x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran's leaders take power struggle into the blogosphere

Pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have been caught in the cross-fire of an intensifying power struggle between Iran¿s ruling hardliners. The bruising internecine battle pits the president against his one-time champion, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who easily has the upper hand.

Ahmad Shariat's friends say he is made of steel. His resilience will now be tested: the bearded young blogger is behind bars in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

The jailing of web diarists in one of the world's most prolific blogging nations is nothing new. But Mr Shariat is not a pro-democracy activist. He is a fan of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is one of several of the president's cyber-supporters arrested in recent weeks.

The pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have been caught in the crossfire of an intensifying power struggle between Iran's ruling hardliners. The internecine battle pits the president against his one-time champion, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

They "have been hounded by the Tehran prosecutor's office for criticising associates" of the Ayatollah, the French media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, said. Rivalry between Iran's top leaders "is now taking a growing toll within conservative media circles", added the group, which ranks Iran the No 1 enemy of internet freedoms.

Mr Ahmadinejad's government has tried to hit back, last month blocking a high-profile site run linked to one of his hardline opponents, but the outlet recently resurfaced, attacking the president with renewed vigour.

Some analysts believe the pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have been detained for commenting on alleged cases of corruption involving the president's hardline opponents.

The irony of the web diarists' plight will not be lost on Iran's eviscerated reformist movement.

"For years, these bloggers were at best silent when pro-democracy bloggers faced jail and courts," wrote Fred Petrossian, the Iran editor of Global Voices, a website that monitors the blogosphere and translates postings. Now they, too, are facing "prison, filtering and court", Mr Petrossian added.

Mr Shariat was arrested on July 22 when he was unable to arrange a bond of US$92,000 (Dh338,000), Reporters Without Borders reported.

He was accused of "propagating against the Islamic republic", but no specific charges have been made public.

The Iranian blogosphere is buzzing with speculation. Some suggest Mr Shariat was hauled in because he helped organise a meeting of pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers to discuss preparations for next June's critical presidential elections.

Others say Mr Shariat had dared to criticise Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He is reportedly being held in ward 305 of Evin prison, which is controlled by the IRGC.

Several pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have rushed to his defence. "Ahmad was arrested just for supporting his country's president," one wrote in a posting translated by Global Voices. Another assured him "our hearts and pens are with you".

In photos of Mr Shariat posted by supportive bloggers he appears to be in his 20s, often sporting what is said to be his favourite T-shirt that bears the image of Imad Mughniyeh, the late Hizbollah military commander.

The feud between Iran's top two leaders erupted in spring last year when the ambitious Iranian president recklessly challenged Ayatollah Khamenei's absolute authority over a cabinet posting.

Dozens of Mr Ahmadinejad's allies since have been arrested or driven from power, leaving him severely weakened with less than a year left in his second and final term. He has been shut out of the decision-making on foreign policy and Iran's nuclear negotiations with world powers.

The battle intensified this week when a court sentenced four people to death for their role in a $2.8 billion bank fraud scandal, the biggest in Iran's history. The unnamed suspects were allegedly associated with the president's allies, although Mr Ahmadinejad was not directly linked to the investigation and his government vehemently denied any involvement.

In turn, Mr Ahmadinejad's administration this week pushed ahead with corruption claims against Javad Larijani, a scion of Iran's most influential political dynasty that is a vehement opponent of the president and closely allied to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr Larijani heads the judiciary's human rights council. One of his brothers, Sadegh, is the judiciary chief and another, Ali, is Iran's powerful parliamentary speaker.

Tehran's chief prosecutor, Alireza Avaei, said a court was studying allegations that Javad Larijani illegally took control of hundreds of acres of protected land.

"The pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers have been making revelations about such issues, which the Khamenei camp does not want the public to know about, hence it has been arresting them, mostly by the intelligence unit of the IRGC," Muhammad Sahimi, an Iran expert at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email.

The president's faction has also tried to flex its muscles - and demonstrate it can defend its allies - by defying a court order this week to dismiss one of Mr Ahmadinejad's top appointees.

He is Saeed Mortazavi, the head of Iran's social security fund.

The ruling against him followed a lawsuit filed by a group of anti-Ahmadinejad legislators.

A parliamentary inquiry in 2010 found Mr Mortazavi, in his then role as Tehran's chief prosecutor, responsible for the torture to death of at least three anti-government protesters following the disputed presidential election a year earlier.

The arrests, meanwhile, of reformist journalists, human rights campaigners and feminist writers continue apace, with many condemned to long jail sentences.

 

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae