Watchman Newsletter

Impeaching Ahmadinejad

The Wall Street Journal (Link) - Amir Taheri (November 30, 2010)

Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a closet Persian nationalist trying to de-Islamize Iran? Is he part of a plot to send the mullahs back to the mosques to make way for an Islamist military regime?

These are some of the questions raised in the Majlis, Iran�s ersatz parliament, by members who are trying to impeach the president. As astonishing as this might be for Western observers, Ahmadinejad is challenged by people who claim that he is not Muslim enough and that he harbors a hidden anti-clerical agenda to promote a mixture of messianism and chauvinism. His closest friend and aide, Esfandiar Rahim Masha�i, has even suggested that �within one year Ahmadinejad�s enemies would declare him to be an infidel.�

The anti-Ahmadinejad coalition within the Khomeinist establishment is a curious coterie that includes hard-line Islamists, mullahs clinging to their wealth and power, rival politicians, and crypto-Communists posing as Muslims. Because they have to claim to be more militant than Ahmadinejad, the victory of these groups could produce an even more unpredictable and dangerous Iran.

The campaign to impeach Ahmadinejad started last June when Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani claimed that the parliament had the right to pass laws without the president�s consent. He then tested his claim by pushing through a $2 billion (�1.51 billion) appropriation to Tehran�s subway company, despite a presidential veto.

Larijani formed an alliance with another of Ahmadinejad�s bitter foes, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad had defeated both men in the presidential election of 2005. One of Rafsanjani�s sons heads the subway company that benefited from the parliamentary largesse. Ahmadinejad retaliated by asserting that the president, and not the Majlis speaker, was the country�s second highest authority after the �Supreme Guide.�

To calm things down, the �Supreme Guide,� Ali Khamenei, ordered the creation of a commission to arbitrate the dispute. By last September it had become clear that there could be no compromise, as Ahmadinejad�s foes within the establishment were united for the first time and saw him as a threat to their hard-won privileges.

Starting the impeachment process requires a petition signed by at least a quarter of the 290 members of the Majlis. This week the number of signatures reached 178. But grilling the president in an open session of the Majlis is only the first step. The next step would be to secure the signature of two-thirds of the Majlis for a petition to Khamenei to dismiss the president.

So far, the Larijani-Rafsanjani tandem has failed to make the numbers needed. More importantly, there is no sign that the �Supreme Guide� is prepared to dump Ahmadinejad. Last month, talking to some 30 leading members of the Majlis, Khamenei admitted that Ahmadinejad might have �made some mistakes� but insisted that the president was �doing a good job and should be supported.�

This backing comes despite accusations that the president has signed 110 unconstitutional edicts since his re-election last year. Some of these deal with a privatization scheme that has transferred large chunks of the public sector to companies owned by members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the president�s staunch supporters.

Ahmadinejad is also criticized for being too liberal on women�s issues. His Majlis critics attack his decision to allow women to attend sporting events and an order to the religious police not to harass women for minor infringement of the hijab. Newspapers supporting the impeachment lobby have published pictures of Ahmadinejad shaking hands with foreign women during his trips abroad. Since Islam bans physical contact between the sexes outside marriage, the implication is that Ahmadinejad is not a good Muslim.

The campaign to impeach Ahmadinejad is being orchestrated by Ali Motahari, a brother-in-law of Larijani and a member of the Majlis. Ali Motahari is the son of the late Morteza Motahari, a Khomeinist mullah assassinated by Forqan, a terrorist group of which Ahmadinejad has been accused of being a member. Forqan was inspired by the ideas of Ali Shariati, a Shiite propagandist who preached an Islam without the clergy.

The charge that Ahmadinejad is trying to push the mullahs out of power is based on his own claim that he has a direct line of communication with the Hidden Imam, a Messiah-like figure in Shiite Islam who is supposed to emerge at the end of time to install eternal justice.

Ahmadinejad constantly talks of the Hidden Imam but almost never mentions Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who created the present regime. Nor is Ahmadinejad keen to pay tribute to Khamenei. A man who talks to God wouldn�t bother with mere saints.

Several times a year, Ahmadinejad takes his entire cabinet to Jamkaran, a suburb of the �holy� city of Qom south of Tehran, to report to the Hidden Imam. In Jamkaran there is a well that is supposed to lead to the place where the Hidden Imam is in hiding. In a solemn ceremony, Ahmadinejad throws copies of his government�s budget and other edicts into the well for consideration by the Hidden Imam.

The message is clear: A government that is preparing for the end of times, under the command of the Hidden Imam, does not need the mullahs.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad�s foes in the Majlis suspect that the president is a secret Persian nationalist, a grave sin under Islam, which bans nationalism. Their suspicions were first raised when Ahmadinejad�s friend, Masha�i, told a public meeting in June that it was time to promote �the Iranian school� rather than Islam as such. Pressed to disown Masha�i, regarded by many as his philosophical guru, Ahmadinejad did the opposite by endorsing the idea of an �Iranian school� as the only valid version of Islam in the modern world.

As if that were not enough, Masha�i recently managed to persuade the British Museum to bring the famous Cyrus Cylinder to Tehran for an exhibition. On the clay cylinder is inscribed an edict by Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire 2,569 years ago, declaring a number of rights, including freedom of worship. Many Iranians regard this edict as the first declaration of human rights. To underline the importance of the cylinder�s return, Ahmadinejad headed an honor guard, whose members were dressed in the uniforms of Cyrus�s army. In a speech, Ahmadinejad paid tribute to Cyrus while Masha�i claimed that the Persian King of Kings should be regarded as �equal to prophets.� This was too much for the mullahs, who remember that Cyrus freed the Jews from bondage in Babylon.

Since Islam claims that everything and everyone before and outside Islam is nothing but �darkness and sin,� the public tribute to Cyrus even sparked criticism from one of Ahmadinejad�s closest clerical allies, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

Behind all this is the struggle for power between the mullahs and the rising generation of the military and their technocratic allies. An Islamist regime controlled by a military-technocratic elite rather than the clergy is not inconceivable. One example was Pakistan under General Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s. Another is Sudan today under General Omar al-Bashir.

Whatever the outcome, we are sure to witness a long and bitter fight within the ruling establishment. Because neither Ahmadinejad nor his rivals within the regime have anything positive to offer Iranians, both have to maintain the country�s state of permanent crisis. And because both seek support from the ever narrowing Khomeinist base, they are almost obliged to pursue a policy of growing confrontation with Western democracies. �

Iran ~ Islam