Behind this week’s hoopla over the Islamic Revolution’s 34th anniversary, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that the nation’s generals, in between parades and speeches, were quietly trading scenarios on the ifs and hows of a military coup d’etat – and not for the first time in a very troubled year.
The growing fissures within the regime ahead of the June presidential election have sent the chiefs of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the regular armed forces chiefs to privately put their heads together on this extreme course.
No presidential candidates have been formally registered. But already, the two most visible presidential contestants – Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fighting for his right hand man and in-law Esfandyar Rahim-Mashee (his daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son) – are at each other’s throats.
The competition is getting uglier and threatens to career out of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s control. Of late, Khamenei’s spy agencies inform him of mutterings in the president’s close circle that on no account will they abandon their power bases if their man is defeated at the polls.
Much of the acrimony is played out in public.
Sunday, Feb. 3, a mudslinging duel was staged in the Iranian parliament, the majlis, which was convened to impeach the Ahmadinejad crony Abdolreza Sheikholeslami as Labor Minister. The debate, broadcast live on radio, took an unexpected turn when the president shot back with a secretly-recorded video impugning the Speaker’s eldest brother, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, head of the judiciary, for illegally touting for profitable contacts for the family businesses, which are headed by Fazel Larijani, the younger brother.
Ahmadinejad and Larijani duel in parliament
Ali Larijani, the Speaker, hit back by accusing members of the president’s close circle of being in contact with opposition groups outside Iran.
Ahmadinejad lost this round: his Labor Minister was removed by an overwhelming majority of majlis members.
But he has plenty more arrows in his quiver: Before an audience of hundreds of thousands, he alleged a conspiracy by his enemies to doctor the June election. This was in a speech he delivered in Tehran’s Liberation Square on the occasion of the Revolution’s anniversary.
The Khamenei camp and the Revolutionary Guards chiefs are both becoming alarmed by Ahmadinejad’s heated rhetoric, because it reminds them uncomfortably of the mass protests in 2009 over allegations of a rigged presidential election, which spread across the country and were only broken up by live bullets and extreme violence.
By hurling this accusation, the president flouted a blanket prohibition by Ayatollah Khamenei against extreme campaign propaganda that might rock the Islamic regime. By defying this ukaze, Ahmadinejad opened the door to dissident groups seeking to air their grievances and lay bare a whole catalogue of official misdeeds.
Tehran has so far fended off spillover from the revolt sweeping the Arab world, including its foremost ally Syria. But, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Tehran report, IRGC and army generals are worried that an eruption of domestic anger and protest in the inflammable regional climate may well spark a major conflagration before or after the presidential vote.
There will be no Iranian Spring!
IRGC and army chiefs are therefore putting in place plans for postponing the June election and imposing martial law in the event of unrest serious enough to endanger the regime’s stability. There shall be no “Iranian Spring,” they are both absolutely determined.
At the same time, IRGC spy agencies are confirming that the Ahmadinejad camp is preparing to stay in power and get its candidate into the presidential palace whatever it takes. Rahim-Mashee told a private gathering his week that he is prepared to take any risks to attain office –“even if we fall as martyrs to Islam and Iran’s revolution,” i.e. assassination.
This unbridled talk, together with Ahmadinejad’s warning of an “engineered election,” adds fuel to an atmosphere crackling with suspense and aggravates the concerns of the supreme leader and the generals that trouble lies ahead in the streets.
The first sign of unrest occurred Sunday, Feb. 10, when a band of men wearing sackcloth, the mark of a shahid, burst into a mosque in the religious city of Qom, hurled protests at Speaker Larijani followed by a shoe and other objects. Larijani was forced to break off his speech in honor of the revolution’s anniversary and run for his life, bundled out by his bodyguards.
IRGC strategists predict spring peak for nuclear crisis
The military fear this incident was but a foretaste of more upsets facing the country in the weeks and months to come, with the potential for bringing the country up to the brink of armed conflict and bloodshed. The generals believe it is up to them to stave off chaos and disaster.
In another sign of the times, Revolutionary Guards strategic planners have drawn up a secret assessment, revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources, which forecasts the international controversy over Iran’s nuclear program peaking again in the spring and coinciding with the rising domestic unrest.
