Iran Splits over Intelligence Chief--Part I

Semira N. Nikou

           In an unusual public spat, Iran’s top two leaders have split over the future of intelligence chief Heider Moslehi. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly wanted him sacked and accepted Moslehi’s resignation on April 17. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei overruled the president—first in a letter to Moslehi and then in a public address--effectively rebuking the decision and even announcing that he was praying for Moslehi.
           The supreme leader tried to end the controversy in a speech on Apr. 23, 2011. Khamenei said he does not intend to interfere in political disputes but with Moslehi’s resignation “a greater good had been ignored.” The leader also criticized the media for inflating the story and for reporting a rift within Iran’s leadership.
           The public spat is important--and unusual--for several reasons. The first is that it reveals the conflict over the control intelligence ministry--a critical ministry in dealing with both domestic tensions and Iran’s escalating showdown with the outside world. The second is that the flap has been so public in normally secretive Iran, rippling into media splits as well. Pro-Ahmadinejad media outlets initially refused to report on Khamenei's rejection of Moslehi's sacking and it was only after Khamenei's official letter to Moslehi was published in other outlets that they acknowledged Khamenei's order. The third is a subplot centered around the president’s controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.
            Iranian media reports imply that Mashaie, a potential contender in the 2013 presidential election, had urged the president to fire the intelligence chief, at least partly over his assessments the Intelligence Ministry. Mashaie is related to Ahmadinejad through the marriage of their children and is a major influence on the president.
            In the past, Khamenei has provided critical support for Ahmadinejad. The leader was decisive after the disputed election results of the 2009 vote, when the opposition charged massive fraud. The supreme leader sided with the president and allowed security forces to brutally repress street protests by millions of Iranians in several cities for six months.
            Iran’s supreme leader traditionally approves key posts, such as the intelligence and foreign ministry posts. The supreme leader did not interfere when Ahmadineajd sacked Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in December 2010.
            Parliament has even been sucked into the dispute, with more than 200 members signing a statement April 20 urging the president to adhere to the supreme leader’s order. Senior ayatollahs also pressed the president to accept the leader’s instructions.
            The political skirmish between Iran’s top religious and political authorities comes at a particularly awkward time. The regime faces serious internal discontent on both political and economic issues as it nears the second anniversary of the disputed presidential election and with parliamentary elections looming early next year. The region is also in turmoil over pro-democracy protests; Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally, faces unprecedented internal unrest.
            It is not yet clear how the president will manage his relationship with intelligence minister. Moslehi did not accompany the president and the rest of cabinet ministers in the government's provincial trip to Kurdistan on April 20.
            The following are public comments by key politicians on the Moslehi affair.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
            “Look at the foreign media propaganda about this matter and how they have created a controversy; [They] claim that a split and dual government has been created in the Islamic Republic, and the president is not obeying the leader.”
            "I won't allow, as long as I'm alive, the slightest deviation in the great movement of the people of Iran toward its ideals."
            "In principle, I have no intention to intervene in government affairs ... unless I feel an expediency is being ignored as it was the case recently." Apr. 23, 2011 
            “I ask you to put more effort than before in carrying out important missions inside and outside the country…Do not allow even the smallest weakness in carrying out the legal duties of that important organization. I pray for you...and all of my dear revolutionary children in the Intelligence Ministry.” In a letter to the intelligence minister, Apr.19, 2011
The parliament’s letter to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
            "Replacing the intelligence minister…under the current sensitive circumstances is not at all in the country's interests. Thank God the supreme leader resolved the problem with his wisdom. To the parliament, Mr. Moslehi continues to be the (intelligence) minister. You are expected, in adherence to the supreme leader, to end the enemies’ abusage by explicitly supporting of the respectable intelligence minister.” Signed by 216 members of the 290-seat parliament Apr. 20, 2011
Ayatollah Abolqassem Khazali, a prominent conservative cleric
           “Mr Ahmadinejad should follow the leader's orders and not allow certain circles to influence him.” Apr. 20, 2011
Hussein Naqavi, member of parliament
           “The parliament expects nothing but total obedience to ... the order without any question. (The Leader) is above the three branches of power and the executive branch is defined under the Supreme Leader." Apr. 20, 2011
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under reformist President Mohammad Khatami
           "One of the usual accusations against the reformists was that of dual governance. [The hardliners] accused the reformists [in the administration of President Mohammad Khatami] of sending signals to the world that the positions of the supreme leader and the president were different.... The recent events…are more than ever an indication of dual governance—from an administration that came to power through the slogan of support for the leader.” Apr.19, 2011
Read Semira Nikou's chapter on Iran's subsidies conundrum in “The Iran Primer”

Semira N. Nikou works for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace
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