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The Fight between Iran's Neoconservatives and Conservatives

Interviewee: Hossein Bastani, member of editorial board, Rooz, Iranian news website
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 19, 2008

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Hossein Bastani, an Iranian journalist, was secretary of the Association of Iranian Journalists during the presidency of the predecessor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and now lives in Paris. He says there is a continuing fight in Iran between the so-called neoconservatives, who support Ahmadinejad, and the more traditional conservatives, who support the older generation of leaders. Recent allegations of corruption in the upper levels of the Iranian state made by an Ahmadinejad supporter are a manifestation of this conflict, Bastani says. At the moment, the neoconservatives seem to have the support of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but if he switches support to the conservatives, it will be difficult for Ahmadinejad to win reelection in 2009.

Your newspaper, Rooz, and other Iranian exiles have been discussing the revelations made by Abbas Palizdar about corruption in high places in the Iranian state. Who is he, and what has he said? And why would he do it?

Abbas Palizadarís revelations were covered not only by Persian-language media outside the country, but also by many Iran-based websites; even a few newspapers inside the country published his remarks without naming those incriminated by him.

Palizdar was for some time the operational secretary of the Iranian parliament's Judicial Inquiry and Review Committee, but he has never been a member of parliament, as many news sites have claimed. In the seventh Majlis [Iranís parliament], he headed the Infrastructure Research Bureau, and was the adviser to the Majlis Economic Committee, as well. He was also the chairman and spokesperson of the Board of Trustees of the House of Industrialists of Iran, and a pro-Ahmadinejad candidate for the position of Tehranís city council, but he was not elected. When Palizdarís revelations were strongly criticized by the conservatives, some elements close to Ahmadinejad, including Gholam Hossein Elham, the governmentís spokesman, denied Palizdarís closeness to the president and the political parties supporting him.

In his revelations, Palizdar accused forty-four high-ranking officials of the Islamic regime of economic corruption. Palizdar offered details of criminal offenses that he says were committed by several leading politicians and clerics who, he claims, accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal business deals. Among those Iranian officials who were exposed by Palizdar: The former head of Iranís judiciary; several members of the Guardian Council [the body within Iran that holds veto power over all parliamentary legislation] and of the Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of electing the supreme leader and supervising his activities; the head of the Expediency Council, which serves as a consultative council to the supreme leader.

[The names that Palizdar cited include former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council; the interim Friday prayer leader of Tehran, Mohammad Emami Kashani; the head of the Imam Reza Shrine Foundation, Ayatollah Vaez Tabasi; Iran's former chief justice, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi; and the head of the inspection office of the supreme leader, Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri, who handles counterintelligence and other sensitive investigations.]

Palizadarís revelations should be studied in the light of the power struggle between the Iranian neoconservatives, a new generation of conservatives that arose five to six years ago inside the ruling class and who are close to military circlesó Ahmadinejad himself belongs to this generationóand the traditional older generation of conservatives, consisting of Iranian high-ranking officials who ruled during the years after the revolution and who are close to the conservative clergy.

What do the neoconservatives want?

The Iranian neoconservatives, although not having consensus on everything, have one idea in common. They have a better capacity to manage the country as compared to the traditional conservatives and want to oust them from the political and economic power structure. The rivalry between the neoconservatives and traditional conservatives was apparent in the Assembly of Experts, City Council, and Majlis elections and will probably be intensified during the forthcoming presidential elections in 2009.

How credible are Palizdarís accusations?

Palizdar, as an economic expert and a collaborator of the Majlis investigation committee into the performance of the judiciary, was aware of the contents of many economic corruption files compiled by the judicial system. In his revelations, there are hints about the corruption files of several high-ranking Iranian officials, which are similar to the findings by some of our fellow journalists that were published partially in the past and that I believe are credible. But he also made remarks that are not related to the corruption files in the judiciary that he had access to and therefore cannot be relied upon. As an example, he speaks about the killing of Ahmad Kazemi, the former Revolutionary Guards ground forces commander, killed in a helicopter crash on January 10, 2006, and says: ďI have not studied this file, but evidence suggest that the crash could be on purpose.Ē This does not seem to be an expert view based on concrete evidence.

It is also obvious that Palizdar has selected only certain corruption files to reveal, from among those he had studied. His revelations have a very definite angle: They are targeted at those rivals of the president who are known as the ďtraditional conservatives.Ē This exposť carries precise and detailed information that includes names of many ayatollahs, but it is noteworthy that whenever one wants to see details about the key allies of the president, the revelations end. For example, in Palizdarís disclosure no mention is made of the economic activities of the countryís largest economic unit, the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards].

Do you accept these accusations?

One canít say that Palizdarís revelations are all true or that he has revealed the whole truth. But many of his remarks seem to be true, especially as he was aware that well-known officials might lodge complaints against him and he should be able to present proof to the court for what he claims.

