots and dis­cord among con­ser­va­tives” by in­flu­enc­ing his boss to take po­si­tions on re­li­gion and for­eign pol­icy that dif­fer from the rest of the es­tab­lish­ment.

This came af­ter Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani, a pow­er­ful cleric who is known to be sym­pa­thetic to the op­po­si­tion, ac­cused Ah­madine­jad of push­ing Iran to­ward calamity with a bel­liger­ent for­eign pol­icy that has en­raged much of the world.

“In the past 30 years, de­spite war, ag­gres­sion against us and our be­lea­guered revo­lu­tion, we have never been un­der so much threat,” he said be­fore Khamenei and oth­ers gath­ered for the an­nual meet­ing of the Assem­bly of Ex­perts, which Ah­madine­jad did not at­tend. “I would like you to take all the sanc­tions se­ri­ously and not as a joke.”

An­a­lysts say the In­ter­net has played a ma­jor role in sharp­en­ing ten­sions within Iran. Just as cable tele­vi­sion has changed the na­ture of U.S. po­lit­i­cal dis­course, the In­ter­net has sped up the Ira­nian news cy­cle. Politi­cians have taken to the Web with glee, pok­ing one an­other con­stantly via con­nected news agen­cies and blogs. Crit­ics of Mashaei blasted him as a “pa­gan” within hours af­ter he told Ira­nian ex­pa­tri­ates at a con­fer­ence in Tehran that the coun­try ought to pro­mote “an Ira­nian school of thought rather than the Is­lamic school of thought” abroad.

He fought back on his web­site, mashanews.com, ac­cus­ing his de­trac­tors of slan­der.

“Now you no longer have to read the tea leaves,” said Gary Sick, an Iran ex­pert at Columbia Uni­ver­sity, who served as a Mid­dle East ad­vi­sor to Pres­i­dent Carter. “They say it to each other openly.”

An­a­lysts say the na­ture of the cur­rent rul­ing class has also changed. Cler­ics ac­cus­tomed to abid­ing by the deco­rum of the sem­i­nary are be­ing eclipsed by for­mer mil­i­tary per­son­nel used to giv­ing gruff bat­tle­field or­ders. Many of the cur­rent politi­cians are for­mer prison in­ter­roga­tors.

The un­rest last year em­pow­ered the ex­trem­ist and vi­o­lent el­e­ments in the Basiji mili­tia and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard called upon to sup­press it. Ah­madine­jad is more be­holden than ever to the un­ruly mobs, which are now de­mand­ing a share of po­lit­i­cal power and a say in mat­ters of state from both the pres­i­dent they sup­port and the cler­i­cal class they are dis­plac­ing.

“On the one side, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard and mil­i­tary men are gain­ing in­creas­ingly dom­i­nant power and they are harsh in their di­a­logue and dis­course,” said Reza Haqiqat­ne­jad, po­lit­i­cal edi­tor at Tehran Em­rouz, or To­day’s Tehran, a daily news­pa­per close to the mayor of Tehran, Mo­hammed Baqer Qal­ibaf, who is an­other con­ser­va­tive ri­val of Ah­madine­jad.

“On the other hand, those who were founders of the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion are scared of los­ing ground. The fac­tions are strug­gling for power and sur­vival. So do not ex­pect them to be very civ­i­lized to each other at this junc­ture in time.”

Harsh po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties lend a des­per­ate air to de­bates about rel­a­tively mun­dane is­sues such as the an­nual bud­get or the re­moval of food and fuel sub­si­dies. An­a­lysts say this is caused by the in­creased com­plex­ity and un­pre­dictabil­ity of do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional events that af­fect Iran.

The dan­ger of a sur­prise Is­raeli or U.S. at­tack al­ways looms. In­ter­na­tional eco­nomic sanc­tions keep pil­ing up, and in­fla­tion, which has eased some­what dur­ing the global eco­nomic down­turn, is ex­pected to gal­lop again once the sub­si­dies are lifted or re-tar­geted. The dis­puted re­sults of last year’s elec­tion con­tinue to sow mis­trust within the es­tab­lish­ment and con­trib­ute to a cri­sis of le­git­i­macy.

“Con­ser­va­tives are in deep di­vi­sion on ma­jor topics,” Makin­sky of the Poitiers School said. “The nu­clear cri­sis is a good ex­am­ple. While Ah­madine­jad would be open to con­tem­plate an agree­ment [with the West], he is un­able to sell it to the supreme leader and to some ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards who con­sider any deal with the West as a threat against their power.”

Re­cently, In­tel­li­gence Min­is­ter Hey­dar Moslehi ac­knowl­edged that seem­ingly in­tractable dis­putes be­tween pow­er­ful of­fi­cials re­main Iran’s weak­est point. And there seems to be no way of stop­ping the es­ca­lat­ing rhetoric. Khamenei, 71, who has tried to halt the squab­bling fac­tions from pub­lic dis­agree­ments, ap­par­ently has health prob­lems and will in any case even­tu­ally die. Within the zero-sum game of Ira­nian pol­i­tics, any fac­tion kicked out of the cir­cle of power in the en­su­ing strug­gle fears for its own fate.

Op­po­si­tion leader MirHos­sein Mousavi spent 20 years in the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness af­ter the death of his pa­tron, Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, the founder of the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic. Mak­ing mat­ters even more com­pet­i­tive, the elec­tion last year showed that the coun­try’s large, pow­er­ful and ed­u­cated mid­dle class is up for grabs, and even Ah­madine­jad, by prais­ing Ira­nian na­tion­al­ist icons, is at­tempt­ing to woo them.

“The re­formists … feel con­cern be­cause they think hard-lin­ers such as Es­fan­diar Rahim Mashaei and Pres­i­dent Ah­madine­jad’s govern­ment are com­pet­ing with them,” said Far­shad Qor­ban­pour, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst in Tehran.

Few ex­pect Iran to mod­er­ate its do­mes­tic or in­ter­na­tional poli­cies as a re­sult of the in­fight­ing, which is ex­pected to grow un­til Ah­madine­jad’s term ends in 2013 — al­though he can run again in 2017 — and may get worse after­ward es­pe­cially if Khamenei passes away and the mil­i­tary at­tempts to fur­ther im­pose its will.

“There may be a sil­ver lin­ing here,” Sick said. “But you have to look for it pretty hard. If the trou­bles keep go­ing, the temp­ta­tion for a mil­i­tary strong­man grows.”

Chris Hon­dros

AT THE U.N.: Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad ar­rives for a meet­ing. The edi­tor of a hard-line daily al­leges the pres­i­dent is un­der the Sven­gali-like sway of a top aide.

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