The Middle East Channel

Iranian police arrest ex-prosecutor and Ahmadinejad ally

Iranian police have arrested former Tehran prosecutor and ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saeed Mortazavi. Mortazavi was the head of Iran's Social Welfare Organization until he was removed in January due to pressure from Iran's parliament, the Majlis. In a controversial move, Ahmadinejad rehired Mortazavi as the official caretaker of the organization. No official reason was given for Motazavi's arrest. Iran's semi-official news agency, Fars, said Mortazavi may have been arrested due to accusations of torture and murder of anti-government protesters after the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad. Mortazavi was placed under sanctions by the United States in 2010, and has been described by Human Rights Watch as a "serial human rights abuser." However, analysts say the arrest was likely tied to the escalating feud between Ahmadinejad and the parliament. The arrest came a day after Ahmadinejad released a secret video in parliament where Mortazavi allegedly discussed a fraudulent business deal, implicating Iran's highly influential Larijani family. The move was unprecedented, as allegations of corruption are not often aired in a public forum. The parliament became chaotic and protested of the video. Ahmadinejad was kicked out by Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker. Before his arrest on Monday, Mortazavi said, "A person was attempting to do trades that seem illegal. I merely reported this case to the government."

Syria

The National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces gave support Monday to last week's surprise offer by its leader for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, and added that the president could avoid trial by resigning and leaving Syria. To step up pressure on Assad, al-Khatib said he was willing to meet with Vice President Farouq al-Shara. In the offer, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib said he would engage in dialogue with Assad if the government released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports of Syrian diaspora members. The statement was initially met by criticism within the coalition, which had maintained that Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Assad has yet to officially respond to the invitation, but on Sunday, an aide to the president, Ali Haidar, said the government is open to talks with opposition members who reject violence. He added that the government was open to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Syria's pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said the statements from the opposition are "two years late." A prominent lawmaker from Assad's ruling party, Fayez Sayegh, said that the opposition should enter into dialogue with the government without preconditions. The United States has expressed strong backing of talks between the opposition and Assad in hopes of ending the nearly two year conflict that has killed over 60,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Headlines

  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has arrived in Egypt in the first trip by an Iranian president to the country since the 1979 revolution.
  • Iran and world powers reached an agreement announcing talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program. The dialogue will resume on February 26 in Kazakhstan.
  • Kuwait's Information Ministry announced three arrests Tuesday of former opposition lawmakers who insulted the emir, in an escalating crackdown on political dissent.

Arguments and Analysis

Egypt Conflict Alert (International Crisis Group)

"It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi's and the Muslim Brotherhood's serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president's cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition's lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state's integrity.  

Since President Mubarak's ouster, the level of violence has ebbed and flowed, yet each new wave brings the country closer to tipping point. Already, some police officers, beleaguered by attacks on their headquarters, are considering removing their uniforms and going home; there is talk of brewing discontent among Central Security Forces, the riot control police; and criminal gangs along with looters profit from the chaos. There are new shocking images of police brutality. Many young Egyptians increasingly appear disillusioned with electoral politics, and some are drawn to anarchical violence."

Kuwait, 'the back office of logistical support' for Syria's rebels (Elizabeth Dickinson, The National)

"Ten days before sitting down for a leisurely evening tea recently on the outskirts of Kuwait City, Jamaan Al Harbash was in Aleppo talking with rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power.

It was the third trip to the war zones of Syria by the former Kuwaiti MP, who no longer escapes the Syrian regime's notice. Following a journey to the front in October, Syria's state news agency condemned him for "attempts to spread sedition among the united Syrian people".

The regime's censure has not deterred Mr Harbash, who scrolls through his iPhone to show recent pictures of shattered neighbourhoods and a hospital he said was rebuilt with the help of Kuwaiti funds. Amid the scenes of war is a photo of Mr Al Harbash standing with a half dozen fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA)."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Supreme showdown in Tehran

Four months before the next presidential election, Iran's conservative establishment is facing a security threat: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Four years ago, a controversial election that reinstated President Ahmadinejad brought millions of Iranians into a face-to-face confrontation with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now, it is Ahmadinejad who is coming face-to-face with the very man who lifted him out of obscurity and granted him worldwide fame and unparalleled support against all pillars of the Islamic Republic.

During an unprecedented debate at the parliament, which ended in mayhem and the dismissal of the labor minister, Ahmadinejad played a video that implicated the powerful Larijani brothers, two of whom head the judiciary and legislative bodies, of corruption and nepotism. Sunday's impeachment put Ahmadinejad's remaining presidency in danger since many of his allies in the cabinet have had similar fates. At this fiery session that was being broadcast live on state radio, he threatened and eventually played the video to prove a backroom deal that involved the Larijani family. In response, the speaker of the parliament accused Ahmadinejad of mafia type activities and did not allow him to continue. Ahmadinejad angrily left the parliament and moments later 192 out of 272 members of parliament voted in favor of the impeachment. 

