Humiliation is the name of the ruthless power game being fought in Tehran.
It was applied to the Obama administration by Iran's brusque rejection of US feelers for quiet terms for the continued US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan after withdrawal. (See leading article in this issue.)
It also accounted for the delays in releasing from jail two American hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, sentenced to 8 years as alleged spies. They were finally freed Wednesday, Sept. 21 – but too late to salvage the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's image before his address to the UN General Assembly.
Since the beginning of 2011, Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been using humiliation as a rough stick to a bludgeon Washington and beat his former favorite, the Iranian president, down to the status of a political nonentity.
This year, Ahmadinejad's arrival in New York on Sept. 20 went almost unnoticed in painful contrast to the star treatment awarded him in past years – except for the hundreds of angry people who mobbed the hotel for hosting this “depraved criminal.”
Among them were the families of the two hikers held by Iran for two years after they strayed across the Iranian border from Iraq and later tried as spies. The Iranian president had hoped their timely release would save him from an unpleasant welcome. So on Sept. 13, he went on the air in an NBC interview to promise they would be freed "within two days."
The ungrateful protégé
But Khamenei made sure his pledge would not be honored and he would travel to New York humiliatingly without the two Americans. Only after he was thoroughly tarred and feathered by New York protesters were the hikers released into the care of an Omani official against $500,000 bail for each.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoyed six years as president with more power than any former occupant of the presidential palace in Tehran had ever presumed to arrogate, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources report. He got away with it only as long as he was Khamenei's blue-eyed boy.
The Supreme Ruler arranged for him to gain power in 2005 and again for his reelection in 2009, bringing protesters out on Tehran's street in that summer for riots against the rigged election in which more than 200 Iranians were killed. Khamenei had to fight hard to restore his standing. But then, far from showing gratitude, Ahmadinejad started challenging the Supreme Ruler's authority and flouting his wishes.
Khamenei decided to clip his wings and punish him where it hurt most.
The Iranian president dearly loves a platform. He can't resist the spotlights and television cameras that focus on him when he makes a speech. So dazzled was he by the first of his seven addresses to the UN, that he boasted to Iran's top clerics at the time that his head had radiated an aura of light and he had felt like the prophets divinely inspired.
Even two-year olds stood and cheered and called his name as his convoy passed through the streets of New York, he reported.
Losing face at home
No uplifting experiences await Ahmadinejad this time around.
At UN headquarters, Ahmadinejad found world officials highly skeptical of his authority to represent the views of the Islamic regime in Iran. His public appearances were no longer an attraction.
The PR campaign he organized before his departure for New York fell flat. Although interviewed by a number of US TV networks and newspapers, his comments were scantily reported. The dinner to which he invited the Columbia University faculty was cancelled after Jewish organizations threatened to sue the university – to the great embarrassment of the presidential entourage.
This followed an affront dealt him by the Supreme Ruler before he left home. Last week, Iran’s second national television network ran a promo for several days on a live interview with the president before he set out for New York. Hours before he went on air, the Supreme Ruler cancelled the interview.
His bureau tried to explain that “the president was too overburdened with preparations for his trip to make time for the interview.” But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran report that the Supreme Leader let it be known that he did not trust Ahmadinejad to speak out of turn.
Khamenei hits Washington for a prisoner swap
Khamenei used the continued detention of Shane Baueer and Josh Fattal, who were essentially kidnapped by the Revolutionary Guard near the Iraq border and taken to Iran as hostages, to humiliate Ahmadinejad and Washington by a single gambit. It was also pressure on the US to accept a prisoner swap.
Khamenei wants America to hand over certain gunrunners, some of them US citizens, jailed for breaking sanctions and smuggling arms to Iran. He also demands the extradition of Iranian deserters granted asylum in the US who gave the US authorities valuable information about Iran’s nuclear program.
So long as Washington holds out in these cases, Tehran will keep up the heat.
After New York, Ahamadinejad is in for more punishment at home. Awaiting him are serious criminal charges linking his name to the disappearance of three billion dollars from Iranian banks. The name of the embezzler has not been released but our sources in Tehran reveal him as Amir Mansour Arya, an entrepreneur who started a business five years ago with Ahmadinejad’s encouragement and whose fortune grew a thousand fold within a suspiciously short time.
Arya is accused of using his presidential connections to secure multi-billion dollar loans from Iranian banks. Large amounts were then spirited out of the country.
Ahmadinejad denies any complicity in the crime. He tried fighting back by threatening to publish within 15 days "dozens of names" of his rivals he claims guilty of financial crimes. The deadline came and went without publication.
The Supreme Ruler's sadistic patience
It seems now that the Spiritual Leader may not be trying to shoot him out of office but rather gunning for the president's inner circle – especially his son's father-in-law, Esfandyar Rahim Mashee whom Ahmadinejad has tabbed as next president in elections that are less than two years away. The more radical clerics say this Ahmadinejad favorite deserves "even execution."
Concerned that in his absence Mashee would be made to disappear, the Iranian president took him along to New York.
But just as Khamenei never compromises on his hard line against the West, he never lets up on his victims. He grinds them down with sadistic patience. Ahmadinejad is still president but has been stripped painstakingly of every layer of influence and charisma – both at home and on the international scene.