The Blog

Syrian Crisis Grows, and Iran’s Inner Circle Gets Edgier

5:30 PM, May 3, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Since its onset in mid-January, the Arab Spring has caused serious problems for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even more than other Middle Eastern states threatened by mass dissent, Iran’s ruling regime has fostered bizarre conspiracy theories blaming its intellectual enemies, both foreign and domestic, for threatening its dominion with a “velvet revolution.” Peaceful protests brought down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, and his campaign of brutal repression now threatens Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally.

Assad Bashar

The collapse of Assad’s bloody rule would be felt acutely by the Iranians, who support Syria against the Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, and use it as a conduit to ship arms to Hezbollah across the border in Lebanon. Indeed, Iran’s anxiety over the Syrian uprising these last six weeks has sharpened divisions in the ruling strata, including factions siding with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his figurehead as president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei and Ahmadinejad openly disagreed when Ahmadinejad dismissed intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, supposedly at the insistence of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff and brother-in-law. Moslehi had reportedly been spying on Mashaei. Khamenei compelled the president to reinstate Moslehi, and Ahmadinejad stayed away from his office for a week, in what BBC News chose to describe as a “boycott of his duties.”  When Ahmadinejad returned to work to head a cabinet meeting last weekend, rumors of a complete break between he and Khamenei were put to rest.

Mashaei, who remains a close adviser of Ahmadinejad, had been demoted from the presidential cabinet on April 9, although he retained numerous other state positions. Allegedly, Mashaei was removed from his top post because his ultranationalist views on culture and religion were too unorthodox for Khamenei and other conservatives, who despise him openly. Mashaei, who has no religious training, has encouraged Ahmadinejad on the path of an “Iranian Islam” similar to German national socialism, centered on the country’s cultural heritage and its supposed place in the state’s vision of an apocalyptic return of the “hidden imam,” or mahdi. But Mashaei told Iranian media he gave up his work as Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff to prepare for elections to be held in 2013. Hooshang Amirahmadi, a U.S.-based ally of Mashaei’s and founder-president of the American Iranian Council, has affirmed a claim disclosed by WikiLeaks that Ahmadinejad is grooming Mashaei to succeed him.

The Teheran regime’s weird views of the world have been aggravated by competing propaganda efforts at the top of the government, predicting that the Western powers would foster “velvet revolutions” in Iran and the other Muslim lands, and reinforcing Jew-hatred in Iranian media.  

In a key contribution to this agitation, the radical daily Keyhan printed a book by a former reformist, Payam Fazlinejad, titled Cavaliers of the Cultural NATO. Fazlinejad argued therein against all forms of modern thought as expressions of Zionism and freemasonry, and even condemned spiritual Sufis, whose tradition dominates popular Iranian Islam, as “acceptable to the United States” and therefore a component in a massive plot to create Muslim “velvet revolutions.” With the arrival of “velvet revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt, resembling the “Green” opposition movement in Iran, Fazlinejad’s bizarre ideological scheme seemed, in Iranian circles, to be confirmed. At the same time, Ahmadinejad and his peers have attempted to identify the Arab democratic upsurge with imitation of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution.  

Dissonance in official Iranian propaganda bespeaks serious confusion at the top. However, the leaders of the Green movement, are free from such contradictions. Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the two main presidential candidates facing Ahmadinejad on 2009, called for solidarity with the Egyptian revolution in February—and were threatened with hanging by radicals in the Iranian government. They were then put under house arrest with their wives. Fatemeh Karroubi was released for one day on Saturday, April 30, and told media the couple has no rights, with Iranian secret police officials having blockaded their residential building and invaded their apartment. She was immediately returned to detention, without telephone access, in her own home.

Iranian Sufis, unlike the Greens, never withdrew from the mass struggle against Ahmadinejad to ponder a new political strategy, and continued their public defiance of the Iranian rulers’ religious legitimacy. The Sufis have come under new attacks, reflecting Fazlinejad’s identification of them as crucial to “velvet revolutions.” When one of their leaders, Dr. Nur Ali Tabandeh, was served with a summons for violating public health laws, some 5,000 Nimatullahi-Gonabadi Sufis gathered at the end of April in the northeastern Iranian city of Beydokht to protest. As noted at the beginning of this year, the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi Sufis have undergone arrests and mistreatment by Iranian authorities since 2006, even before the 2009 election that set off the disaffection and demonstrations that prefigured the Arab Spring.

Protests in Iran beginning in 2009 and in Syria today have no roots outside the countries from which they emerged, except for a contagious desire for liberty. The extravagant Iranian paranoia about foreign threats – echoed by Bashar al-Assad – will do more to enrage the opponents of despotism than to secure the despots in their increasingly tenuous positions.

Recent Blog Posts