With the next election just around the corner, the supreme leader fears that these public exchanges may once again dangerously polarize the polity and the country. During a meeting to resolve the tensions between the president and the speaker of the parliament just a few weeks ago, Khamenei frustratingly asked them not to publicize their differences. In October 2012, he even warned: "From today until the election day, whoever uses people's emotions to create conflicts, has definitely betrayed the country." In a country where political campaigns have turned into massive social movements, normal elections are seen by the government as unusual security threats. Khamenei recalls the 1997 and 2009 presidential elections that gave rise to the Reform and Green Movements, respectively. Looking at the increasing intensity of the past upheavals, he has good reason to worry that the next election could lead to turmoil and obliterate his office.

However, as lame duck Ahmadinejad's days in office are numbered, his recent boldness in challenging his opponents is ever more surprising. The Putin-Medvedev scenario to ensure his political return in four years is increasingly unlikely since the establishment has already begun to systematically weed out his men. The tighter the noose is getting, the more he seems to seek legitimacy through popular support or an international breakthrough. Efforts on both fronts have fallen short, though, and logically so.

Ahmadinejad told the parliament that he came to "tell the people that the president you have selected is under the power of the speaker of the parliament." A few months ago, in another showdown with the establishment, he attacked Larijani for claiming that international sanctions have had no effect on Iran's shamble of an economy (Iran's currency has plummeted by about 50 percent in the past year), condemned the security and military apparatus for "entering the political arena," and slammed the state-controlled TV for blaming him for the all country's problems. 

Indeed, it was not long ago when Ahmadinejad called U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions "worthless paper," and named millions of people who voted for his opponents as "dirt and dust." Having lost the establishment's backing, he is now in search of new allies among the masses. He complained, "the only one who is accountable (to the people) is us (my administration) ... is everything in order in this country and only the administration has a weakness? ... I am probably the only official who is not afraid of going out to the people. I have no fear. I swear to God I have no fear." In an implicit reference to Iran's top leadership, he said: "I, Ahmadinejad, am the only one in the country whom you (journalists) can talk to his face like this. If there is a second one, name them!"

These are the words of a man, who appreciates the depth of the unpopularity of the regime and its old guard. In a region that has recently witnessed the bloody removal of leaders such as Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, these are unmistakable codes.

To be sure, this is not the first time that an Iranian president has fallen out of love with the supreme leader. In fact, one of the most consistent characteristics of Iran's political system since the 1979 Revolution has been the continual bifurcation of the polity. Each time a faction removes its rivals and dominates the political scene, it simply splits and forms new rivalries. Shortly thereafter, the supreme leader and the president almost inevitably begin to clash. This is precisely how Ayatollah Khomeini and then-President Khamenei collided in the 1980's. When Khamenei became the supreme leader after Khomeini's death, it was his turn to clash with Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and later Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad's ascendance to power in 2005 was an orchestrated attempt by Khamenei to put an end to this infuriating rift. But in the end, it only affirmed the previous logic.

Khamenei went so far as to publically back Ahmadinejad for years; an unprecedented move by a leader who claims to be above partisanship. Khamenei claimed Ahmadinejad was the only president whose administration he could trust in negotiating with the world. Little did Khamenei know that Ahmadinejad would break all of the rules and cross all of the regime's redlines. Never did Khamenei imagine that his president would look for any excuse to send a message to his U.S. counterparts, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and even hope to run into them in the United Nations. Little had Khamenei appreciated Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor for reportedly hiding in a bathroom at the United Nations for the fear of facing and shaking hands with then-President Bill Clinton. Now Khamenei has to deal with a loose canon, and he has only himself to blame.

The two former presidents (Rafsanjani and Khatami) who lead two of the main opposition factions have long been waiting for a political deadlock that would bring Khamenei to his knees. They have hoped that a combination of internal and international pressures would eventually force the regime to partially open up the political process and bring them back in. So far, Khamenei has stubbornly resisted any compromise with his marginalized rivals. Now, the two former presidents are hoping that Ahmadinejad will make Khamenei so desperate that he would return to his old allies. While Khamenei is clearly frustrated with Ahmadinejad, there are indications that he still desires to follow the same model, this time finding a more loyal version, to replace him. As he has all the tools to engineer the election, the outcome is therefore far less critical and unpredictable than the process itself. The next election can turn into another mass movement reminiscent of 2009. The aforementioned factional tensions may push the society that is already burning under the confluence of social, political, and financial pressures over the edge. As Khamenei is gearing toward dealing with the U.N. Security Council's permanent five member plus Germany, an eventful electoral process may undermine his aggressive external posture and thus derail negotiations that he wishes to have; again reminiscent of 2009, he fears.  

Ahmadinejad, who is known in the West as the man who claimed Israel should be wiped off the map, is now feared by the establishment to be the catalyst for an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. He simply knows too much and is not willing to back off. A day after his minister's impeachment, President Ahmadinejad volunteered to be the first person sent into orbit by Iran's fledgling space program. Ayatollah Khamenei, echoing John F. Kennedy, may wish to land Ahmadinejad on the moon but not return him safely to the earth.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is an assistant professor of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images