By David Ignatius
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The political situation in Iran remains murky, to put it mildly, in the aftermath of June’s turbulent election. But some clues can be found in the recent purge of the country’s intelligence service.

The turmoil suggests that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing to tighten his control of the regime, even at the cost of alienating some powerful fellow conservatives. But the decisive voice remains the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His legitimacy has taken a hit — and he’s riding a tiger in trying to control Ahmadinejad — but he’s still No. 1.

The head of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, a ferocious cleric named Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei who is nicknamed “the viper” by some Iranians, was dismissed in late July. Four top deputies in the ministry were also sacked in what one U.S. analyst likened to a Stalinist purge. In the process, Ahmadinejad made some potentially dangerous enemies.

The intelligence putsch showed Ahmadinejad “moving to control” the government, says Mark Fowler, a former CIA officer who now runs the “Persia House” consulting service for Booz Allen Hamilton. He says of the ousted intelligence officers: “These are not wallflowers. These are tough guys. They have buddies who are spread throughout the system. They could cause some problems” for Ahmadinejad.

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