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What's behind Iran's power struggle

Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei is looking to remove rival old-guard leaders – including Mir Hossein Mousavi.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2009

Tens of thousands rallying in support of defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi blocked a road in Tehran in a fifth day of protests.



Istanbul, Turkey

Iranian security forces continued arresting key opposition figures on Wednesday, as defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi kept up pressure for a revote by calling his supporters onto the streets to mourn at least seven killed in clashes.

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The Association of Human Rights Activists in Iran announced Wednesday it had confirmed 32 deaths in the violence, with more reported dead outside the capital.

Among those arrested Wednesday were prominent reform strategist Said Hajjarian, former vice president Ali Abtahi, former foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi, and prominent critic and editor Saeed Laylaz – adding to the scores of key Mousavi supporters already detained.

The moves are part of a power struggle among Iran's political elite 30 years after the Islamic revolution. Analysts speculate that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei is aiming to remove rival first-generation leaders – some of the original leaders of the revolution. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (a second-generation leader) is a useful ally in that effort.

On the other side, the anti-Ahmadinejad camp – motivated by dislike for the president's abrasive style, that they believe has damaged Iran's standing abroad – is striving to topple Ahmadinejad and preserve their own influence, and sometimes wealth, in Iran's opaque system of rule.

"Now we are entering the purge phase [of the revolution]," says a Western-educated analyst in Tehran. "So the [Supreme] Leader wants to eliminate all the first-generation revolutionaries. Ahmadinejad is a very effective representative to attack the credibility of these leaders."

In the mud-slinging presidential debates, Ahmadinejad made unprecedented public accusations of corruption and incompetence against his rivals – including the rich former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he beat in the last presidential election four years ago.

"Everyone was a loser," says the analyst. "They were all discredited."

Mr. Rafsanjani, a pillar of the regime since the 1979 Islamic revolution who heavily financed the Mousavi candidacy, chairs the 86-member Assembly of Experts that in theory has the power to remove the Supreme Leader. Numerous news reports indicate that Rafsanjani is trying to call the assembly into emergency session.

Two sides in a power play

The power play is taking place among the ruling elite, with all players committed to the Islamic system. Yet hard-line President Ahmadinejad hails from a second-generation of ideologically driven leaders.

Shaped by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, they have brought the Revolutionary Guards and ideological basiji militia into government like never before – resulting in a deliberate "securitization" of Iranian society. With them are a number of arch conservative clerics.