The War of the Persian Succession is on, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s worsening condition becomes an open secret. His bad health is discussed in the Iranian press, and in the last week the former president and the supporters of potential successors have begun literally and figuratively fighting each other all over the country.
The two main contenders are former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and current President Ahmadinejad, who you can be quite sure were included in the devastating American accusation against Iran’s “highest leadership”: the top mullahs are directly involved in training and arming terrorists in Iraq with extraordinarily powerful shaped explosives, in order to kill American troops there.
The succession crisis was already clear some weeks ago. In late January, an open letter to Ahmadinejad attacked Rafsanjani’s people — without naming him, but its reference is clear enough — as “arrogantly consider(ing) themselves the sole saviors of the nation’s problems,” and trying to sabotage the country’s nuclear programs. The letter, written by a former presidential adviser, urged Ahmadinejad to take Rafsanjani to court.
The Rafsanjani crowd struck back: “…these days due to the continued aggression of the Islamic Republic with the world powers, the pressure on Iran’s economy increases…Mr. President…you only disempower yourself and your position.”
Rafsanjani has taken extraordinary steps in recent days in an attempt to ensure he will be the next Supreme Leader, despite his lack of standing in the religious community. He went to the holy city of Qom and met with seventeen grand ayatollahs, to whom he said, we can’t wait for Khamenei to die before choosing his successor. We have to do it right away. Rafsanjani heads the Committee of Experts that chooses the Supreme Leader, so his pilgrimage to Qom was a preemptive strike to obtain approval for his next move, which is undoubtedly to elect himself. This was confirmed by an equally remarkable appearance on national television on Saturday, in which he did two important things:
‐ First, he reflected on his deep religious vocation, clearly an effort to reinforce his credentials with the mullahcracy;
‐ Second, he mused on the days when he was an aide to the Ayatollah Khomeini, the iconic founder of the Islamic Republic. He recalled that Khomeini had appointed Bani Sadr as president, which Rafsanjani thought was a mistake, and so he told Khomeini. The Ayatollah flew into a rage, but within a year he recognized that Rafsanjani was right, and fired Bani Sadr. This little historical digression was evidently done to compare Khomeini’s mistake with the decision to make Ahmadinejad president, as well as to magnify Rafsanjani’s image as a wise political leader;
While all this was going on, Rafsanjani’s supporters were openly speaking of his enormous security risk, hinting that the Ahmadinejad forces might elect to physically attack their main opponent. Rafsanjani certainly should fear such action; the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards are not likely to sit out the coup that is so clearly under way. There is certainly no lack of physical violence in the streets of Iran these days. According to Iran Press News, recent fighting in Isfahan Province yielded at least ten fatalities among the regime’s guards and the Basij, thirteen wounded among government ranks, and four “drug smugglers” were killed. And there are numerous reports of armed conflict in Khuzestan–where the regime continues to hang Ahwazi Arab dissidents at a horrific rate — and in Belouchi areas, where the repression has intensified in recent months.
As the power vacuum at the top of the regime becomes more palpable, the mullahs are striking wildly at any potential opposition, from intellectuals and human rights activists to the favored victims of Islamic repression, the country’s women. ISNA, the official news agency, last week quoted a paramilitary commander in Isfahan, who threatened all female employees who are not “properly veiled.” He lamented that, although the rules are clear, “some women do not observe these guidelines in governmental offices, so if these women do not want to observe the rules, they will be reported to the court…” It was an open call for vigilantism. “We have confronted those cars whose drivers dared to play harsh music; we have also destroyed satellite dishes and dealt with replacing (get this!) the inappropriate mannequins in shops and store windows as well.”
The mullahs are living through difficult times. Their murderous activities in Iraq are now clear, save to those who are grimly determined to believe that the Bush administration cannot possibly tell the truth about terrorism. They have wrecked their national economy (like the Soviet Union, they do not need Western sanctions to ruin the country; they are quite capable of doing it all by themselves). The nuclear breakthrough is constantly promised but never delivered — Ahmadinejad had promised a glorious announcement on Sunday, but then said he would postpone the great moment for a couple of months, pending the action of the United Nations. They are scrambling to buy more time and fighting amongst themselves over how to deal with the West and the successor to the dying leader.
To buy time, they are proposing everything and its opposite. They whisper to American diplomats — who then promptly inform the Washington Post, afflicted with grave credibility problems of its own — that they are prepared to deliver al Qaeda terrorists into our hands, if only we will be kinder. I have lost count of the number of times this empty promise has been trotted out (this regime could no more abandon al Qaeda than it could abandon Shiism; terrorism is too deeply embedded in its DNA). For many days, Tehran approved, then canceled, then promised, then canceled, then finally approved the visit of the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, to a security conference in Munich, where, according to the wire services, he assured his audience that Israel had nothing to fear from Iran. But when the printed text was released, there were no such words in it, in either the Farsi or the English version. The manifest incoherence reflects the leadership vacuum, and the on again-off again behavior of Larijani shows the ebb and flow of the Succession War.
The gravity of the moment is perhaps best demonstrated by the reemergence of the country’s aged dissident ayatollah, 85-year-old Hosseynali Montazeri. One of Khomeini’s closest allies, and long presumed the logical successor to the founding fanatic, Montazeri was locked into his home for seven years because of his increasingly vigorous opposition to the Islamic Republic. Twice in the past two weeks he has denounced Ahmadinejad and called for the release of political prisoners and open political competition. “Is it not better to avoid extremism and open the political space?” he asked. “Unfortunately, there are still academics, students, intellectuals and ordinary people jailed for false or political reasons. The wise thing to do is to release them.”
It is a fascinating moment, and, as several times in the past, it provides an opportunity for the West to encourage the best solution to the Iranian threat: support for democratic change. If we were to echo Montazeri, denounce the mounting repression, support a peaceful transition to democracy, and demand an end to Iran’s decisive support for the terror war, all the while clearly stating our desire for regime change in Tehran, the tens of millions of Iranians who hate this regime might seize the opportunity. Alas, we are unprepared for this moment, having utterly failed to lay the groundwork for effective support for democratic revolution. But, providentially, opportunity now knocks once again.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.