More Cracks in Iranian Establishment

TEHRAN – Five weeks after the disputed presidential elections, and four days after former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered a controversial speech at the Friday prayers in Tehran in which he sided with the opposition and challenged the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, the rift between the ruling elites has widened, with some in the conservative camp taking a critical stance against the ostensibly reelected president.

On Monday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who supported Ahmadinejad’s reelection and, in the process, has opened himself up for criticism, sent a strong warning to his political rivals.

"The elites should be cautious as they are confronted with a massive trial. Their failure in this trial will not only make them unpopular, but it will lead to their demise," Khamenei said.

Khamenei, who appeared with Ahmadinejad, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, and judiciary head Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, also warned, "Any individual, no matter their position, if they seek to push society toward insecurity, will be hated by the public."

He went on to claim that, "Elites should be aware, as any of their words, analyses, and actions which result in the disruption of the security of society will be a move in contradiction to the path of the nation."

Political analysts believe that Khamenei’s comments were intended as a response to Rafsanjani, who is reportedly in Mashad meeting with top clerics about the state of the country’s affairs.

In his speech, delivered during Friday prayers in Tehran and which drew an unprecedented crowd, Rafsanjani emphasized the importance of republicanism and people’s participation in governance, describing the current situation of the country as a "crisis."

He called for the restoration of the public’s trust and offered several strategies along these lines, including the release of all those arrested in recent weeks, the lifting of limitations on the press, and making amends with dissatisfied clerics and mourning families who had lost loved ones as a result of government violence. Rafsanjani also criticized the Guardian Council, the body that upheld the results of the elections.

According to one political analyst, Rafsanjani’s speech was especially important.

"The Islamic government of Iran claims to stand on two main pillars – the people and the clergy," said the analyst, who asked not to be named. "In his speech Rafsanjani pointed out that both groups were dissatisfied with the current state of affairs."

Rafsanjani also noted the presence of a distrustful public on the streets, and emphasized that it was this presence that brought down the regime of the shah.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a member of the Guardian Council, launched criticism at Rafsanjani, claiming that the Islamic government of Iran gets its legitimacy from God, rather than from the people.

"The support of the people does not create legitimacy for the government," Yazdi claimed, while differentiating between legitimacy and acceptance of government. "In Islam, the legitimacy of a government comes from God, while its acceptance comes from the support of the people."

Several other leading conservatives also criticized Rafsanjani, including Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the hard-liner who is believed to be Ahmadinejad’s spiritual and political guide; Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the head of the conservative Motalefe Party; and Ahmad Khatami, a hard-line cleric who shares the rotating position of Friday prayer leader with Rafsanjani.

But Ali Mottahari, a Principalist parliamentarian from Tehran, spoke in support of Rafsanjani, citing the need to gain the support and trust of the public.

On Tuesday, an entry on the Web site that publishes the memoirs of Rafsanjani started out with the following lede: "The term fear is meaningless; there is a test in the waiting for each generation; the issues related to society and the people constitute the most important trials."

Though the memory recounted on the site dates back 40 years and is in relation to the struggles against the shah, many analysts believe that it constitutes an indirect response to Khamenei’s warnings.

On Sunday, in a visit with the families of imprisoned political activists, former president Mohammad Khatami called for a public referendum on the legitimacy of the government, which was echoed by the reformist political party Khatami heads, the Society of Combatant Clerics.

While welcoming the position taken by Rafsanjani, the statement issued by the society claimed that these are "minimal" demands that could "restore the rights of a segment of the population and move society toward trust and peace and increase hope for the future."

"Given that the trust of at least millions of individuals with respect to the elections has been undermined," the statement claimed, "the public can freely participate in a referendum."

The statement also called for an "unbiased and trusted" institution to conduct the referendum – a reference to the Expediency Council, headed by Rafsanjani.

Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the hard-line Keyhan Daily who was appointed by Khamenei, launched criticism at both Rafsanjani and Khatami’s suggestions, claiming that the idea of a referendum was illegal, impossible to conduct, and a plot devised by the enemy.

In his speech on Monday, Khamenei once again asserted that the unrest in Iran was being directed by foreign powers, "who through their media, direct rioters on how to create insecurity."

Ahmadinejad’s main challenger and now-opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, in a visit with family members of political prisoners Monday, responded to these claims.

"Many of those in prison are well-known figures that have for years worked hard for this country," he said. "Who is going to believe that they are collaborating with foreigners and are willing to sell out the interests of their nation? Has our country digressed so much that you want to attribute the grand protest movement of the people to foreigners? Isn’t this an insult to our nation?"

Increasing disputes in the conservative camps also pose a serious threat for Ahmadinejad, whose inauguration is scheduled to take place next month.

On Thursday, the day before the Friday prayers, Ahmadinejad went to Mashad, where he took the opportunity to introduce part of his future cabinet, naming Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, his in-law, as his first vice president.

The nomination has been greeted with harsh criticism from Ahmadinejad’s conservative supporters. Mashaie served as a vice president of Ahmadinejad in charge of the Organization for Culture and Tourism, and he stirred up controversy in 2008 when he claimed that Iran was friendly with everyone, including the people of Israel. The statement created a wave of protest among leading political and religious figures who called for Mashaie’s resignation.

Ahmad Khatami, the hard-line cleric who supports Ahmadinejad, claimed that the appointment "mocked clerics and elites." Shariatmadari, the Keyhan editor, also criticized the appointment, claiming that it was "shocking and regretful."

Building on a wave of criticism of Ahmadinejad in the conservative parliament, reformist parliamentarian Daryoush Qanbari suggested that the parliament could issue a vote of no confidence for Ahmadinejad’s upcoming presidential term – an unlikely proposal given the majority of conservatives in parliament.

Rumors Monday and earlier Tuesday claimed that Mashaie had resigned and that Khamenei was opposed to his nomination. But in a televised interview Tuesday, Ahmadinejad insisted on his choice, claiming "Mashaie would continue in this position."

Reports have indicated that Khamenei is pushing for a strong show of support for Ahmadinejad’s inauguration. Tuesday, it was reported that despite pressure to be present at the inaugural events, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Hassan Khomeini, boycotted the event by leaving the country.

While unity of political elites appears critical for an effective presidential term for Ahmadinejad, it seems that the task is proving increasingly difficult.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Sara Farhang

Sara Farhang writes for Inter Press Service.