David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

Internal strife emerges as Tehran looks westward

When there’s political upheaval in Tehran, it’s often interwoven with the explosive question of possible outreach to the United States. And that may be the case with a recent feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The key figure in this dispute is Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff and said to be his choice as successor in the next Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for 2013. In recent months, Mashaei is said to have initiated a series of contacts attempting to open a dialogue with the United States.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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This new outreach follows Ahmadinejad’s efforts in 2009 to explore a possible nuclear deal with the West, which were rebuffed by Khamenei. Paradoxically, the hard-line president, notorious for his anti-Israel rhetoric, would also like to take credit for a deal that eases Iran’s isolation and opens the way for greater contact and cooperation with the West.

“He [Ahmadinejad] craves recognition from outside, and Mashaei is his instrument,” says one well-informed Iran analyst.

The political ferment in Tehran is one more sign of the Arab Spring, an earthquake that is shaking the entire Middle East. In this environment, both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei understand that the legitimacy of their increasingly isolated regime is in danger. Ahmadinejad’s circle seems to favor outreach; Khamenei and the clerics want deeper retrenchment.

Sources say Mashaei has sent multiple signals indicating that he wants to meet with American representatives. U.S. officials say there hasn’t been a meeting, and that’s probably because Washington isn’t clear precisely who Mashaei represents or what his agenda for talks might be. Although President Obama has never dropped his offer to talk with Iran, it would be risky for the United States to engage any single faction. That’s likely one explanation for U.S. wariness about Mashaei’s overtures.

“The history of U.S.-Iranian relations is littered with corpses of failed contacts, where the U.S. was talking with a single faction or an intermediary who couldn’t deliver,” says the senior Iran analyst.

Given the widespread rumors about Mashaei’s travels, it is likely that Khamenei and his allies are aware of his efforts to open a channel to Washington. A search of the Iranian press doesn’t yield any hard information about Mashaei’s outreach, but it may help explain the recent attacks by mullahs on him and his patron, Ahmadinejad.

The public turmoil included an unusual warning from Khamenei that he “will never allow deviation in the movement of the Iranian nation” and a chorus of criticism by senior clerics against Ahmadinejad and his allies, who are referred to in the Iranian press as “the perverted team.” In parliament late last month, Speaker Ali Larijani, who is a key Khamenei loyalist, declared, “The perverted group will never succeed!”

Ahmadinejad boycotted cabinet meetings for 10 days last month, and when he returned last weekend, he said in a show of loyalty that he was “ready to die” to defend Khamenei and was “a servant of the political system.” According to Iranian press reports, the president added defensively: “Impeachment requires a reason. What have I done?”

The political battle erupted, according to these reports, after Ahmadinejad and Mashaei attempted to get greater control over the intelligence ministry, prompting the resignation of Heydar Moslehi, its director. But on April 20, Khamenei refused to accept the resignation, and Moslehi was reinstalled — in an unusual public rebuke by the supreme leader of Ahmadinejad.

Mashaei is described as a clever operator who, like Ahmadinejad, mistrusts the clerical establishment. The dislike is mutual. Iranian media have reported that a cleric close to Khamenei named Mojtaba Zolnour argued: “Currently, the actual president is Mashaei. Intervention in the affairs of various ministries and the episode with the Ministry of Intelligence are the result of his intervention. . . . These people do not believe in clerics and Velaayat-e-Faqih [rule by the clergy]. They want Islam without the clergy.”

Mashaei isn’t the only Iranian who has indicated a desire to meet with Americans. Similar signals are said to have come last year from Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a rival of Ahmadinejad who is thought to be close to Khamenei. But this track apparently didn’t lead anywhere.

What’s intriguing is that the battles among Iran’s leaders take place as Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan are questioning their regimes and seeking greater self-determination. The ferment inside Iran may seem different, spoken in the arcane language of Shiite religious politics, but it’s part of the same process.

davidignatius@washpost.com

 
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