Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Major Power Struggle Underway in Iran

In just one week some major events have occurred in the Iranian capital that might change the face and the politics of the Islamic Republic.

Last Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a message to supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Putin reportedly warned Khamenei of a major US military attack on Iran if the Iranian did not offer an acceptable compromise on uranium enrichment program. A temporary enrichment suspension (coupled with the suspension of all UN sanctions against Iran) could well be the desired compromise. Russia needed something concrete from the Iranians if it was expected to stop a military attack or further economic sanctions against Iran.

Ali Larijani, at the time the chief nuclear negotiator, told reporters on Wednesday that Putin had delivered a message to Khamenei with regards to nuclear standoff which was being analyzed. IRNA, the official news agency, reported on Wednesday that Khamenei was “pondering” Putin’s proposal.

On Thursday, President Ahmainejad said Putin did not utter a word on any nuclear proposal and there were no message or proposal delivered to Khamenei. Gholamhossein Elham, the government’s spokesman, that day reiterated the government position that no suspension, temporary or permanent, of uranium enrichment was acceptable.

On Saturday, Larijani unexpectedly resigned or was put in a position to leave his post. Larijani reportedly favored the double-suspension compromise offered by Putin. Ahmadinejad strongly objected. The future of Iran’s nuclear program and that of the Islamic Republic was on the line. Both sides hardened their positions in what they thought was the best plan of action for the Islamic Republic.

On Monday, Ahmadinejad left Iran on a two-day state visit to Armenia. On Tuesday, the day he was scheduled to deliver a major address to Armenian parliament, he unexpectedly cut short his trip and returned to Tehran. An Armenian presidential spokesman, Robert Kocharyan, said Ahmadinejad was forced to cut short the trip because of political developments in Tehran.

On Tuesday, 183 Majlis deputies signed an open letter to Ahmadinejad voicing their support for Larijani. In the same day, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor and a long-time confidant of Khamenei, criticized Larijani’s departure. The message from the deputies and Velayati was clear: Larijani’s departure and not accepting a compromise has put Iran in danger. Ahmadinjad cut his rip short to be in Tehran.

The events of the past few days clearly show that a major power struggle is underway in Tehran: Ahmadinejad against Khamenei. The disputes are for now centered on the nuclear issue but is going well beyond that. At stake is who would rule Iran in the next decade. Ahmadinejad is not accepting any compromise, relying on what he perceives a solid backing from the public and the revolutionary guards (IRGC). He is going as far as challenging Khamenei, who apparently is erring on the side of caution and accepting a limited compromise on nuclear issue.

The Islamic Republic, during its early days, had witnessed such major power struggle. Bani Sadr challenged Khomeini, hoping for a vast public support. He was forced to flee the country and now lives in exile. Khamenei is much weaker than Khomeini and the outcome of the current power struggle is by no means guaranteed. Iran’s political elite is gathering against Ahmadinejad and might be powerful enough to literally or practically force him out of the office. These are intriguing days for the Islamic Republic and for Iran.

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