I have seen a report that he was arrested recently. Is that true? What does that mean? I thought he was a supporter of President Ahmadinejad?

Not only Palizdar was arrested. Ali Reza Jamshidi, the judiciary spokesman, said this week that arrest warrants have been issued for eleven other persons related to Palizdarís case, of whom six have been detained. One should not forget that the power structure in Iran is not a uniform or united structure. And despite the increasing power of the neoconservatives, the traditional conservatives still have vast influence. Palizdar, no doubt, is a defender of the president and, in many parts of his revelations, he praised Ahmadinejad strongly. But it seems that he had gone too far in his revelations, probably done with the support of some circles close to the administration. Thus defending him has become difficult for Ahmadinejadís entourage. Anyway he accused tens of officials; therefore complaints by some of them could have led to his arrest. It should be noted that Palizdarís revelations took place on May 4 in a university in a small province, Hamedan, in western Iran which did not cause any judicial reaction at the time. But when one month later the video of his speech was published on the Internet and was widely seen by the Iranian public, the judiciary was obliged to take a step.

Is there any chance that the Majlis, now headed by Ali Larijani, an opponent of Ahmadinejad, will be able to change any of the current internal and external policies of Iran?

The major policies in domestic and foreign affairs are determined by the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In the eighth Majlis, although many conservative rivals of Ahmadinejhad are present, they obey the supreme leader. Although the MPs in the Majlis could protest about the economic decisions of Ahmadinejadís government, there is little hope that this Majlis will have any impact on issues such the nuclear issues or the freedom of elections.

Some people have speculated that since Palizdar was close to Ahmadinejad, his revelations were an effort by the president to wrest power from Ayatollah Khamenei. What do you think of that?

Ahmadinejad has never thought of competing with the supreme leader. The main reason for his victory in the elections against his rivals, who were mostly from the conservatives, was the support of Ayatollah Khameneii and the IRGC, whose commanders are directly appointed by the supreme leader. The intervention of the IRGC in the elections has been widely discussed in Iranian media. Even Mehdi Karrubi, one of the leading presidential candidates, revealed in an open letter after the election the direct intervention of Ayatollah Khameneiís son in the elections and the illegal actions of the armed forces against other candidates. This criticism immediately received a harsh reaction from the supreme leader. Ahmadinejhad, after being elected as president, kissed the supreme leaderís hands before the TV cameras. He is the only Iranian president who kissed the hands of Khamenei. The Islamic Republic of Iranís leader has always attacked Ahmadinejadís opponents and has strongly supported the internal and international policies of his administration.

Why does Ahmedinejad get Khameneiís full support, as you indicate?

Apparently, Ayatollah Khamenei sees Ahmadinejad as the best option to carry out ďstronglyĒ and ďresolutelyĒ what the supreme leader wishes. On the occasion of the recent Majlis elections, in an official speech, Khamenei openly supported the candidate list of Ahmadinejadís supporters, despite the fact that the most important opposing list belonged to conservatives who criticized Ahmadinejadís government but were absolute supporters of the supreme leader. This step by Ayatollah Khamenei was unprecedented in three decades of the Islamic Republic era. Until this time a leader never had supported a specific list of candidates in elections.

We must not forget that according to the Iranian Constitution, the supreme leader appoints the head of military organizations, the head of the judiciary, the heads of big economic foundations such as the so-called Bonyad-e Mostazafan, the imams who deliver Friday prayers in all Iranian cities, [and] the main members of the Guardian Council, which can disqualify the candidates from taking part in Majlis and presidential elections and can discard any electionís results. On the other hand, the Revolutionary Guards, which is the main reason for the election of Ahmadinejad and which has turned into a large economic cartel in Iran, obeys the supreme leader, and not Ahmadinejad or any other person. For the extremist Guards members and other extremists, the Islamic Republic leader is not only the chief of staff but also a religious and moral leader. For those fundamentalist figures, politicians are respectable only to the point where they follow the leaderís line. Of course, one must not forget that the supreme leaderís support for Ahmadinejad has been effective up to this moment, but there is no guarantee that it may continue forever. I personally think that if in the future, for any reason, Ayatollah Khamenei withdraws his support for Ahmadinejad, the president would easily be replaced by his conservative rivals in the next presidential elections.

In Iran, do the people care who the next U.S. president is? Who would they like to see win?

For the majority of the Iranian people it is not really important who would become the next U.S. president, but this can be a subject of interest for those who follow the political news seriously. I havenít seen any scientific poll showing which American candidate is mostly supported in Iran. But from what I have seen on the Persian Internet websites and web blogs, I can say that many women in Iran had a tendency toward Hillary Clinton. In addition, it seems that the youth find [Sen. Barack] Obama more "sexy" than his older rival, a rival which has a connotation of an old conservative. On the other hand, for those who believe that the Islamic Republic regime should be replaced by force, [Sen. John] McCain seems to be the best candidate.

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