Iran Update

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

After the public demonstrations against Iran's election debacle were put down a couple of weeks ago, the conflict switched to behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various powerful and well-connected factions.  Then, more recently, it switched again to a much more public fight between powerful and well-connected factions.  Borzou Daragahi has the latest:

Iran's president, under attack by reformists after his disputed election victory last month, on Tuesday openly defied his most powerful backer, refusing an order by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to dump a newly chosen vice president who is despised by hard-liners for insisting last year that Iranians had no quarrel with the Israeli people.

....Ahmadinejad surprised many observers by defending the vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, an in-law, in the face of a torrent of criticism from his hard-line allies.

News agencies confirmed Tuesday that Khamenei sent a letter to Ahmadinejad on Monday asking for the removal of Mashaei.  "The president should announce the dismissal, or acceptance of the resignation of Rahim Mashaei right away," said Mohammad Hasan Abu- torabi, the deputy speaker of parliament, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency.

But Ahmadinejad insisted on state television that Mashaei "will continue his job," adding, "he is very loyal to the Islamic Revolution and a servant of people."

Juan Cole says there's something "fishy" about this story: "If Khamenei wanted Ahmadinejad to do something, why would he do it in a secret letter that only two MPs have seen?"  And this:

One possibility is that Khamenei is displeased but does not want to weaken Ahmadinejad by publicly overruling him, at this juncture when things are already unstable. That would make sense of his sending a private letter. Maybe it was circulated to other hard liners only when Ahmadinejad declined to heed it?

In the Iranian constitution, Supreme Leader Khamenei can overrule Ahmadinejad on virtually anything, and can dismiss him at will. So if Khamenei really wants Rahim-Masha'i gone, he'll be history.

Perhaps.  But this has gone so far beyond merely a conflict between Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi that it's hard to say what's really happening behind the scenes.  Khamenei is obviously not the unquestioned authority he was before all this started, and the fact that he's now being challenged by Ahmadinejad, the very guy he attached his fortunes to in the first place, says something about his position.  Or about Ahmadinejad.  Or about something else none of us can even guess at.  Stay tuned.

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