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Friction among Iran authorities heats up

With street protests quiet, factional disputes intensify. Hard-line clerics call for opposition leader Karroubi to stand trial, and reformist lawmakers want supreme leader Khamenei investigated.

August 15, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Rival camps within Iran's corridors of power intensified their threats against each other Friday, signaling potentially dangerous clashes within elite circles and the security establishment after the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hard-line clerics close to Ahmadinejad called for prominent reformist Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament and a presidential candidate, to stand trial for making allegations of jailhouse rape and torture in the country's detention centers.

On the opposing side, a group of former reformist lawmakers issued a letter late Thursday demanding that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, be investigated by the Assembly of Experts, clerics who have the power to replace the supreme leader, in relation to the election's violent aftermath.

The factional disputes, which are expected to get worse before the naming of the next Cabinet, come as street protests have faded.

"The ball of crisis is still rolling, if not on the streets, within the ruling establishment," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist journalist and human rights activist in Tehran.

Protesters, nursing bruises and stifled by late-summer temperatures, are sitting back for the moment, apparently hoping they can accomplish their minimal goal -- removing from power Ahmadinejad and his circle of hard-liners in the security apparatus -- without more bloodshed.

Analysts said that opposition figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's leading challenger in the election, has been reluctant to call for protests for fear he would be arrested. His news website, Ghalamnews.ir, has been shut down for days, and many of his deputies remain in prison.

"There is a plan for paralyzing the system and bringing down Ahmadinejad," said Mohsen Sazegara, a Washington-based analyst and political activist who supports the opposition. "But Mousavi can't announce it because he'll be arrested. If he doesn't say anything, it doesn't mean that within the opposition there's no plan."

For now, neither hard-liners nor reformists appear to be backing down.

At Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a staunch supporter of Ahmadinejad, reiterated demands by his conservative allies that the judiciary put Karroubi on trial for making allegedly false accusations that prisoners swept up in a wave of protests were raped and tortured in prison.

According to a respected reformist news website, Ahmadinejad has submitted a proposal to the country's Supreme National Security Council for the arrests of Mousavi and Karroubi, along with other prominent reformists. The plan was spurned by the "highest authorities" for fear that it would cause the "collapse" of the system, reported Norooznews.ir.

Reformists have not gone away despite such threats. The letter to Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani signed by hundreds of former lawmakers called for the Assembly of Experts, which he oversees, to examine whether Khamenei should be replaced under an article in the constitution.

Karroubi, meanwhile, has issued more details of prison abuse, stating on his website Thursday that he had evidence that prisoners were stripped naked and forced to walk and scream like animals.

The allegations of sexual abuse, which tarnish Ahmadinejad and his clique as corrupt, are particularly effective in wooing moderate clerics and those within the political establishment, analysts said.

With opposition figures constrained by the threat of prison, hard-liners are finding themselves unsure about the depth of discontent within the country. Their increasingly strident calls to lock up Mousavi and Karroubi prompted the son of former longtime Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, popular among those in the security apparatus, to warn authorities about consequences that he did not specify.

"The knowledgeable ones among these authorities, if there are any of them, know well that such gestures are like playing with fire," Hassan Younesi wrote on his blog Wednesday night.

Even conservatives complain that Ahmadinejad has not met the minimum requirements they spelled out to avoid a protracted fight over his next Cabinet team, which he must submit to parliament early next week.

In recent days he has bucked an Iranian law by taking de facto control of the Intelligence Ministry and promptly purging it of longtime ranking officials deemed insufficiently loyal. He also dismissed the head of the Islamic Republic News Agency on charges of being too balanced.

Ahmadinejad managed to elevate his brother in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, to chief of staff despite the disapproval of Khamenei and moved to promote a close ally, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan, to the helm of the national police.

In a meeting with a group of scholars associated with the hard-line Basiji militia days before his inauguration, Ahmadinejad made a reference to seizing opponents by their collars and sticking "their heads to the ceiling."

"Let me take the oath of office," he said, "and wait for the government to begin its work."

He later explained that he meant Iran's foreign rivals, not his domestic foes.

--

daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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