The ACISIran Pulse No. 49 ● 5 February 2012
“THE 'AMMAR HEADQUARTERS” AND THE CHALLENGES OF THE IRANIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM
At the beginning of 2011, the Iranian media reported about the opening ceremony of “The 'Ammar Headquarters” (Qarargah-e Ammar). The headquarters is named after ʻAmmar ibn-Yasir (a companion of the Prophet Muhammad and a prominent supporter of Imam ʿAli), who was killed in the Battle of Siffin in the seventh century. Around seventy close supporters of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah 'Ali Khamene'i, affiliated with the radical right wing of Iranian politics, attended the event. Among them were clerics, cultural activists, members of the Majlis, and former Revolutionary Guards officers. "The 'Ammar Headquarters" is headed by Hojjat-ol-Eslam Mehdi Ta'eb, a lecturer at the religious seminary in the city of Qom, and his Deputy, Hojjat-ol-Eslam 'Alireza Panahian, the director of the think-tank that represents Khamene'i at the universities.
In an interview with Fars News Agency, Panahian said that "the 'Ammar Headquarters" had been established following the 2009 post-elections riots, and in light of Khamene'i’s call for the mobilization of political and cultural elites in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. He noted that following this call, several meetings were convened to discuss ways of confronting the campaign that is being waged against Iran by enemies at home and abroad. The main objectives set for "the 'Ammar Headquarters" include the coordination between various bodies active on the cultural scene in order to confront the “soft war" that is being waged against Iran by the West, and tackling covert and overt activities of enemies of the Islamic Republic and their domestic collaborators (Fars News Agency, 15 April 2011).
A poster of the opening ceremony of "the 'Ammar Headquarters"
At its foundation ceremony, members of "the 'Ammar Headquarters" elected a central committee of fifteen prominent figures of the rightist radical camp. Among them are Said Qasemi, Dr. Hassan 'Abbasi and Qassem Ravanbakhsh. Qasemi, a former intelligence officer of the Revolutionary Guards, is considered to be one of the leading strategic thinkers of the radical right. In the past, he has spoken in favor of establishing Iranian resistance cells at the heart of Europe in response to the western anti-Iran campaign, and he has called for sending volunteers for suicide operations against Israel and western targets during the Second Lebanon War (2006). 'Abbasi who is the Chair of the “Center for Doctrinal Analysis in National Security” and affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards is also considered to be one of the major thinkers of the radical right. As one of the leading strategists in Iran occupied with the concept of “asymmetric warfare”, 'Abbasi has on several occasions stressed the need to use suicide warfare in the event of a military attack against Iran. In recent years, 'Abbasi has been outspoken in his criticism of reformist opposition officials. Ravanbakhsh is the editor of the weekly magazine ‘Parto-ye Sokhan’ and a disciple of the senior radical cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi.
The establishment of "the 'Ammar Headquarters” demonstrates the need felt by senior members of the religious-conservative establishment to mobilize supporters of the regime in face of the 2009 post-elections riots. The demonstrations led by the reformist opposition were perceived by the regime as the most significant threat to its stability since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and as an expression of the growing influence of Western liberal ideas on Iranian society, particularly on the youth. Accordingly, one of the first recomm-endations of the headquarters was the prosecution of the two leaders of the reformist opposition, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi. However, a few months after its establishment, officials of "the 'Ammar Headquarters” shifted the focus of their attention from the struggle against the reformist opposition to confronting the new political challenge faced by the religious-conservative establishment.
In April 2011, the Iranian media reported that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had accepted the resignation of the Minister of Intelligence, Heydar Moslehi. Shortly after Khamene'i published a statement in which he expressed his support for the Minister of Intelligence and instructed his reinstatement in office. Disagreements between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamene'i soon turned into a severe political crisis inside the Iranian leadership. Senior officials in the conservative camp sided with Khamene'i, strongly criticizing the President’s misconduct and demanding that he should comply with the Supreme Leader's orders.
The friction between those loyal to Khamene'i on the one hand, and the President's supporters on the other hand, not only accentuated internal political instability in Iran, but also highlighted the deep ideological strife over the identity of the Islamic Republic and its future. Opponents relate to the messianic views and anti-clericalism of the President’s associates “the deviant current” (Jaryan-e enherafi). The emphasis on the cultural-national component of Iranian identity as opposed to Islam and the challenge to the position of the clerics are perceived by the conservative establishment as a significant threat (see also the Middle East Monitor, June 2011).
Internal struggles within the governing elite and the challenge posed by the President’s associates to the principle of the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist” indicate that criticism is no longer limited to small circles of intellectuals, clerics and politicians who identify with the reformist Left. The expansion of the political and ideological challenge into the top of the regime has forced the conservative establishment to concentrate the focus of its attention also on rivals from the political Right. By suppressing the reformist opposition, the regime has been able to steer its resources and supporters – including members of “the 'Ammar Headquarters” – toward the campaign against “the deviant current”.
