In the final days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inauguration next week, splits among the country's conservative elite have become increasingly conspicuous. Sometimes portrayed as a lackey for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he appears to be jockeying for power and authority – publicly defying Ayatollah Khamenei, sacking his intelligence minister less than a week before his Cabinet would have been dissolved anyway, and angering fellow conservatives by pressing for the broadcast of confessions forced from political prisoners.
On Tuesday, amid growing public anger about reports of torture of political prisoners following the deaths of two young protestors in regime custody last week, Iran released 140 political prisoners. Khamenei made the striking decision to personally announce the closure of a detention center, criticizing the treatment of prisoners held there.
"At this stage, there's cleavage in every part of the government," says Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "It can be seen in the Intelligence Ministry between those who say that [presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi's] green movement was part of a velvet revolution and a plot to overthrow the regime, and those who argue that this is ridiculous."
Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought to deflect attention from accusations that his June 12 reelection was rigged by reviving an old theme: that Western agents, rather than loyal Iranians, have been working to prompt a bloodless coup. But the president's latest tactic for proving that thesis has caused even some of his allies to distance themselves from him.
Power struggle over forced confessions
In recent days, Ahmadinejad has been pressing for videotaped confessions from detainees saying the protests were secretly organized by the British or the Americans to be broadcast, despite the fact that many conservatives find this distasteful. The opposition say such confessions have been obtained through torture and other coercive methods. Showtrials are feared for Hossein Rassam, a political consultant for the British Embassy who was released on bail July 19, and Bijan Khajehpour, the director of the Atieh Bahar consultancy.
"There's an internal power struggle going on," says a Tehran-based political analyst with ties to Iran's intelligence ministry who requested his name not be used. "Ahmadinejad went to the intelligence ministry and pressed them to focus more on the angle of how this was a foreign-backed velvet revolution and to release some of the confessions they had secured in prison among the arrested."
On Sunday, Ahmadinejad fired his intelligence minister – the conservative Gholam Hossein Mohsen Ezheie – after a reportedly heated exchange during a Cabinet meeting. Analysts say that Ahmadinejad is seeking to put his own loyalists into such posts – as evidenced by his failed attempt to install his close friend Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei as vice president, resisting Khamenei's public opposition to the appointment before capitulating this weekend.
"It is important that the intelligence minister, the second most important person in the cabinet after the president, was sacked," says Ms. Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who herself was forced to make a confession after being imprisoned in 2007. "This means that the Revolutionary Guard is taking over many of the duties of the intelligence ministry."
The Revolutionary Guard showed where its loyalties lie with a Sunday statement supporting the broadcast of confessions by state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
"We're in favor of broadcasting the confessions in order to illuminate the public mind and clarify public opinion," said Mohammad Hejazi, the second-in-command of the ideological Revolutionary Guards – a parallel army that was established to safeguard the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Guards public asserted responsibility for controlling the unrest following last month's election, and its basij militia – an ideological force placed under the Guard's supervision in early 2009 – took a lead in suppressing dissent.
Thousands of protesters were arrested and at least 20 more killed, including Nega Agha-Soltan, whose death roused widespread sympathy and is likely to be publicly commemorated in protests Thursday – the end of a traditional 40-day mourning period.
Khamenei personally orders detention center to be closed
In a sharp statement that highlighted splits between both reformists and conservatives as well as clerics and the military elite, reformist Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei stated that "those forcing confessions out of them [prisoners] are sinners."
Khamenei appeared to buckle under growing popular, clerical, and reformist pressure Tuesday to address the issue of detainee abuses as he announced the closure of Kahrizak detention center. The notorious prison is the first to be closed and came a few days after the son of a conservative politician after allegedly being exposed to torture.
Khamenei's statement said that Kahrizak failed to "preserve the rights of detainees."
The highly unusual closure comes after the arrests of thousands of protesters from the rolling waves of often violent demonstrations still afflicting the streets of Tehran and other large Iranian cities. Head of the Judiciary Ayatollah Mortazavi announced that officials are working to release innocent detainees from what he claimed were only 300 remaining prisoners. Clusters of relatives who gather every day outside the gates of Evin Prison, police stations, and revolutionary courts dispute this number, claiming that thousands still remain locked behind bars. Another 140 were released today, according to an Iranian lawmaker who participated in an inspection of the prison facilities Tuesday.
"In some of these prisons, the citizens' rights are not respected and the interrogators subject prisoners to blows and insults," Dariush Ghanbari, a representative in Iran's parliament from Elam Province, told the Farsi-language Parleman News. "Kahrizak is essentially a storeroom lacking in first aid or sanitary facilities."
In a sign of widening divisions within the clerical elites, Parleman News also reported that a group of senior Grand Ayatollahs critical of the regime's handling of the political crisis were planning to journey to the holy Shiite city of Najaf in Iraq – a move that would be taken as an insulting vote of no confidence in Khamenei's handling of the postelection situation. Just two of the nine Grand Ayatollahs resident in Iran have welcomed Ahmadinejad's election while the rest maintained a brooding silence.