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Masoud Shafaee

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In Iran, Disunity at a Time of Instability

Posted: 05/31/11 04:22 PM ET

Following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's widely-contested reelection in 2009, the country witnessed its largest demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with millions pouring into the streets of Tehran to protest the official results. Facing the greatest threat in its 32-year history, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the 'spiritual guardian' of the Islamic Republic, denounced the opposition as seditionists, ordered a brutal crackdown on protesters, and rallied the regime behind Ahmadinejad. During the early stages of the crisis, unity among hardliner regime- loyalists could hardly have been stronger.

Nearly two years later, with the opposition Green movement largely marginalized, its leaders Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi under house arrest, and large-scale protests having tapered off, the regime ironically finds itself more divided than ever. A tense standoff has emerged between Ahmadinejad, Iran's figurehead president, and Khamenei, who has final say on all official matters. Such infighting could not come at a worse time for the Islamic Republic. The Arab Spring has brought upheaval to its doorstep, vividly reminding the Iranian youth the explosive potential of people-power, all while the country's economic outlook continues to remain especially grim. Indeed, while protesters no longer brave the streets of Tehran, this confluence of destabilizing factors may very well be brewing a perfect storm that is headed straight for Iran's mullahs.

The spat between the two started last month when Ahmadinejad sacked Heidar Moslehi, his intelligence minister, after it emerged that the offices of his closest advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, had been bugged. While members of the president's cabinet serve at his pleasure, the Supreme Leader can override any executive decision and promptly reinstated Moslehi back to his post. In response, Ahmadinejad raised eyebrows by boycotting his own cabinet meetings and was not seen publicly for ten days, reportedly in a deep sulk.

Tensions escalated when dozens of Ahmadinejad's aides were arrested on sorcery charges earlier this month. The arrests stem from the wide dissemination of a DVD that purports Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah are paving the way for the messianic return of Mahdi, the Twelfth and Hidden Imam of Shiaa Muslims. The unauthorized film has become a cause célèbre inside Iran, and the inclusion of Ahmadinejad -- who holds no religious credentials -- alongside Khamenei has Iran's mullahs particularly incensed.

The tense standoff appeared to come to a head earlier this month, when the embattled president finally reaffirmed his loyalty to the Supreme Leader after facing a chorus of conservative criticism. But the crisis has lingered, and Ahmadinejad continues to boldly challenge the confines of his largely symbolic role. Most recently, he attempted a unilateral reorganization of the government by merging together several ministries -- including oil -- and in the process, named himself caretaker of the country's significant petroleum resources. He was again forced to back down after the Guardian Council, the regime's powerful constitutional watchdog, called the restructuring illegal.

This is not the first time Ahmadinejad has publicly feuded with Khamenei. Ahmadinejad openly challenged him when he named the same Esfandiar Mashaei at the center of the current imbroglio as his first vice president shortly after the 2009 election. Khamenei ultimately forced Mashaei's withdrawal a week later, only to have Ahmadinejad immediately reappoint him as his chief-of-staff.

But while he is himself a highly controversial figure, Mashaei has in many ways come to embody the threat that Ahmadinejad and his clique -- branded a "deviant faction" by hardliners -- increasingly pose to the regime. If it was not evident earlier, then Khamenei must surely by now realize just how greatly he miscalculated the long-term risks of backing Ahmadinejad throughout the post-election crisis. He has lost much of whatever creditability he once held as the country's supposed arbiter, the brutal crackdown he ordered on the opposition has irreversibly tarnished the regime's legitimacy, and the man he anointed president two years earlier has repeatedly and openly defied his authority -- an act his fervent supports compare to apostasy. These are no small rifts, and reveal just how fractured Iran's ruling class has become.

All of this, just as more and more of the Middle East is thrown into upheaval, with unrest inching ever-so-closer to Tehran. Indeed, one has to wonder what kind of buffer Mousavi's promised social and political reforms, had he been allowed to assume office and fully implement them, would have served against the wave of uprising sweeping the region. It is impossible to tell, and Iran's Greens are instead left hoping to be inspired by their Arab neighbors rather than the other way around.

They have reason to look for inspiration. Back home, the same socio-economic forces that were at the heart of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and that have driven millions elsewhere throughout the region to street protests, are just as severe. As with much of the Middle East, Iran suffers from a considerable youth bulge -- two-thirds of its population is under the age of thirty -- while state corruption is rampant. Moreover, whereas youth unemployment was estimated to be around 30 percent in both North African states prior to their governments' overthrow, Iran's unofficial youth unemployment rate is even higher -- 50 percent among young women by one estimate. Add an inflation rate the IMF projects to near 22.5 percent, 'crippling' economic sanctions, and sky-rocketing food and oil prices, and a dire economic picture emerges. With the two-year anniversary of the country's 2009 election only two weeks away, an Iranian reawakening may very well be in the making.