In the Islamic Republic of Iran, top leaders rarely if ever show the world any cracks in their united front, never mind what goes on behind the scenes. It was therefore most unusual for one top official to publicly criticize another in the sternest terms, especially when the object of censure was no less than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's chef de bureau and father of his daughter-in-law, Esfandyar Rahim-Mashai, over comments judged dissenting with the revolutionary and religious conventions binding on the regime.
The criticism came from Chief of Staff of Iran's armed forces Gen. Hassan Firouz-Abadi.
He rounded on a Mashai assertion suggesting Iran was superior among the world's Muslim countries as "a crime against national security."
This reprimand was direct tacitly at the senior bureaucrat's comment of July 31, which broke through the official wall of denial and admitted Iran could enrich uranium up to any desired level – even 100 percent – and was able to build a nuclear bomb.
(See a separate item about this statement and the US President Barack Obama's response.)
The army chief chose however to confine his overt disapproval to the religious content of Mashai's comments, such as: "Without Iran, Islam would be lost" and "If we want to present the truth of Islam to the world, we should hoist the Iranian flag. Countries are scared of Iran, because the truth of Islam is here."
Replying to these comments, the general said: "Talking of an Iranian school of thought is divisive for the Muslim world."
The Guards see an opening for sidestepping the ayatollahs
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report the argument is more than a polemical dispute between a military authority and a high civilian official; it is the outer symptom of a herculean struggle ongoing within the Iranian regime with a distinct potential for a bloody clash or even a military coup.
It is therefore important to establish who is ranged against whom.
The most powerful force in the land, the Revolutionary Guards Corps – IRGC, champions Rahim Mashai for now. They see him as widening a crack in the ruling caste which they aspire to supersede. IRGC strategists see their chance of using their colossal military and financial strength as the fulcrum for climbing over the heads of the clerical autocracy. Tired of knuckling under to the mullahs' diktats on war and peace, external relations, nuclear policy and the sponsorship of terrorist organizations – to name a few – the Guards believe they are within sight of their ambition to become the uncontested rulers of Iran.
For exactly that reason, the clerical elements of the regime stood up on their hind legs and objected to Rahim-Mashai's comments through Gen. Hassan Firouz-Abadi in Round No. 1.
Whereas the regime spoke through the chief of staff, the IRGC is using the president and his inner circle as their spearhead. Ahmadinejad is willing to play this role for now, with an important reservation: the president believes he can turn the tables on the Guards and use their ambition in his turn as a ladder for climbing up to the top of the tree in Tehran and making himself Iran's sole ruler empowered by the IRGC.
Ahmadinejad woos the nation as the Great Benefactor
Ahmadinejad has treated the organs of state with contempt since first attaining the presidency in 2005. He has often challenged the legislature and ignored their laws and decisions. Declaring he was elected by 22 million Iranians, he contended he represented the will of the people as much as the Majlis and was entitled to choose which of their laws, especially in the economic domain, he would obey.
He has therefore swept aside the state subsidies on consumer goods conferred by the state budget approved by parliament and instead introduced benefits handed out as presidential largesse, such as a new grant of one million tuman (equivalent to $1,000 or the quarterly earning of a civil servant) for every birth as well as monthly maintenance.
Ahmadinejad has launched a personal charm offensive, traveling to every corner of the country, performing in the role of Great Father and Benefactor to the crowds flocking to hear him.
His campaign for encouraging large families deviates from the strict orthodoxies laid down by the official imams, whose fatwas urge restrictions on childbirth and go so far as to sanctify condoms and surgery for women and men. The president has even criticized the official line on the strict observance of modest dress for women.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, Ahmadinejad's defiance of the clerical hierarchy and the official regime line, his admission of a nuclear weapons program and pursuit of grass-roots support by populist policies are laying the groundwork for a "Putin exercise."
He plans to bypass the prohibition on a third consecutive term as president by running his chief aide Rahim Mashai for election in 2013 to keep the presidential seat warm for four years, during which he will serve as prime minister until it is time to reclaim the palace four years hence – this time for life.