Tehran Bureau | June 29, 2010
by Muhammad Sahimi in Los Angeles

Struggle for power builds between clerics, Revolutionary Guards.

[ analysis ] An important question that those who follow Iran’s political developments keep asking is, Who is the ultimate power in Iran, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei and the clerics around him, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? Given the complexities of Iran’s political system and power hierarchy, the question is not easy to answer, but over the past few years, particularly since the rigged presidential election of June 2009, much evidence has surfaced that provides insight into the ongoing power struggle, not between the Green Movement and the hardliners, but between the Guards and the clerics who accept Khamenei as the legitimate Faghih, the Islamic jurist recognized as Supreme Leader.

To address the question of who is the ultimate power, we need to first understand the power base of each side. The fact is that, unlike his predecessor as Supreme Leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — Khamenei has never had his own independent base of popular support. He did not belong to Khomeini’s inner circle, nor was he an original member of the Islamic Revolutionary Council that Khomeini formed in January 1979 to prepare for the transition from the monarchic rule of the Pahlavi dynasty to an Islamic republic. He was brought into the council only later and given a relatively junior position, deputy minister of defense.

When Khamenei was Iran’s president in the 1980s, he clashed frequently with Khomeini, particularly over the choice of Mir Hossein Mousavi as prime minister. Mousavi was strongly supported by Khomeini and is still known as the “Imam’s prime minister.” At one point, Khamenei even threatened to quit politics and stayed home for three days in protest. The deep differences between Khamenei and Mousavi partly concerned the latter’s economic policy. Khamenei represented the conservatives who were not happy with Mousavi’s tight control of the economy during the Iran-Iraq War and the price control system he established.

When Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader and theoretically monitors his performance, held an emergency session to select his successor. The first choice was Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani, then considered the foremost Marja’ Taghlid (source of emulation), but he did not receive the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of the assembly. Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — the main power broker of the time — proposed that, instead of selecting a new Supreme Leader, the assembly select a leadership council to oversee the country, consisting of himself, Ahmad Khomeini (the ayatollah’s youngest son), Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili (a close aide to Khomeini who is now aligned with the Reformists), Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, and Hojatoleslam Khamenei. In the clerical hierarchy, a hojatoleslam is one rank below an ayatollah, and much less significant than a grand ayatollah. Khamenei is known to have stated repeatedly, “I am opposed to the Velaayat [guardianship] of a single person,” presumably because he saw no chance to be Supreme Leader himself.

Due to his long friendship with Khamenei and the fact that he considered him weak on religious credentials and therefore pliable, Rafsanjani — assisted by Ahmad Khomeini — cooked up a quote supposedly uttered by Ayatollah Khomeini, indicating that he thought Khamenei was good enough to be the next Supreme Leader. No one else has ever claimed to have heard Khomeini offer any such view. I doubt the authenticity of the quote, given the tense relationship between the two men.

From Hojatoleslam to God’s Representative on Earth

With his appointment as Supreme Leader, Hojatoleslam Khamenei overnight became Ayatollah Khamenei. But when the leading grand ayatollahs of the time, Golpayegani and Mohammad Ali Araki, sent him congratulatory telegrams that referred to him as hojatoleslam, it became clear to Khamenei that he needed to expand his power base. His plan was to make the seminaries in Qom reliant on him for financial resources. He also recognized that he needed followers who recognize him as a legitimate Marja’. At the same time, lacking any popular base of support and the sort of charisma and authority with which Khomeini was endowed, he began relying on the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence apparatus, and paramilitary vigilante groups to advance his agenda. When Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989 right after Khamenei’s appointment as Supreme Leader, he proposed merging the Guards with the regular armed forces. The Guard commanders opposed the idea, and Khamenei took their side.

From 1989 to 1994, the conservatives tried to prop up Khamenei as a true Marja’. They would send him religious questions, which they featured in their publications, along with his responses. The first opportunity for promoting Khamenei to a Marja’ with the Qom seal of approval presented itself after Ayatollah Araki passed away in 1994. A new list of the recognized Marja’s was supposed to be publicized. Much pressure was applied on the seminaries, including demonstrations by vigilante groups, to put Khamenei’s name on the list of the seven Marja’s.

Ever since, Khamenei has provided large amounts of funding to right-wing seminaries in Qom, including that of Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the reactionary cleric and spiritual advisor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has propped up reactionary clerics who, in turn, support him ardently and have promoted him to the rank of deputy to Emam-e Zaman (the 12th Imam of the Shiites, Mahdi, who is supposed to return, after being hidden for centuries, as the redeemer) and even someone who was picked by God and merely “discovered” by the Assembly of Experts. More recently, Khamenei has been comparing himself with Imam Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, the Shiites’ first Imam, and a most revered figure in Iran and Shiism. He has compared Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to Talha and Zubayr, two historical figures and followers of the Prophet who rebelled against Imam Ali.

The reactionary clerics who are outspoken supporters of Khamenei include Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi, deeply corrupt member of the Guardian Council and former judiciary chief; Hossein Noori Hamedani, Mesbah Yazdi’s son-in-law and the only Marja’ to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his “reelection”; Abolghasem Khazali, former Guardian Council member; Ahmad Jannati, powerful secretary-general of the Guardian Council; Aziz Khoshvaght, member of the Assembly of Experts and mentor of the Supreme Leader’s second son and presumed successor, Mojtaba Khamenei (Khamenei’s third son, Mostafa, is married to Khoshvaght’s daughter); and Sayyed Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president), member of the Assembly of Experts and leader of Tehran’s Friday Prayers. Others who owe their positions to Khamenei, such as judiciary chief Sedegh Larijani and Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani and Abdolnabi Namazi, both members of the Assembly of Experts, naturally support him. Most of them did not play any significant role in affairs of state when Khomeini was alive. None has any following in Iran. Many of them, such as Ayatollah Jannati, are widely despised.

