Ten Captured US Sailors: An Election Trophy for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

Tehran was in tumult this week – and not only because Friday, Jan. 15, is the defining moment for the lifting of sanctions, provided Iran meets its commitments under the nuclear deal signed with the six world powers last November. The Iranian capital was also caught up in election fever in the run-up to two critical votes:
On Feb, 26, Iranians choose their next parliament (Majlis) and vote in the more inflammable election for the 84-member Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses – and fires – the all-powerful supreme leader of the Revolutionary Islamic Republic.
Iran’s various political factions are jockeying fiercely for control of this clerical body. However, the ultra-conservative incumbent leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his hard-line allies, the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which control the military, feel they are sitting pretty, vis-a-vis the moderate conservatives that support President Hassan Rouhani, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other reformist groups.
In a theatrical show of muscle the Guards Tuesday, Jan. 12, captured 10 American sailors, nine men and one woman, and their two patrol boats, without a single shot fired, and freed them the next day.
But they also released embarrassing footage of the elite US combat crewmen surrendering with their hands on their heads, intending to humiliate America in the eyes of the Middle East and parade the superior might of the Islamic Republic.
It was also meant as a stunt for boosting the hard-line factions’ prospects at the polls.
This boost was timely, since Khamenei’s health, at 75, is the subject of speculation.
DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report that the supreme leader’s prostate cancer has not been finally cured, as claimed, and more growths were discovered in the medical check performed about two weeks ago.
He may look healthy, but doctors are reluctant to offer a firm prognosis about his future.
The shape of the post-election Assembly of Experts is therefore crucial for the ultra-conservatives and IRGC to maintain their grip on the regime.
As things stand, Rafsanjani, 81 and twice president of Iran, is able to breathe down the necks of Khamenei and the radicals.
Having gained the reputation of a “pragmatic conservative,” Rafsanjani is viewed with favor in the West. But he is a red flag for the hard-liners. He recently proposed authorizing the Assembly of Experts to oversee the supreme leader’s actions, claiming this authority was enshrined in the Islamic Constitution.
Radical circles were in uproar over what they saw as a threat to Khamenei’s position. The supreme leader not only has a health problem, but faces a rising tide of criticism, particularly since Rouhani took office as president.
Although Rouhani grew up in the fundamentalist camp, he discreetly backs the moderate wings of the movement. Khamenei tries to counter the threats to his position by scaremongering: “Western agents have secretly penetrated our ruling institutions,” he frequently warns.
This is taken as a reference to such anti-radicals as Rouhani or Rafsanjani returning to power.
Rafsanjani, for his part, has managed to pull off a coup in his struggle against the supreme leader by recruiting Hassan Khomeini, the 43-year old grandson of the Islamic Revolution’s iconic founder Ruhollah Khomeini, DEBKA Weekly’s Iranian sources report.
Hassan has long dreamed of succeeding his legendary grandfather, who was the first supreme leader of Iran, but stayed out of politics until the right moment came to jump into the arena. With Rafsanjani’s encouragement, he is now bidding for a seat on the Assembly of Experts. His candidacy quickly drew the fire of the fundamentalists.
Hassan, it turned out, had stepped into a generational void left by the withdrawal from the race of the incumbent supreme leader’s son, Moqtada Khamenei. While strongly touted by the hard-liners, Khamenei Jr, lacked the minimal religious scholarly credentials for a seat.
Even so, after the election, a majority of the “Experts” is almost certain to represent the extremist side of Iranian politics rather than the moderates.

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