Iran Analysis: The Regime beyond the Headlines
Prof. Scott Lucas
The world is once again watching Iran. A series of weekend developments are in the global press this morning. Thomas Erdbrink of The Washington Postcovers the Parliamentary report on the abuse of detainees, headlining the allegations against former Tehran Prosecutor General and current Presidential aide Saeed Mortazavi, “An Iranian parliamentary probe has singled out a former Tehran prosecutor as being responsible for the violent deaths of three protesters in a now-closed prison facility after anti-government demonstrations in July.” Nazila Fathi of The New York Timeswrites on the same lines.
Credit to both reporters and to others for picking up on the development. Credit also for coverage of the Supreme Leader’s weekend address as well as notice of President Ahmadinejad’s presentation of his five-year National Development Plan to Parliament.
However, all the information deserves a much closer look. Below the surface of pronouncement and public reports, there are powerful currents swirling within the Establishment. This is no less than an attempt, perhaps the last one before showdown reaches the highest levels of the regime, to find a way out of the political conflict.
There are hints tucked away in today’s stories. Erdbrink, for example, has this enticing quote from Abbas Abdi, a former journalist critical of the Government:
Mortazavi is the highest official the parliament could accuse without getting in trouble. If they would go after lower-level officials, their probe would have been meaningless.” It is now up to the judiciary to press official charges against the former prosecutor.
Fathi goes for the line of a sop to the Green movement:
One analyst, a former senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in pinning the blame on Mr. Mortazavi, the government was trying to pacify the opposition.
“They might go as far as sacrificing Mortazavi, but I don’t think this is going to fool the opposition,” he said. “This does not mean a major compromise. It is just a tactic, and they are willing to sacrifice him because he crossed the lines.”
Both soundbites are half-right: Mortazavi now wears the title of Number One Scapegoat for the post-election excesses.
This, however, has little to do with concessions to the opposition. The regime’s tough response to the Saturday march of Mothers of Mourning and their supporters, putting 33 in prison and reportedly injuring several, backs up the rhetoric that continues to come from Ministers, officials, Parliamentary leaders like Ali Larijani, and the Supreme Leader. No more demonstrations. No more resistance.
(At best, there may be an argument that the Parliamentary report is a signal to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who raised the abuse charges back in July, that they should come in from the opposition cold and strike a deal. However, even that possibility — raised in last week’s letter from conservative/principlist leader and Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei to Ayatollah Khamenei — has not been borne out by any other Government moves.)
And the Abdi line is incomplete, either in its reading or its representation by Erdbrink. The idea that Mortazavi is the biggest fish/scapegoat (pardon the mixing of animal metaphors) and therefore that the investigations and the allegations stop with the former prosecutor is a misunderstanding: the Parliamentary challenge to Ahmadinejad has come too far to stop with Mortazavi’s punishment.
Remember, the President’s response to this report — after it was presented to Parliament — was to proceed with the official ceremony for Mortazavi’s appointment as the head of the unit investigating smuggling of currency and drugs. That’s a come-and-get-me taunt to those in and close to the Majlis — Rezaei, Ali Motahari, Ahmad Tavakoli, even Ali Larijani — who want the President, not one of advisors, to admit errors and injustices. Motahari made that clear in his video interviews last week.
So leave the Green opposition to the side for the moment. One of two scenarios happens:
1. Mortazavi falls, and Ahmadinejad takes a blow to this authority. His Parliamentary and political foes will either then accept that they have contained Mahmoud or, smelling blood and victory, they will press on.
2. Ahmadinejad will not sacrifice Mortazavi, and the fight gets even more intense.
Into this mix let’s throw in the Supreme Leader. His speech last Saturday was difficult to read because it had two apparently conflicting messages. On the one hand, as we initially updated, he was warning protesters to shut up and go away, a repetition of his 19 June line that tried to validate the Presidential election. On the other, he was indicating that there had to be some acceptance of excessive measures by security forces and assurances that they would not be repeated.
How to reconcile those signals? Well, by recognising to whom they are directed. The first is simply to keep the opposition at bay and, indeed, far, far away while the regime tries to sort itself out. The second, more immediately important message is to those who nominally support Khamenei. Read it carefully, and I think you’ve got the Supreme Leader lending some backing to the Parliamentary/political criticism of the Presidential office and, therefore, telling Ahmadinejad and the security forces aligned with him: Be Careful.
Another reminder: this isn’t new. Rewind to July and August and there are a series of power plays and disputes between Parliament and the President and even the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad. Mahmoud and Company won some of those battles, getting more influence in ministries like Intelligence, and lost some, for example, with the forced climbdown over the appointment of Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai as First Vice President. At that time, however, Ahmadinejad’s biggest victories were getting to be President, with his inauguration in August, and getting his big Cabinet picks the following month.
All of this is back in play, however. As a very well-informed source told me last week, “The only way this ends is if and when some [expletive deleted] stabs Ahmadinejad in the back.”