Notwithstanding the economic pain inflicted by international sanctions, Khamenei has dismissed the US offer of direct talks for a diplomatic solution of Iran’s nuclear program and shows no inclination to reach any sort of compromise.
The multinational nuclear talks with Iran go into another round in Kazakhstan on Feb. 25, but no one imagines it producing results.
After that, therefore, the IRGC strategists calculate the Obama administration will have good cause to revert to the military option for preempting a nuclear Iran, taking advantage of the Islamic Republic’s economic crippling by sanctions.
The latest set of US sanctions, put into effect this month, shrink Iran’s cash flow further by forbidding the countries purchasing Iranian oil to pay in cash, only goods. Tehran’s foreign currency for buying such essentials as rice and wheat, already in short supply, is being pared down still further. Food prices have soared in the past year and the rates for foreign currency tripled.
Ahmadinejad’s candidate accused of heresy
The IRGC strategists conclude that the convergence of three troublesome elements blowing up in the spring – the revival of the military option against Iran’s nuclear program; an economy going bust; and the all-out infighting within the ruling regime – could place a large question mark over the Islamic Republic’s future.
In private, the IRGC chiefs in favor of a military coup in Tehran point out that the supposedly free presidential elections have brought the regime no benefit.
During the relatively liberal Mohammed Khatami’s eight years at the helm, Iran’s nuclear program went into stasis and his social reforms put the revolutionary regime at extreme risk.
Ahmadinejad, who was strongly championed by the IRGC and Khamenei, did indeed put the nuclear program on the fast track. But now, this “short, ugly man” has fallen out of favor, dismissed as a megalomaniac who seeks to introduce what he calls a “pure Iranian brand” of Islam and so curtail the authority of the ruling caste of ayatollahs.
His protégée and would-be presidential contestant Rahim-Mashee is accused of even worse sins: While publicly burning US and Israeli flags, he has been claiming in the last couple of years that the Iranian people really look upon the Israeli and American peoples as their friends. They are also eager to revive Iran’s ancient indigenous culture.
The hard-line Ayatollah Khamenei and the clerical establishment of Qom condemn Rahim-Mashee out of hand as anti-Islamic. His comments are anathema and some of the ayatollahs want him proscribed as a heretic, and say his blood is on his head.
Transferring the presidency “provisionally” to a general
At the same time, the president’s crony and kinsman is widely admired as a national patriot. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian experts say that if he is allowed to run for election, he will almost certainly pick up a large majority of the voting public. Installing him as president could bring about the end of extremist Shiite clerical rule of the country and sharply reduce the IRGC’s monopolistic control of the national economy.
The Islamic republic has a simple remedy for getting rid of unwanted nuisances: calling the Constitutional Council into session to disqualify Rahim-Mashee as candidate for president.
Undesirables have been removed from high office in this way before. But this time, the Revolutionary Guards are reluctant to resort to this measure for fear of sparking violent protest, further powered by the economic hardships the population is being forced to endure.
This would leave the country wide open to external military attack
Conscious of their carpe diem, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and military commanders are weighing the advantages of two alternative plans of action:
One would be to indefinitely postpone the election and "provisionally" transfer the presidency to a military chief. They would be saving the regime and country from the triple perils of a potential US and Israel military offensive, imminent economic collapse and factional infighting verging on bloodshed.
Both rivals ride roughshod over Khamenei’s injunction
The other option would be to run an IRGC candidate for election on a platform pledging a thorough house-cleaning. Mass arrests would be carried out of elements endangering the regime, namely Ahmadinejad’s followers.
The advocates of a military coup are not yet ready to go all the way and oust Khamenei or terminate the Islamic revolutionary regime. They believe that the outer cloak of religious rule will ease their takeover and canceling the office of "the supreme leader" would be an unnecessary and high-risk gamble.
It is not yet clear to our Iranian sources where Khamenei stands on this option: He has disowned the president who was once his favorite protégée, but otherwise he appears to be sitting on the fence, ready to jump either side of the impasse – as is his wont.
However, the latest events show his control is slipping over the discord between Tehran’s warring camps. Both the Ahmadinejad and Larijani family factions have ridden roughshod over his injunction to refrain from fiery campaign rhetoric, ignoring his warning that “whoever does so, is a traitor.”