Manipal, India — Although both of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s victories in the 2004 and 2009 presidential races were courtesy of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the wily Ayatollah may be preparing to remove a head of state that has become an international cartoon and a domestic embarrassment.
Those who have worked closely with Ahmedinejad claim that his decision to appoint the brilliant – if abrasive – Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei as his deputy was cleared informally by the Supreme Leader, as was Mashaei's reference last year to the "Jewish people" as friends of Iran – for which he has been widely criticized.
Indeed, both the Arab and the Persian people have a much better record of treatment of the Jewish minority than states in Europe such as Poland and Germany. Until Khomeinism became the state religion in 1979, Jews had an honored place in Iran and contributed disproportionately to business.
Even Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s first Supreme Leader, forbore from targeting the Jewish people as such, reserving his verbal venom for the state of Israel. Even today, several thousand Iranians belonging to the Jewish faith live in Iran, and apart from the storm trooper brigade represented by organizations such as the Revolutionary Guard, few Iranians look askance at what is an educated and liberal community, proud of their Iranian heritage.
Those close to Ahmedinejad are reading into this public slap an indication that Khamenei is readying the younger man as a sacrifice to pacify the angry Khomeinists, who are daily being rounded up by Khamenei's own people.
Although it is the hapless Ahmedinejad who gets the bulk of international vitriol for adhering so slavishly to Khamenei's "destroy Israel" line, the reality is that all the president controls is about 23 percent of the state budget. The rest is distributed by those directly reporting to the Supreme Leader. This includes the defense, foreign policy and security establishments – exactly the way these wings of government are run in Pakistan by that country’s army rather than the civilian administration.
The flow of funds to groups abroad wedded to the destruction of Israel and the weakening of the West – estimated by those close to the president as having been beefed up from US$2 billion in 2004 to a current level of close to $6 billion – is controlled only by Khamenei. Ahmedinejad is only the poster boy for the covert war against Israel, the way Osama bin Laden is trotted out as the face of an international jihadi machine that comprises mostly people who are "overground" rather than hiding away in caves.
Despite his gawkiness, Ahmedinejad is a cerebral individual, well aware of Iran's military weakness. His advisors have for some years told him to build bridges to the West, the way former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has managed to do during the past decade.
The Mashaei comment – which is foursquare within the Persian tradition of tolerance and respect for intellect – was perhaps an attempt at shifting from the Khameinist vision of an Iran triumphant over Israel, an outcome that only quasi-religious, quasi-buccaneer Khameni loyalists seriously believe is possible without fatal damage to Iran itself.
Within the country there is little public identification with the cause of a pre-1940's Palestine, despite the billions of dollars being spent on the project by a country where 60 percent of the population is economically deprived after 30 years of "religious revolution."
Mashaei has the handicap of coming from a family known to be close to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose supporters are systematically being squeezed out of patronage posts by Khamenei. Clearly, the new boss would like to dispense with the shadow of the old, ideally by presiding over the destruction of Israel and the shaming of the United States within the Muslim-majority world. This, Khamenei believes, would ensure that his brand of Shiite Islam becomes the faith of choice for Muslims across the world, attracted by the fall of a state they have been taught to consider as the enemy.
While most Iranian policymakers know this to be a surreal project, one that has already damaged the country and which threatens to demolish the current system if pushed beyond safe limits, Khamenei is deadly serious about this goal and sanguine about its prospects. As a result, some adventurers have made much money by getting his approval for fanciful schemes to weaken the “Zionist entity,” Israel.
Judging by the Supreme Leader’s two doses of public criticism in just over a month to his former favorite Ahmedinejad, it would appear that the Khamenei cohort is preparing a deal with the opposition. If they accept his overlordship, he may jettison Ahmedinejad and install a substitute as the new president of Iran.
However, the wounds caused by the reckless persecution since mid-June of Khomeini's followers may be too deep to heal without the sacrifice, not of the poster boy, but of the master himself. It appears that influential groups in Iran are readying themselves to ensure that the Azeri Supreme Leader of the world's only Persian-majority country will retire "on grounds of health."
Now that the always servile president of Iran has joined the lengthening list of victims of Khamenei’s drive for total control, it may be not only Ahmedinejad whose job is in danger.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)