Ahmadinejad seen as loser In Iranian power struggle

May 10, 2011

Mike Shuster

(File/Getty/Salah Malkawi)

Although the details are murky, it seems safe to say that a power struggle is under way in Iran. Among the key players are the president, the supreme leader, the current intelligence minister and the president's chief of staff.

It's a story that also includes the possible bugging of the president's office and charges of black magic and sorcery among some of his partisans.

And for the moment, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be the loser.

'No Legitimacy' Without Supreme Leader

The story starts with Ahmadinejad firing Iran's minister of intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. Then, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reinstated Moslehi. In response, Ahmadinejad refused to attend Cabinet meetings for 10 days.

That was Ahmadinejad's big mistake, says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii. With that behavior, Ahmadinejad weakened his position substantially, she says.

"He was told to come back to work in no uncertain terms. Many supporters of Mr. Khamenei went in public and essentially said over and over again that the president of Iran has no legitimacy or support or public standing unless the leader gives him so," Farhi says.

Why did Ahmadinejad behave like this? It seems he was motivated by loyalty to his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Mashaei is a highly polarizing figure, one not liked by many other conservatives, nor by the supreme leader himself. Ever since he was elected president, Ahmadinejad has put Mashaei at the center of his inner circle — much to the dismay of conservatives in the press and the Parliament, says Muhammad Marandi, a political science professor at Tehran University.

"It seems that, yes, he is very central to what has been going on. He apparently is the person who wanted the minister of intelligence removed," Marandi told al-Jazeera English.

According to a widely published story, it is believed that Mashaei wanted Moslehi, the minister of intelligence, removed because Moslehi was bugging his office and possibly Ahmadinejad's office as well.

Charges Of Corruption, Sorcery

Hostility toward Mashaei is so intense among Khamenei's supporters that it has led to the arrest of some of Mashaei's associates on charges of corruption, demon-worship and sorcery, says Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver. Hashemi is a co-editor of a recently published book about Iran's Green Movement opposition, The People Reloaded.

"There's been a series of reported arrests of close allies and friends of Mashaei in particular, claiming that they have been involved in black magic, in distorted interpretations of Shia Islam," Hashemi says.

But it's nothing more than a naked attempt to grab political power, Hashemi says.

"There's no sort of deep principles involved here. All of them will invoke Iranian nationalism and Shia Islam and political Islam as a way of justifying their political position. But really it's a battle between different Mafia-style political camps, each combating against the other camp in order to obtain political power as way of advancing their own group's political clout."

As a result of all this, it has been primarily Ahmadinejad who has suffered, says Marandi of Tehran University.

"The president's position is weakened significantly as a result, because his chief of staff isn't popular among the political elite and among parliamentarians and so on," Marandi says.

Some have even called Ahmadinejad a lame duck, serving out the last two years of his second and final term with greatly diminished status. But Farhi says removing Ahmadinejad or forcing his resignation is not likely.

"His resignation would also look bad on Mr. Khamenei, so I would assume that all attempts will be made to prevent that from happening," she says.

The latest chapter in this story, as of a few days ago, has Khamenei ordering Ahmadinejad to support the intelligence minister or quit. On Sunday, Ahmadinejad returned to work and to a Cabinet meeting, with the intelligence minister present.