Iran’s Ahmadinejad not anti-Israeli enough?

Khameini's split with the man he backed for the presidency sheds light on the diversity of factions and opinions in Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was just taken down a peg or two – by the man many Iranians believe helped him steal last month’s presidential election from challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

On Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who in Iran’s theocratic system wields ultimate state power, disqualified Mr. Ahmadinejad’s appointed top deputy. Why? Because of right-wing anger that his choice, close friend and relative by marriage Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, said last year that Iran was a friend to the whole world, “even Israelis.”

It was a rare and direct intervention by a cleric who prefers to wield power quietly – and comes as opposition leaders have been searching for a chink in the united front that right-wing clerics and Ahmadinejad supporters have presented as proreform protests have been brutally crushed.

The tale of how Ayatollah Khameini came to split with the man he backed for the presidency sheds light on the diversity of factions and opinions in Iran, even among and within the camps that are generally described as “hard-line” and “reformist.”

With political power comes vast patronage opportunities in Iran, and analysts of the country say the furor kicked up over Mr. Mashai was caused, at least partially, by political figures sending a message to Ahmadinejad that he will not have it all his own way as president.

After all, the Israel-hating credentials of the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad are hardly in doubt. But Ahmadinejad is profoundly indebted – and politically reliant – on the politicians and clerics who put him in power, and he was reminded of that today.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that politicians like Mr. Mousavi – who genuinely wants a more open Iranian economy, a gentler foreign policy, and looser clerical reins on civilian politicians – are firmly rooted within the Iranian political mainstream.

For now, though, the squabble over Ahmadinejad’s deputy continues (Mashai and Ahmadinejad are insisting that he will remain in his post) the regime is still going about the business of repressing the opposition, whatever its internal disputes.

On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a report charging that the regime is coercing political prisoners to provide false testimony against leading reformists. A “former detainee who spent several weeks in Evin separately told Human Rights Watch that authorities have forced young supporters to implicate leading reformists in their 'confessions.' "

"I saw some prisoners with arms and legs in casts or with bruises on their body," the former detainee told Human Rights Watch. "Some young supporters of Mousavi's campaign were forced to make confessions against the distinguished reformists."

Also on Tuesday, police and Basiji – informal militiamen loyal to Khamenei and other hard-line figures – were out in force in the streets of Tehran. In some cases, they preemptively beat passersby on a street popular with protesters to ensure that large crowds couldn’t gather.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.