x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

'Desperate' Ahmadinejad challenges Revolutionary Guards in Iranian power struggle

Iran's president, seems like a man with nothing left to lose in raising the stakes in a power struggle with rival hardliners as guards reveal they have been commissioned by the judiciary to combat a 'deviant' current in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's office.

Some may see him as reckless, others as an adroit politician. Either way, Iran's mercurial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seems like a man with nothing left to lose in raising the stakes in a power struggle with rival hardliners.

This week he issued a thinly veiled threat to expose corruption in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) if his conservative opponents - in parliament, the clergy, the judiciary and security forces - attempted to arrest his closest aides.

That challenge to Iran's most powerful military and economic institution comes just two months after he had been humiliatingly trumped by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a battle of wills over a cabinet posting.

Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said: "To take on the Guards, whose top commanders have clearly sided with Khamenei in the current political conflict, is a sign of desperation."

The president, now more isolated than ever, "is the loser", Mr Lucas added in an interview this week.

The IRGC has long wielded considerable political power behind the scenes but has been reluctant to flex that muscle publicly, although it did so on several occasions during the presidency of Mr Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

Now, rankled by Mr Ahmadinejad's threats, the force has bared its teeth publicly against him for the first time.

In a remarkably candid interview last week, the IRGC's commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, who was appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, made clear the extent of his force's immense sway over domestic politics.

He revealed that his men have been commissioned by the judiciary, which is controlled by Mr Ahmadinejad's opponents, to combat a "deviant" current in the president's office.

Several of Mr Ahmadinejad's aides have been arrested in recent weeks, accused of corruption, political and religious "deviancy", and of casting a spell over the president.

"These people have not committed security crimes. However, they have committed economic and moral offences," Mr Jafari told Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency.

Mr Jafari also signalled that the IRGC would have a significant say over who runs in next year's parliamentary elections. He said reformists who have not crossed the regime's "red lines" can participate in political campaigns, but he ruled out involvement by the charismatic Mr Khatami, who won two elections by a landslide.

Claiming to be a spokesman for the people, Mr Jafari said Iranians had not forgiven the former president for supporting "seditionist" leaders of the pro-democracy "Green" movement who challenged Mr Ahmadinejad's 2009 re-election bid.

That public rebuke was predictable, said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst and expert on the IRGC at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank.

"The Guards have been amassing power for years. It is no surprise that they have become even more explicit about exercising that power," he said.

In return for the IRGC's support, however, Ayatollah Khamenei might find himself "quite restricted due to the amount of power" that he has given to the force which he ostensibly commands, Mr Nader said.

Mr Ahmadinejad was furious that the IRGC's most senior commanders had sided with his hardline rivals in the supreme leader's camp.

The president's confrontation with the Guards emerged dramatically last Monday when he accused unnamed government agencies of using their own dockyards to import goods, such as cigarettes, without having to pay customs duties.

The IRGC has long been reported to control an immensely lucrative underground economy of black-market items.

The first such allegations were made a decade ago by reformists whose demands for an investigation were ignored.

By repeating those charges, Mr Ahmadinejad hit a raw nerve, bringing a swift denial from Mr Jafari, who insisted his men have not used military docks for smuggling.

Having stirred the pot, the president astutely made a tactical retreat.

His office issued an unconvincing statement claiming that some media had "distorted" Mr Ahmadinejad's comments. It said, accurately, that he had not named the IRGC in his accusations about smuggling.

By then the damage, which he intended, was done. Iranian blogs were buzzing with his accusations against the IRGC.

Mr Ahmadinejad's message to his conservative rivals, however cagily worded, was crystal clear: he will not serve his final two years in office as a lame-duck president. If they attempt to topple him before then, he will drag down with him as many of his rivals as he can.

The IRGC's reformist critics argue that the force, along with Iran's other military, were instructed to keep out of politics in the will of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, who died in 1989.

But the IRGC counters that, as "guardian of the revolution", it is constitutionally mandated to uphold its values, and insists that Ayatollah Khomeini had only wanted it to steer clear of factional disputes between the regime's political insiders.

An analyst from Tehran said: "The IRGC sees Mr Ahmadinejad's camp as fair game because they say it no longer operates within the nezam [system]. The president's men are seen as outsiders."

The battle is also over money. By some western estimates, the IGRC's market share of the Iranian economy ranges from a third to nearly two thirds of the country's GDP.

The private sector has little chance of competing with Guards who invariably win no-bid contracts.

But there has been speculation that Mr Ahmadinejad was trying to stem the IRGC's sources of revenue in order to divert cash to his supporters in advance of the parliamentary elections.

Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii, said: "Any Iranian government that wants to stay in power needs to use government financial resources to win the elections.

"The Revolutionary Guards also need those resources. Hence the clash of interests."