The political situation in Iran remains murky, to put it mildly, in the aftermath of June's turbulent election. But some clues can be found in the recent purge of the country's intelligence service.
The turmoil suggests that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing to tighten his control of the regime, even at the cost of alienating some powerful fellow conservatives. But the decisive voice remains the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His legitimacy has taken a hit -- and he's riding a tiger in trying to control Ahmadinejad -- but he's still No. 1.
The head of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, a ferocious cleric named Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei who is nicknamed "the viper" by some Iranians, was dismissed in late July. Four top deputies in the ministry were also sacked in what one U.S. analyst likened to a Stalinist purge. In the process, Ahmadinejad made some potentially dangerous enemies.
The intelligence putsch showed Ahmadinejad "moving to control" the government, says Mark Fowler, a former CIA officer who now runs the "Persia House" consulting service for Booz Allen Hamilton. He says of the ousted intelligence officers: "These are not wallflowers. These are tough guys. They have buddies who are spread throughout the system. They could cause some problems" for Ahmadinejad.
The new intelligence minister is Heidar Moslehi, a cleric with close ties to Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. This led some analysts to argue that Ahmadinejad and the Guard were continuing an internal coup that began with the fraudulent manipulation of the June 12 election and the subsequent crackdown against Iranian protesters.
Lending support to the "internal coup" thesis is the long-running friction between Iran's intelligence ministry and the Revolutionary Guard, which has its own spy service. The intelligence ministry regards itself as a "cut above the knuckle-draggers," says one U.S. analyst. Ahmadinejad and the Guard wanted to take the elitists down a peg, the theory goes.
But as is usually the case with Iran, the situation is more complicated -- with moves in one direction offset by shifts in another. No sooner had Mohseni-Ejei been fired at the intelligence ministry than he resurfaced as the country's prosecutor general. He was appointed to that post by the new judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, who is regarded as a key ally of Khamenei and whose brother, Ali, is the speaker of the Iranian parliament.
In recent private contacts with the West, some prominent Iranian politicians have underlined this theme: Ahmadinejad is trying to consolidate power, but the maverick president is facing growing opposition from within the ruling elite. Khamenei remains the crucial actor, according to these Iranians, and while he generally leans in Ahmadinejad's direction, he has overruled some of the president's decisions, such as his attempt to install his closest personal adviser, Esfandiar Mashaie, as first vice president.
These machinations illustrate how difficult it will be to chart a viable U.S. policy for Iran in the post-election turmoil. Already, the administration has shifted from its pre-election approach of active outreach to a more passive stance in which it's Iran's responsibility to make the next moves. "We're keeping the door open, but it's up to them to walk through it," says a senior administration official.
One Iranian political figure has told a Western intermediary that the Obama administration may have unwittingly encouraged the regime's power grab by sending two letters to Khamenei before the June election. The first, delivered through Iran's mission to the United Nations, was a general invitation to dialogue. Khamenei is said to have taken a month to answer, and then only in vague terms. A second Obama administration letter reiterated U.S. interest in engagement. According to the Iranian political figure, this may have emboldened Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to think they had a free hand on June 12.
A second prominent Iranian politician, who is close to Khamenei, advised a Western contact recently that if the United States wants to change relations, it must deal with Khamenei directly, without going through the Ahmadinejad government. How to do that remains a puzzle for the Obama team.
Tehran's analysis, according to this second Iranian, is that America has three options for Iran: engage, contain or attack. "The perception in Tehran is that America hasn't made up its mind what it wants," this prominent politician confided. That's probably the right assessment. And on this issue, as with so many others, the administration is nearing decision time.