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The Mullah Wars

How to understand and exploit Iran's internal fissures.

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
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IRAN KICKED OFF the new year by announcing that it would resume nuclear fuel research. Western governments are scrambling in the wake of this announcement, with no evident overarching strategy for preventing the regime from obtaining nuclear weapons. The United States and E.U. countries are intent on taking Iran to the U.N. Security Council, where China likely stands in the way of sanctions. On the other hand, International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed Elbaradei has simply called for more talks. But one little-discussed strategy that perhaps holds the most promise is exploiting the political battles currently raging inside Iran.

The political battles are centered around new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei originally helped this relatively unknown politician win the presidency because he thought Ahmadinejad would serve as a counterbalance to the powerful Hashemi Rafsanjani. But Khamenei got far more than bargained for.

Far from being an ordinary politician, Ahmadinejad is an idealist, one whose ideals are rooted in the bloodstained Iranian revolution. Ahmadinejad's total devotion to these revolutionary principles caused Amir Taheri, an astute observer of Iranian politics, to refer to the president as "Iran's perilously honest man."

Part of Ahmadinejad's perilous honesty is exposing the Iranian political establishment's corruption. An initial report from an audit of public finances that the president ordered found over $100 billion of Iran's oil revenue since the revolution not "properly accounted for." Ahmadinejad thinks that the mullahs themselves have been compromised. In this regard, Taheri explains that Ahmadinejad believes "the ruling mullahs have milked the system and, having become rich, can no longer share the revolutionary aspirations of the poor masses."

Far more noticeable to Westerners, though, is Ahmadinejad's honesty about the Iranian regime's ideals. Unlike past president Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad doesn't quote Habermas in his speeches for the benefit of Western audiences. His frank statement that Israel must be "wiped off the map" is far more to the point. This bluntness is yet another weapon that Ahmadinejad uses to bludgeon the mullahs. In his eyes, the tendency of Iranian political elites to give speeches pleasing to Western ears one day then say something different in Farsi after coming home is evidence of their lack of faith. Ahmadinejad believes that the world should hear only the true revolutionary message rather than watered down pronouncements about a "dialogue of civilizations."

Even Khamenei may be threatened by Ahmadinejad's dangerous idealism. Khamenei is very much an establishment figure, having served two terms as president before being elevated to supreme leader. Ahmadinejad favors Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is considered more ideologically pure than Khamenei.

Observers think it possible that Ahmadinejad could try to replace Khamenei with Mesbah Yazdi. While there have only been two supreme leaders in Iran's history, Ahmadinejad could make the switch if he's able to stack the powerful Assembly of Experts with figures loyal to him.

BOTH RAFSANJANI AND KHATAMI have orchestrated a campaign of character assassination against Ahmadinejad in recent months designed to paint him as a delusional figure who believes that the Hidden Imam guided him through a September speech before the United Nations.

The mullahs may also have gone beyond character assassination. On January 9, a military plane crash killed 11 top commanders in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been a key source of support for Ahmadinejad. General Ahmad Kazemi, the commander of IRGC's ground forces, died in the crash, as did a number of other military notables.

Although an IRGC spokesman blamed bad weather and dilapidated engines, the private intelligence company Stratfor has noted that while negligent maintenance is "a plausible explanation for the crash," there are several reasons to suspect foul play. One reason is the political context surrounding the crash: Not only was Ahmadinejad's election controversial, but also his recent bomb throwing has "stirred up noticeable hints of dissent within the ruling regime." Moreover, because the Falcon aircraft that crashed carried some of Iran's top military commanders, it "would undergo thorough tests for technical issues before flight."

If the plane crash was an act of sabotage, it could be either a product of the "mullah wars" that have been raging between Ahmadinejad and the establishment mullahs, or it could have been orchestrated by members of the IRGC who are sympathetic with the opposition to the regime.

THE UNITED STATES needs to be keenly aware of these divisions within Iran so that it can exploit them. Part of that exploitation will be surely be covert, but the U.S. needs also to carefully tailor its public rhetoric about Iran. The right approach is exemplified by State Department undersecretary for political affairs Nicholas Burns's recent speech to the School of Advanced International Studies, in which he launched a stinging attack on Iran and Ahmadinejad, and stated, "There is a clear struggle underway between the reactionary Iranian government and the moderate majority."

Burns's speech appears designed to highlight what the United States hopes are the new battle lines being drawn in Iran: between people and government, rather than within the regime between "reformists" and hardliners.

Iran has threatened that any U.S. military action against it will result in a massive insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But Iran's power to take such countermeasures will be undercut if the rest of the region realizes that it is in the midst of an internal power struggle. The United States should emphasize such manifestations of this struggle as the recent assassination attempt on Ahmadinejad, the hostage-taking of Iranian soldiers and the suspicious plane crash.

Even while pursuing the U.N. Security Council as one option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, the U.S. needs to carefully follow, and be willing to exploit, the power struggle within Iran.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant and attorney. Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi and Elio Bonazzi contributed to this article.