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By Robert Baer and Omid Memarian
Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower. Memarian is an Iranian journalist and blogger who received Human Rights Watch's highest honor in 2005.
Are the wheels coming off the Iranian regime bus? On July 26, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fired the country's Intelligence Minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie, a man who customarily reported directly to the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, rather than to the President. The move came a day after Khamenei had forced Ahmadinejad to drop Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie as his candidate for Vice President. But in an act of flagrant defiance of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaie as his chief of staff. All this suggests that a political brawl is raging within the corridors of power, the likes of which the world has not seen since Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989.
It is bad enough that Khamenei is fighting with the man he backed for President, but what really keeps the Supreme Leader awake at night is Khomeini's ghost. In the West, many fall back on the easy assumption that the demonstrations protesting the June 12 election expressed a desire for liberal democratic reform. While there may be some truth to that, the opposition leaders — the candidates who lost the June 12 election — are fighting for something else: the mantle of the 1979 revolution. They believe they are the true inheritors of Khomeini's legacy. They call themselves the followers of Beit-i Khomeini, the House of Khomeini. They are the pure, untainted revolutionaries who view Khamenei as a usurper.
Former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi is the public face of the opposition, but there are many others who are just as important, from former Presidents Mohammed Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to many grand ayatullahs in Qom, Iran's Vatican. Mousavi was chosen as spokesman for the opposition because of his impeccable revolutionary credentials. Even at the revolution's most militant violent and radical peak, Mousavi stood by Khomeini, never questioning his decisions. It was an office under Mousavi that coordinated a series of attacks against the U.S. in Lebanon, including an attack on the U.S. embassy. And when Khomeini died, Mousavi played an Iranian Cincinnatus, retreating from politics and living as a common man. When Khamenei tried to impugn Mousavi's revolutionary credentials after the demonstrations started, insinuating that he answers to foreign powers, Iranians put absolutely no credence in it.
Khamenei must be considering the risks of arresting Mousavi to put an end to protests. He certainly has the authority and power to do so. Since the election, the Revolutionary Guards, which report directly to Khamenei, have all but imposed a military dictatorship over the country. Its volunteer vigilantes, the Basij, along with the secret police, are the ones beating up and arresting demonstrators. But arresting Mousavi, Khomeini's political scion, would be akin to arresting Thomas Jefferson.
The fight between Khamenei and the opposition candidate is almost personal. Mousavi's retirement from government in 1989 coincided with Khamenei's appointment as Supreme Leader. Mousavi had reportedly detested Khamenei, considering him a usurper — Khamenei was not an ayatullah when he succeeded Khomeini. Even today his clerical credentials are suspect. He has absolutely no spiritual following among the world's Shi'ites.
In fact, few of the leaders of the 1979 revolution accepted Khamenei as their leader in spite of his selection by the Assembly of Experts. Khomeini was too ill at the time to understand the implications of making Khamenei Supreme Leader. Their mistrust, the opposition believes, was justified. Khamenei has failed to uphold Khomeini's legacy, turning the country into a military camp run by the Revolutionary Guards.
The disputed June 12 election was the last straw for Mousavi and those who view themselves as Khomeini's heirs. Their anger turned on a critical point of Islamic doctrine: they insist that the legitimacy of an Islamic ruler springs from the people; Khamenei, on the other hand, believes that legitimacy derives from God's will — and the Supreme Leader's interpretation of that will. In condoning Ahmadinejad's theft of the June 12 election, Khamenei, they believe, has indeed proved himself a usurper.
After Khatami on July 20 demanded that a referendum be held on whether Iranians accept the outcome of the election, Khamenei must have been sorely tempted to order the Revolutionary Guards to round up the opposition, including Khatami. Khatami's speech was a direct swipe at the legitimacy of his rule. Even the opposition was surprised that mild-mannered Khatami dared go this far. The question now, in all the turmoil, is who will be next to come out in favor of a recount.
Iran is locked in a classic power struggle, pitting the house of Khamenei against the house of Khomeini. It has been simmering since Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader in 1989, but it is only now that Khomeini's heirs have chosen to finally fight back against a complete takeover of the regime by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. The Khomeinists were mistakenly convinced that if they could muster a 70% turnout and win the elections, Khamenei would not dare throw out the results.
Now that Khamenei has refused new elections, the opposition has switched from challenging the June 12 election results to attacking the legitimacy of Khamenei himself. They are counting on Khamenei to continue cracking down on demonstrators, arresting larger numbers of opposition supporters and eventually jailing the leaders. In the end, they believe, Khamenei will so antagonize Qom's ayatullahs that the country's clerical leadership will issue a fatwa condemning Khamenei and the June 12 election. Such a fatwa would strip Khamenei of any legitimacy as Iran's clerical Supreme Leader, eroding his support in the Revolutionary Guards. Already, the enlisted men in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards are uneasy about suppressing the demonstrations. Its rank and file, like other Iranians, have suffered from the poor economy under Ahmadinejad. Reportedly, there have also been arrests inside the regular army. If true, it's a dark omen for Khamenei. A countercoup may just be on the cards.
It is not a coincidence that Mousavi's backers are on Tehran's rooftops shouting "God is great," evoking the spirit of the 1979 revolution when Iranians spontaneously poured into the streets, the army laid down its weapons and the Shah had no choice but to flee. It's impossible to tell whether Iran has reached this point again. But even if it hasn't, the open war between the house of Khomeini and the house of Khamenei will forever change Iran.
Who ever thought that Ayatullah Khomeini would crawl out of the grave to reclaim his revolution?
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