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Iran: Military, Mullahs Join Protests With Hidden Agendas

Iran: Military, Mullahs Join Protests With Hidden Agendas

Sunday, 12 August, 2018 - 11:15
A cleric addresses a crowd of demonstrators in Iran's second city of Mashhad on August 3, 2018 as protests proliferated over the government's handling of the tough new policy from the US (AFP Photo/-)
London- Amir Taheri
“We, too, are angry, very angry!” This was the mantra that a surprise uninvited guest brought to a protest gathering the other day in the “holy” city of Mash’had, northeast Iran. The protest, one of hundreds held throughout Iran these days, had expected the usual police crackdown when the uninvited guest arrived accompanied by a dozen armed men. The uninvited guest was General Muhammad Nazari Commander of the Imam Reza Division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard based close to the “holy” city.

As the protesters tried to absorb their shock the general made a brief speech claiming that the military shared the grievances expressed in thousands of protest marches since last December.

“We, too, can no longer tolerate widespread corruption, crippling inflation and injustice at all levels,” he said.

Had the general acted on an impulse to buy some kudos for himself? Maybe.

However, his bizarre intervention was soon reported by at least four official news agencies run by the IRGC, including FARS. Moreover, his little number was praised as “an act of solidarity with the suffering people” by Ayatollah Alam al-Hoda, the Supreme Guide’s Special Representative in the “holy” city. A few hours later appeared Ayatollah Ibrahim Raisi, the man who had run for President against Hassan Rouhani in 2017. Today, Raisi heads the Imam Reza Foundation- Iran’s second-biggest enterprise after the National Oil Company.

A sign that the military, or at least the IRGC, are reluctant to get sucked into a nationwide protest movement on the wrong side came last December when Chief of Staff Gen. Muhammad Hussein Baqeri announced that his men would not carry weapons in public except on specific missions related to national security. It was up to the ordinary police to deal with such issues as crowd control.

Gen. Baqeri’s colleagues, notably Gen. Muhammad-Ali Aziz-Jaafari, have gone further by adopting an oppositional profile against Rouhani, especially as far as his rapprochement with the United States under President Barack Obama is concerned.

In the past few days, the incident in Mash’had has been repeated in a number of other cities where IRGC officers have turned up at protest gatherings to express their “understanding and sympathy”, at times coupled with virulent attacks on President Hassan Rouhani and his team.

This looks like the traditional Iranian children’s game known as ‘Who was it? It wasn’t me!’ in which players are blindfolded and, running around, hit each other. The trick is for the one who is hit to guess the hitter whose goal is to remain unidentified.

The “Who was it? It wasn’t me!” game has also spread to the Shiite clergy, starting with “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei himself. He has encouraged his entourage to spread the message that Khamenei was never hot on Rouhani and did not really support the “nuke deal” concocted by Obama.

“The Supreme Guide always told us not to trust the Americans,” the daily Kayhan keeps saying in its editorials.

Last week, it was the turn of the traditional clergy, not linked to the regime, to also put some blue water between itself and the ruling mullahs. At a ceremony inaugurating a new boulevard in the “holy” city of Qom, Grand Ayatollah Alavi Borujerdi, one of the top candidates for succeeding Grand Ayatollah Ali Muhammad Sistani as the “Supreme Marja’a” of Shiism said he prays for the voice of the suffering people to be heard so that justice could be done.

On Saturday, Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari, the man who founded the Hezbollah in 1975, broke a long silence to implicitly urge talks with the US. He claimed that the late Ayatollah Khomeini had not been opposed to negotiations with Washington and that " the peace of Imam Hassan", the second Imam of Shiism, could serve as a model for any future dialogue with the Trump administration. He said " wise heads" should intervene to prevent Iran from sharing the fate of Libya.

More interestingly, according to well-placed sources, the top ayatollahs of Najaf and Qom have ignored a demand by Khamenei to call for an end to protests.

Yesterday, some mullahs went even further by holding their own protest gathering in Tehran. The gathering, held at the Marwi Theological School, attracted an estimated 300 mullahs and students of theology and was addressed by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Esrahd, the theologian who heads the Shiite seminary (howzah) in the capital.

In his sermon (khotbah), Ershad claimed that theologians and students of theology were “among the poorest strata in our society”. He then called for “corrupt officials” to be executed in accordance with “revolutionary principles.”

Among theologians carried and chanted by the mullahs were “Plunderers of public treasure must be put to death!” and “clergy are on the side of the people.”

On Friday, a similar message came from Ayatollah Imami Kashani who led the mass prayer gathering in Tehran: the core of the regime is sound, what is needed is a change of administrators, which means ending Rouhani’s tenure!

Scapegoating Rouhani for the economic meltdown, diplomatic isolation and looming American sanctions is not confined to the military and the clergy.

“Rouhani is finished,” says Adullah Nasseri who was chief adviser to former President Muhammad Khatami.

Last week Khatami himself broke a long silence to also implicitly brand Rouhani as a spent force.

In its latest issue, the periodical Iranian Diplomacy, published by a close relative of Khamenei, has also published an article describing Rouhani’s presidency as a failure. The writer, Sadeq Maleki, is a former senior diplomat close to Khatami.

Completing the circle has been former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a statement posted on social media, he claims that he, too, is on the side of the protesters and calls on Rouhani as well as Ali Ardeshir Larijani, Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, and his brother Sadeq, the Chief Justice, to resign.

While the hardline military and clerical factions believe that presenting Rouhani’s head on a platter might calm down the simmering popular turmoil, the president and the diminishing number of his supporters hope to keep him in place amid a fog of speculation about a putative meeting with US President Donald Trump in New York in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

Rouhani has said he is ready to talk to Trump without any preconditions provided but would need some sign of goodwill.

“The Tehran leadership is divided and confused,” says Nasser Zamani, a Tehran analyst. “As always in the past four decades, what the US does could have a determining effect on what happens in the power struggle in Tehran.

“Usually successive US administrations backed factions they regarded as moderate, and each time they lost. This time it seems trump wouldn’t do so as he is looking for anyone who could deliver what he wants.”

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