There are lesser known ultra-reactionary ayatollahs, such as Adib Yazdi, Ayatollah Amjad, and Hossein Mazaheri, who resides in Esfahan. But it is the army of hojatoleslams that carry water for Khamenei. Many of them are former students of Mesbah Yazdi and graduates of the seminary that he runs in Qom, the Haghani School. Amazingly, every head of the Intelligence Ministry since it was founded in 1984 has been a Haghani graduate.

There are too many such hojatoleslams to name them all here. The more visible include Mohammad Panahian; Kazem Sedighi, one of Tehran’s four Friday Prayer leaders; Hossein Taeb, deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence operation and former Basij militia commander, who played a leading role in the violent crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations after last year’s rigged election; Haydar Moslehi, current minister of intelligence; Ali Saeedi, Khamenei’s representative to the Guards; Mojtaba Zolnoor, Guard commander and deputy to Ali Saeedi; Ghasem Ravanbakhsh, close aide to Mesbah Yazdi; Mohammad Bagher Alavi Tehrani; Mohammad Taghavi; Jafar Shajouni; Elm ol-Hoda, Mashhad’s Friday Prayer leader; Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, Esfahan’s Friday Prayer leader and Majles (parliament) deputy; Ebrahimi Raeisi, one of the main figures in the execution of political prisoners in 1988; Ruhollah Hosseinian, Majles deputy and supporter of Saeed Emami, leader of the gang responsible for the Chain Murders; Mohsen Gharavian; Hamid Rsaei, Majles deputy; Hossein Ansarian; Haj Samari, Majles deputy; Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, prosecutor-general and former intelligence minister; Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, former intelligence minister; Morteza Agha Tehrani; Ali Mobasheri, head of Tehran’s revolutionary court in Tehran; Asghar Mir Hejazi, who works in Khamenei’s office; and Mostafa Pour-Mohammad, who also played a leading role in the executions of 1988 and was Ahmadinejad’s first interior minister.

Then there is a group of non-clerics around Khamenei who support him strongly. First and foremost is Vahid Haghanian, or “Agha Vahid,” the honorific by which he is widely known. He works in Khamenei’s office. Little is known about him, but he is recognized to be the ayatollah’s right hand and takes on the most sensitive issues. On the evening of June 12, 2009, when Abolfazl Fateh, the Mousavi campaign’s press officer, delivered a letter by Mousavi to the ayatollah at his office, it was Haghanian who, according to Fateh, gave him the distinct impression that “the election was over.” This was at 11:00 p.m., only two hours after the voting had ended.

Others around Khamenei include Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, and a medical doctor by training; Mohammad Hejazi, former Basij commander; Hossein Allah Karam, a leader of the vigilante groups that used to attack Reformist and other opposition gatherings (see below); Masoud Dahnamaki, hardline filmmaker; Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former Majles deputy speaker; the Larijani brothers; Mohsen Rafighdoust, Guards commander and former minister of the Revolutionary Guards, when it had its own ministry; Masoud Sadr ol-Eslam (his true name is Taha Taheri); “Dr.” Mehdi Kouchak Zadeh, Majles deputy; Masoud Soltanpour; Haji Bakhshi; and Ali Akbar Velayati, former foreign minister and now senior advisor to Khamenei.

All of these men have become very rich, though none is from a wealthy family. Allah Karam, for example, has a large travel agency. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the current Basij commander, has a construction company and an import-export company. Hossein Shariatmadari, the hardline managing editor of Kayhan, has extensive agricultural holdings. Rafighdoust’s wealth is legendary, Firoozabadi is fabulously rich. Velayati, a pediatrician, owns large hospitals in Tehran. They all have spacious mansions in the city’s best neighborhoods. Thus, they all have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

The Revolutionary Guards’ Cultural War

When, in 1989, Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani was elected president, they both allowed the Revolutionary Guards to become involved in the reconstruction of the country after the Iran-Iraq War, a decision for which Rafsanjani has since expressed regret. In particular, the Guards’ Khatam ol-Anbiya operation (its name, which means “the last prophet,” refers to Muhammad), which had played a major role in the war efforts and controlled vast state resources, began carrying out projects to repair the damage caused by the conflict.

Over the past year, the Guards high command has been attacking the Reformists savagely, accusing them of everything from being propped up by the United States and Great Britain to being anti-Islam. At the same time, Ahmadinejad’s allies have been attacking Rafsanjani and his family. Such attacks, in fact, go back to the early 1990s.

When he was Iran’s president, Rafsanjani resisted intervention by Guards commanders in national affairs, even though he was their commander-in-chief during the war. Khomeini was also fiercely opposed to military intervention in politics, which he explicitly banned in his political will. He always said that the military’s role was solely the preservation of national security.

Rafsanjani’s opposition to political activity by the Guards created animosity between him and hardline Guard commanders that continues today. In 1991, the Guards helped found Ansaar-e Hezbollah, a vigilante group led by Hossein Allah Karam. The Ansaar were the Republic’s first unit of plainclothes security agents. They attacked gatherings of intellectuals, academics, and other groups deemed part of the opposition, set fire to many bookstores, and criticized Rafsanjani and his family relentlessly.

At the same time, the Guards quietly began to expand their sphere of influence.

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