An Arrest Suggests Ahmadinejad Backstabbing Supreme Leader in Iran

05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you have paid light attention to Iran over the past few years, you have learned the following facts: a) Iran is a theocracy with a terrible record on women's rights and human rights; b) Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, has made remarks that have outraged a range of different groups (justly or unjustly), from Jews to gays; c) Iran has been pursuing the enrichment of uranium, which the United States and Israel have been obsessing about since 2005; d) while there has been rigorous debate in the U.S. on whether or not to directly talk to Iran, the person who has the final word on everything is the Supreme Leader, Khamenei.

Many activists have been speaking up on various arrests of liberal activists by the Iranian regime, and in the case of the American-Iranian Journalist, Roxana Saberi, successfully pushed the Obama administration to speak up.

We now need to bring their attention to another recent arrest in Iran, not because an American citizen is involved, but because details of the case suggest that factions of individuals within Ahmadinejad's government -- with or without his personal knowledge -- have been actively working to keep the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the dark on a number of domestic matters. If it is true, it is a significant development that suggests the Supreme Leader may not have as much control over all aspects of Iran's activities - including those that relate to foreign policy, such as support for HAMAS and Hezbollah, insurgents in Iraq or espionage activities in Western Europe and the United States - as experts on Iran have been assuming.

Payman Fattahi is the 36-year-old leader of El Yassin, a coalition of individuals, NGOs and publications that aims to raise awareness about various practical topics and "methods of thinking" in Iran with millions of readers that range from academics to common individuals.

The group has been active in Iran for nearly fifteen years and engaged in a range of activities, from conferences and speeches by Mr. Fattahi to publishing journals and publications through an extended network of publishing houses and NGOs throughout Iran. El Yassin boasts a following of 200,000 members.

Mr. Fattahi has been making speeches for many years, criticizing those who commit violence in the name of Islam and explaining his more nonviolent view of Islam and religion in general. Until 2005, he was allowed to operate freely. Upon Ahmadinejad's election in June of 2005 and the government's hard line turn, the government established a so-called "religions section" within the Information Ministry with the stated mission of "confronting religions and cults." In the name of this mission, they have engaged in arrests and maltreatment of religious minorities throughout Iran, such as Christians and Baha'is.

As part of this campaign, they began harassment of Mr. Fattahi, detaining him twice (once in 2007 for six months and once in January of 2009) with accusations that he was promoting "religious pluralism." During his first arrest, he was injected with suspicious substances that have led to his suffering from nose and ear bleeding, problems that he continues to deal with today. In the interim period between the two arrests, members of the Information Ministry brought him in for interrogations about 30 times and placed him under strict restrictions on movement, banned from engaging in any social or speech-making activities and had surveillance cameras installed at his house.

Since January, he has been held at Section 209 of Iran's Guantanamo-style Evin prison without charge and many visits permission by anyone, including his lawyer. He has only been granted to visits permissions, one of which was with his brother, who has revealed that Mr. Fattahi has lost significant weight and his health is in critical condition. Four other members of the group were also arrested shortly after Mr. Fattahi's arrest: Ms. Nazi Hesami, Mr. Morteza Rasoulian, Ms. Mitra Najafi and Mr. Aliyar Nikfarman.

Now here is what makes this case quite intriguing. During his last interrogation before his final arrest, members of the Information Ministry placed a letter in front of him and asked why Mr. Fattahi had tried to contact the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, with the letter that contained accounts of all the torture and mistreatment that he had endured. Mr. Fattahi has consistently denied having written such a letter, but the security agents told him that he should not have contacted the Supreme Leader and doing so was the reason for his arrest.

If this account is true, it reveals for the first time an attempt on the part of the Iranian government to control the flow of information to the Supreme Leader and keep him in the dark. This is significant because if factions within the Iranian government have been successful in preventing even Iranians from contacting the Supreme Leader, there is every reason to believe that they are doing the same when it comes to Iran's international activities, including details of interactions with the United States.

We have to watch and speak up about the arrest of Mr. Fattahi for two important reasons: his health can be in potential danger right now and he can be subject to torture as other prisoners in Section 209 have been in the past, and his arrest indicates a crack between Ahmadinejad's government and the Supreme Leader, which can widen quickly and result in scattered outbreaks of violence throughout the country as we approach the Iranian elections in June.