In November 2011, the Chair of "the 'Ammar Headquarters" attacked the President’s supporters, claiming that “the deviant current” is seeking to undermine the regime and to provoke internal religious friction (Radio Farda, 21 November 2011). A few days later Ta’ib declared that “the deviant current” aims at overthrowing the regime (Saham News, 6 December 2011). Moreover, officials of "the 'Ammar Headquarters” harshly criticized the ideological views of the President’s associates, and mainly that of his office chief Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i. Responding to statements of Masha’i regarding the need to place “the Iranian school” above “the Islamic school”, one member of the headquarters, Hojjat-ol-Eslam 'Ali Samari, noted that Khamene'i's speeches are proof that the emphasis on Iranian identity over Islamic identity is a mistake (E`temad, 3 September 2011).
Majlis elections scheduled for March 2012 offer a good opportunity for "the 'Ammar Headquarters" members to expand their political influence and to promote radical right candidates who do not identify with the President’s inclinations and “the deviant current”. These elections expose the internal rifts in the conservative camp. The main conservative candidates are expected to act in the framework of “The United Front of Osulgarayan" (literally: "the Principalists"), which is supported by the senior conservative clerics: Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, speaker of the “Assembly of Experts”, and Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, current Secretary of the “Society of the Lecturers of the Qom Seminary”. Supporters of President Ahmadinejad declared that they would act independently and not in the framework of “The United Front of Osulgarayan”. At the same time, a few political activists who are affiliated with the right-radical front announced the establishment of the “Steadfast Front” (Jebhe-ye Paydari) in July 2011. This front is supported by Mesbah-Yazdi who until last year was considered the spiritual patron of President Ahmadinejad.
In view of the coming elections, Ta'eb stated that "the 'Ammar Headquarters” does not support any political organization and called on the two conservative fronts to work together in order to prevent the election of candidates identified with the reformist camp or with the “deviant current” (Tabnak, 8 January 2011). Panahian also stated that the headquarters would not present a list of preferred candidates before the elections and stressed the headquarters’ commitment to the struggle against the “deviant current” (Farda, 16 May 2011). Despite these statements, key activists within "the 'Ammar Headquarters” took part in the formation of the “Steadfast Front” and are active in advancing its political goals.
The establishment of "the 'Ammar Headquarters” and the shift in the focus of its activities from the ideological-cultural confrontation with the reformist movement to the struggle with the “deviant current”, clearly reflects the changes that have taken place in the Iranian political arena over the past year. The conflict between the reformist opposition and the regime’s leadership, which reached its peak during the 2009 riots, led to the exclusion of Reformist leaders from the political consensus permitted by the regime. Leaders of the opposition that had formerly belonged to the political elite were denounced as traitors and agitators. In the past two years, the status of the speaker of the “Expediency Discernment Council of the System”, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, has also been greatly reduced. He is accused by his critics of not siding unequivocally with the regime in the struggle against the reformist opposition, and even of cooperation with its leaders. In March 2011, Rafsanjani resigned from his task as Chairman of the “Assembly of Experts” in which he had served since September 2007. Recently, his official website has been blocked by the authorities and next February he might be removed from his task as Chairman of the “Expediency Discernment Council of the System” in light of the upcoming round of appointments in the Council. Once the religious-conservative establishment had suppressed the reformists and Rafsanjani, it was ready to deal with the President’s key supporters as well.
These political developments are also evident in the activities of "the 'Ammar Quarters”. The headquarters, originally founded to assist the activities of government supporters against reformist and Western influences, has in recent months shifted its attention to the struggle against the “deviant current”. Thus, recent efforts of the headquarters reflect the changing perceptions of the regime regarding the main political and ideological threats it faces. The continued actions of the religious-conservative establishment against the President’s associates and its denouncement as a “deviant current” indicate a further erosion of the power base of the Iranian political elite. This process is likely to impair the legitimacy of the regime, which used to claim that it combines the Islamic component, expressing God’s sovereignty, with the republican-democratic component, representing the sovereignty of the people. In the short term, the suppression of political movements and competing intellectuals might assist the religious-conservative establishment in preserving its exclusive position among the political elite. The composition of "the 'Ammar Headquarters” reflects the circle of supporters on which the regime can still rely. For the most part, this circle includes radical clerics and former Revolutionary Guards whose involvement in Iranian politics has greatly increased over the past decade. However, whether or not this support for the regime will suffice in the long term is in question. The conservative elite may discover that with its intolerance and its endeavors to suppress any political power center and alternative ideology, it has narrowed its ranks to the extent that it will no longer be capable of dealing with the political challenges that still lie ahead■
Tel Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv 61390, Tel Aviv P.O.B. 39040, Israel
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Iran Pulse No. 49 ● February 5, 2012
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