The Blog

The Mullah Wars

How to understand and exploit Iran's internal fissures.

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 2006 • By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.