Ayatollah Khamenei Turns His Back on Ahmadinejad

Ever since 2007, whenever Israel raised the need for military action to wipe out Iran's nuclear bomb drive, Washington argued that the ensuring war emergency would only unite the Iranian people behind its rulers and their policies. The supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would profit by perpetuating their radical grip on the regime.
This week, under the biggest cyber attack in the history of world conflicts, Iran swept this theory away. Even in the big cities where some key systems and personal computers were disrupted by the invasive virus, there were no popular rallies behind the government. In any case, the leadership itself was split down the middle by a division at the top.
Ordinary Iranians were a bit surprised by the unusual openness allowed the media in reporting the details of the attack – but remained passive. They were not even roused from their apathy by the official IRNA news agency's revelation Monday, Sept. 27, that "personal computers are also being targeted by the malware. Although the main objective of the Stuxnet virus is to destroy industrial systems, its threat to home computer users is serious."
People just shrugged and waited to see what the government would do about it. They showed no sign of sympathy for the troubled regime or worry about the setback to Iran's nuclear program – certainly not for the Revolutionary Guards' struggle against the computer worm. Just the opposite; they sat back and watched to see if the regime cracked.
Iranian citizens were not the only ones waiting and watching.

Popular confidence in organs of state ebbing

A large slab of the population with a direct vested interest in the regime beating the malworm is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources to be getting increasingly nervous.
Hundreds of thousands of officers and rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and possibly millions of basij militiamen, who are charged with maintaining public order in the cities, have been brainwashed for many years into trusting that Iran is the top boss of the region, a world-class military power which is more than a match not only for little Israel but for mighty America.
Among these guardians of the regime, who are also its dependants, the suspicion is suddenly growing that the giant has a weak center. They see their infallible political and military leaders falling down against the challenge of a malignant computer worm consuming their advanced systems of governance and war.
Now they are not sure whom or what to believe.
The IRGC's deputy commander Gen. Hossein Salami was sent Monday with soothing words to reassure them. He announced that the Corps and the armed forces had produced protective devices applicable to all points of the country. Iran possesses "all the defensive structures it needs to fight a long-term war against the biggest and most powerful enemies" and "more advanced weapons and equipment than in the past," he said.
What weapons systems was Gen. Salami talking about? his once blindly obedient subordinates wondered. Why the sudden talk about "fighting a long-term war?"
His words did nothing to allay the uncertainty spreading through this bastion of the regime any more than the streets of Iran. Because the regime doesn't have a clue how to deal with the cyber attack, no one can tell what tomorrow will bring.
Recruited two days later was the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi. He met with the same skepticism as the IRGC commander when he said "The virus has not reached the main system…We have started protective measures for computers since last year and we intensified them two months ago to prevent any virus." Denying the Bushehr reactor had been damaged, he added: "I say firmly that enemies have failed so far to damage our nuclear systems through computer worms despite all their measures and we have cleaned our systems."
The trouble is that Salehi was forced to admit to a delay of several months in activating the Bushehr reactor. Moreover, a day earlier, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, another Iranian official, Hamid Alipour, deputy head of Iran's government-owned Information Technology Company, warned that the Stuxnet worm is "mutating and wreaking further havoc on computerized industrial equipment" and "new versions of the virus are spreading."

A greater peril to the regime than the 2009 opposition uprising

The truth is that Iran's rulers, aware for almost two weeks of Stuxnet's depredations, recognize that their regime's stability will be in dire peril as soon as the people, the troops and the intelligentsia catch on to their helplessness in overcoming the rampaging worm. Their peril could be more acute than that posed by the Green opposition movement which challenged the presidential election results in July 2009.
Yet the men who rule Iran have been unable to pull themselves together and get to grips with the hazard because they are busy sparring with each other. As they maneuver for the high ground, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ahmedinejad are wary of committing themselves to steps that might give the other the upper hand.
The falling-out started in recent weeks when spiritual leader decided to turn his back on his protégé the president and his close circle and revive his old ties with Ahmadinejad's arch-rival, ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a veteran powerhouse of Iranian politics who lent his support to the Green opposition's uprising last year.
This rapprochement was unfolding when Ahmadinejad stood before the UN Assembly on Sept. 23 and accused America of being behind the 9/11 terrorist atrocity.
That speech was over the top even for the fire-eating Iranian president. Our Iranian sources report that he fired two barrels – both to settle scores over the Stuxnet attack and as a battle cry against Khamenei's alliance with a foe judged a relative pragmatist in terms of revolutionary Iran.
The first outward manifestation of this alliance occurred on Sept. 21 when Rafsanjani met with the families of political prisoners, many of them jailed to silence the opposition to Ahmadinejad. According to Rafsanjani's website, the meeting in his office lasted about three hours. The former president listened to every one of his visitors and asked them to be patient.
"Liberty and justice are among the most important goals of the Islamic Republic and some shortcomings will certainly not prevent [us] from reaching these noble goals," he said. He then explained that taking their demands to "agents" (a reference to officials, many of them accused of abusing political prisoners) would not guarantee a positive response, but he promised to address them to the Leader and hoped "it will not be fruitless."
This promise and other signs were quickly translated by political observers in Tehran as meaning that Khamanei had opened his door to Rafsanjani and embarked on an epic shift away from Ahmadinejad's clenched fist toward an outreach to Iran's more liberal circles using his new ally as a bridge.

Iranian hardliners alarmed, Saudis amused

This shift alarms the extremist clerical factions and hardline IRGC commanders which make up the president's following – all of them ardent advocates of Iran's acquisition of an arsenal of nuclear weapons and warheads. They see their great dream going up in smoke if the spiritual leader is swayed by Rafsanjani and his long-held proposition that Iran should set the stage for a nuclear capability by putting in place the technology and tools for assembling a weapon – and then step back before crossing the line into building one.
This position would bring Iran a lot closer than it is today to the policy espoused by President Barack Obama.
It is hard to imagine Ahmadinejad letting it all go without a fight.
Finding its Iranian neighbor doubly beleaguered by an unstoppable cyber attack on their computer and control systems, on the one hand, and a domestic quarrel, on the other, the rulers of Saudi Arabia were not above rubbing their hands in delight.
Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the most important Saudi newspaper A-Sharq al-Awsat, the royal family's chief mouthpiece wrote in its latest issue:
"Despite all Iran's propaganda promoting the idea that it is the 'superpower' of the Middle East, a power capable of confronting America, according to the Iranian President, Tehran today is at the mercy of the 'Stuxnet' electronic virus.
"Today, it is highly significant that a virus, resembling a 'worm,' has managed to destabilize Iran. This has occurred despite all the Iranian statements, such as the infamous 'missile' propaganda, and other images of misinformation which have been broadcast by Tehran every day."
No one who counts in Damascus, Ankara, Beirut or Gaza will have missed this comment knowing it comes from the horse's mouth in Riyadh. The planners of the Stuxnet assault on Iran will also have drawn their own conclusions.

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