Is Ahmadinejad on his way out in Iran?

In the old French adage, revolution is a feline beast that eats its own children. Judging by the latest developments in Tehran, however, Iran’s revolution appears to be different: it is a beast that eats its parents.

For much of last week, millions of Iranians sat glued to their television sets as the four officially approved presidential candidates went through the crucible of head-to-head debates broadcast live.

The idea for these debates came from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has broken many rules in Iran’s esoteric political game.

Cultivating the image of a street fighter, Ahmadinejad has attacked his rivals, all former senior officials who claim to be among the fathers of the Khomeinist revolution.

Ahmadinejad’s narrative was simple and appealing. He presented himself as a man of the people who had captured the presidency at a moment of historic inattention by the ruling elite.

His mission was to clean the stables and restore the purity of a revolution sullied by decades of corruption, arrogance and hypocrisy.

He portrayed a ruling elite that spoke of the “downtrodden” but lived in sumptuous palaces, of clerics who spoke more of contracts, commissions, and deals than of faith and doctrine.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks have sent shockwaves throughout Iran because they amount to an indictment of some of the revolution’s best-known father figures.

More importantly, perhaps, Ahmadinejad was not making general accusations; he was quoting specific cases. He accused two of his predecessors as president of having approved major oil and gas contracts in exchange for fat bribes channelled through intermediaries.

Among the oil companies involved in the swindle were the Canadian Crescent Oil and the Norwegian state-owned Statoil.

Ahmadinejad also named the brothers and sons of one former president and a former speaker of the parliament as members of a Mafia-style clique that “plundered the nation’s wealth” for a quarter of a century.

That many clerics are engaged in lucrative business activities has not been a secret in Iran since the 1980s. What is new is that people now hear it all from ‘the horse’s mouth’.

Ahmadinejad has threatened to continue his revelations and to bring those ‘fathers of the revolution’ who have succumbed to temptation to justice.

The president’s bombshells beg two questions.

The first is whether Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knew of Ahmadinejad’s intention to wash so much of the regime’s high-level laundry in public?

My answer is yes. There is no doubt that Ahmadinejad informed Khamenei of what was going to happen on television.

Twenty years ago, as Ayatollah Khomeini lay dying in his bed, Khamenei reached a power-sharing accord with another cleric, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Under it, Khamenei would become the ‘Supreme Guide’ while Rafsanjani would get the presidency of the republic. Over the past 20 years, Khamenei has pursued a relentless quest for more power while Rafsanjani has devoted his immense energies to amassing more wealth.

The second question is whether Ahmadinejad is making the allegations as a parting shot because he knows he is heading for a carefully orchestrated defeat?

The question is not fanciful. While Ahmadinejad is by far the most popular figure among the hard-core Khomeinists, he would be vulnerable if millions of middle class urbanites who usually boycott the polls decided to turn up and vote against him.

Two weeks ago, such a scenario appeared to be no more than a remote possibility. Today it is not. Many opponents of the regime are beginning to pay attention to the possibilities offered by the split that Ahmadinejad has caused within the ruling establishment.

It is no accident that many opposition parties, ranging from pro-US liberals to the formerly pro-Soviet Communists, have called for “massive participation” in the election.

Almost all have endorsed the candidacy of Mir Hussain Mousavi, a former prime minister and a second cousin of the Ayatollah.

A coalition of wealthy clerics, disgruntled middle classes, exiled opposition groups, and segments of the military that fear Ahmadinejad’s quixotic foreign policy might prove strong enough to push Mousavi across the finishing line.

For his part, Khamenei, too, might have concluded that Ahmadinejad has performed his historic role, which was to re-launch the revolution, and must now return to the benches.

The Ayatollah, who is believed to want to keep all his options open vis-à-vis the US, would not have missed the strong signals sent by President Barack Obama that Washington would rather deal with someone other than Ahmadinejad.

In his speech in Cairo and in subsequent remarks during a visit to the Buchenwald Nazi death camp in Germany, Obama singled out Ahmadinejad for attack without naming him.

The US president has also made it clear that his offer of direct and unconditional talks with Tehran is on hold until after the Iranian election.

As Iran votes in two days time, the question will be whether or not Khamenei, for reasons of expediency, will feed Ahmadinejad to the wolves in order to prevent a dramatic and potentially fatal split within the establishment.


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