Because so little may be communicated from inside Iran, I will limit these comments to a panorama of the current situation, with more such – and more in quantity, one hopes, to follow later.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was asked at a recent press conference what he thinks about suggestions that Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of one of the Tehran regime's two main institutions, the Expediency Council, intends to retire. Ahmadinejad replied that he would be grateful for Rafsanjani's retirement – merely another expression of the basic rivalry between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad's clerical patron, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad's comment demonstrated that he is more sure of himself than ever. In attacking Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad wishes to push aside the political figures of the original revolutionary generation and to introduce a new conservative ideology, in which absolute power is primary and religion a mere political weapon.
Rafsanjani, along with former president Muhammad Khatami, last year's opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri – the latter a former interior minister and critic of Ahmadinejad – all belong to the first generation of revolutionaries who, over time, developed pragmatic and moderate tendencies. They had to share power among the limited and legitimate components of the system. By contrast, Ahmadinejad and his group resent any involvement with other parties or factions.
Ahmadinejad has his own men, who resemble him in character:
- Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's son-in-law and chief of staff, astonished the world in 2008 when he said Iranians were not against Israelis as people, only against their government. Many hard-liners called for his resignation, and Ayatollah Khamenei criticized him, but on September 18, 2008, Ahmadinejad was reported by the London Financial Times to have agreed with Mashaei but adding the slur that Israelis are "human shields" for atrocities committed by the Jewish state.
- Mohammad Ali Ramin, by contrast, is another close Ahmadinejad confidante who is also an avid denier of the Holocaust. He organized the 2006 Tehran conference of Holocaust deniers, including American ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. He is Ahmadinejad's media chief.
- Mojtabah Samareh Hashemi is a deputy minister and close personal adviser of the dictator.
- Sadegh Masouli is minister of social welfare.
- Gholam-Hossein Elham is Ahmadinejad's official spokesperson.
These men share with Ahmadinejad hatred of political moderation as an "incursion from the West and Freemasonry" – an old target of conspiratorialism in the Muslim lands. They are politically and sociologically ignorant. They exalt political power but manage to organize and cooperate well. They are new to the heights of the state but have been active in ideology and the financial sector.
This second generation of Iranian leaders emerges from ideological trends rather than political or administrative experience and have never contended with challenges to religious power and for democracy. For them, the support of the clerics trumps that of the people. For this reason, Ahmadinejad's seat of power is in Qom, the religious center, rather than Tehran.
This faction seeks to dominate the Qom clerics and has spread around enormous amounts of money to get political and ideological support from the religious authorities. They are backed by two more associates of Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati and Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, both known as among the hardest of theocrats.
Jannati and Yazdi are viewed by the reformists and other clerics as seeking to alter the doctrines of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution. Where Khomeini claimed that legitimacy was based on the people – thus giving rise to the concept of an Islamic "republic" – Ahmadinejad and his clique base their position on the support of religious leaders alone. Jannati, as president of the Guardian Council, has determined that no political candidates in Iranian elections may be known as "liberals" or opponents of "Velayat-e Fagih," i.e. governance by clerics.
Ahmadinejad represents a new phenomenon in Iranian religious politics: incitement and exhortation of the masses combined with exaggerated adulation of the leaders. This is likely to be the panorama of Iranian politics for some time to come.
But the regime continues to reveal its anxiety in the face of dissidence. On June 20, the anniversary of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman killed in an opposition demonstration who has become the symbol of fighting Iran, the Iranian security services ordered Gonabadi Sufis, as well as Sunni Muslims and Baha'is, to be put under police supervision. Sufis, who unlike many members of the opposition Green Movement in Iran have refused to accept passivity because of the stalemate between the state and the people, have been arrested, and their houses searched. In addition to pushing aside his predecessors, Ahmadinejad is intent on using religious minorities as targets while he tries to consolidate his position.