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Iran: The Permanent Coup d’Etat

While the international community's threats are getting more precise with respect to Iran, does Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic Ali Khamenei envisage sacrificing his intransigent president Ahmadinejad on the altar of Western demands? In this country that has erected takkiya as a political philosophy - the pious lie that authorizes the believer to dissimulate his faith when danger lurks - one has been reduced to conjecture up until now. Today, the signs of discord are clearly perceptible. They are there as soon as one leaves the airport, in the cars of regime dignitaries who impose silence on foreign visitors for fear of indiscreet ears from the other side. Then later, in the apartments where people make merry scoping out the microphones hidden by competing cliques. Outside of the circle of power even - and of its legendary opacity - caution filters through the always-polite remarks that the members of the nomenklatura address to one another. In the partisan press, where obsequiousness is the least of ourtesies, one must look out for the false notes in the panegyrics to understand that, within the clan of conservative Iranians, the knives are drawn.

For example, in the ultraconservative journal close to the Supreme Guide, "Kayhan," its editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari - who had assured us three months ago of his unshakable support for the president, even for the latter's most sulfurous remarks on the necessity of the eradication of the state of Israel - dares today to scold his mentor. While the office of the presidency presents Ahmadinejad's performance at Columbia University in New York as a victory more important than that of Fao in the Shatt al-Arab in 1986 - where 650,000 Bassidji and Guardians of the Revolution (Pasdarans) defeated the Iraqi army - Hossein Shariatmadari, of whom it is said in Iran that he has more power than the ministers on account of his connections with the secret services, entitles his editorial: "One Must Know How to Maintain a Sense of Proportion." A warning that he had not deemed necessary when the president mentioned the halo of light that descended upon his head in New York. For all the exegetes of Iranian politicallife, the secret meaning of all this is clear: nothing works anymore between the Supreme Guide and the President.

Persian style paradox ... Never has a president of the Islamic republic had so much power as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He presides without consulting the Islamic Republic's numerous governmental decision making bodies. He short circuits institutions, governs by edict, as when, during a trip to Belarus, he announced the reduction in bank interest rates in a country with runaway inflation, or when he quite simply did away with the planning ministry accused of discussing the allocation of expenses he had already determined! Above all, the president is placing his own men in key positions. Since his election, there's been a waltz of officials at all levels. The oil minister - too close to Rafsanjani - was axed, as was the director of the Central Bank; embassy employees have been sacked: "It's a progressive coup d'état, that, little by little, eats away at the prerogatives of the Supreme Guide whom Ahmadinejad would like to reduce to a symbolic role only," explains a former advisor to President Khatami.

The latest of these "takeovers," is the replacement of the head of nuclear negotiations, Ali Larijani, right in the middle of an international crisis, by one of the president's loyalists, Saïd Jalili. A decision deemed so sensitive that, for the first time in the much-muffled milieu of Iranian conservatives, the Supreme Guide's intimates are counter-attacking. Advisor to the latter and former Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Akbar Velayati publicly deplores Larijani's resignation. The height of irreverence in the country of the mullahs: 183 members of parliament have complimented the resignee for his work as negotiator. In a counterthrust from the country's premier cleric, not only will Larijani accompany Jalili to Rome as the Guide's representative, but he will also be the one to conduct the discussions with European Union representative Javier Solana, in front of his mute successor. As for Foreign Affairs Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, a Larijani intimate whose imminent axing had been announced, he is confirmedin his functions (see the interview above).

Nonetheless, between Jalili and Larijani, between the two groups of conservatives, there are no differences on the nuclear issue. Like the vast majority of Iranians, they consider the acquisition of nuclear know-how their right in the strictest sense, guaranteed by their adhesion to international treaties. And the political class does not see why Iran should not enrich uranium on its own soil. The conservatives oppose one another with respect to the manner of reaching that result, undoubtedly by virtue of differing appreciations of the risks of war. President Ahmadinejad, personally, seems convinced that Americans, stuck in the Iraqi quagmire, cannot unleash strikes on Iran. That's what explains the lack of restraint from one who enamels his speech on the nuclear issue with provocations. That's also what explains his back-handed rejection of Russian president Vladimir Putin's offer to enrich the uranium for Iranian power stations on Russian soil, which would offer a way out of the crisis acceptable to all. n adept of another style, Ali Larijani, temporized with an international community sometimes wearied by his diplomatic procrastinations: "Larijani has more tact; he comes from a family of negotiators," explains an official close to the Supreme Guide, "remember that it was his brother who undid the crisis opened by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie ..."

In fact, behind these dissensions that the Islamic Republic likes to exhibit to the West as so many levers offering handles for negotiation, there is a quarrel for power. "Little by little, Larijani had made the High Council for (Iranian) National Security a government within the government. Ahmadinejad, who was distrustful of the procedure, had refused to allow Larijani to make any new nominations. Then Larijani presented his resignation for the fifth time. In this context of crisis, he thought it would be rejected again ..." one expert in Iranian political life explains. Did Larijani, who will undoubtedly be the anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives' candidate in the next legislative elections, also want to send a message to the Supreme Guide by resigning? Can the latter take the risk of a rebellion against the president without destabilizing the entire Islamic Republic?

According to a Western diplomat close to the nuclear issue, the conservatives in power in Iran do not oppose one another over the way to lull the international community: "They want to gain time." Time that Israel is not disposed to grant them. "George Bush would gladly pass up on war, but he will follow Ehud Olmert, who will not wait for the 3,000 Iranian centrifuges to be operational ..." deems one specialist on the issue. As for French diplomats, they renew the proposals made to the Iranians: "If the Islamic Republic agrees to see its uranium enriched by an international consortium outside of Iran, then we'll help them build nuclear power stations. That's the same proposal Nicolas Sarkozy has addressed to other Muslim countries."

Among the Iranians, the coalition of those unhappy with President Ahmadinejad is growing. The bazaaris blame him for business being bad; the mullahs for their being sidelined; and the military have always considered the Bassidji as illegitimate punks. Is that to say that the impact of American strikes could be relayed domestically by a revolt of the coalition of the unhappy to destabilize the regime? Nothing is less certain. "Bush overestimated Saddam's army, but he underestimates ours," explains one former Iranian politician and savage opponent of the regime, who divides his time between the United States and Tehran. "As for the Guardians of the Revolution, they are not terrorists; they represent a veritable army of cruel and determined men. You will see; if someone attacks us, all Iranians will unite behind them!"

SARA DANIEL

Iran

Capital: Tehran

Surface Area: 1,648,200 km2

Population: 70.27 million inhabitants

Urban Population: 66.9 percent

GDP per Inhabitant: $8,624

Political Structure of the Regime: Islamic Republic

Head of State: Ali Khamenei

Principal Economic Activities:

Agriculture (wheat, rice, sugar beets)

Industry (oil, petrochemicals, textiles, natural gas)

Tourism ($1.1 billion revenues in 2005)

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Source: L'Etat du monde 2008

(Translation: Leslie Thatcher ) .

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.
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