Sometimes a kiss is more than just a kiss. The kiss in Tehran last Monday was certainly unique, as kisses go.
During the inauguration ceremony to mark his "reelection," disputed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, bowed to religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 70, and attempted to grasp his hand to kiss it, but Khamenei turned away at the last minute. When Ahmadinejad attempted to at least embrace the supreme leader, Khamenei turned away again, leaving Ahmadinejad awkwardly facing his shoulder. It was a scene straight out of a low-budget slapstick comedy.
The incident had the rest of the world puzzled, especially coming from Iran, this country of secretive codes and symbols, where everything has significance. How estranged are the supreme leader and the president? Does the scene indicate a radical shift in relations between the two hardliners, or could it even symbolize the beginning of the end for Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei has given the cold shoulder several times in recent days? And what could replace the Holocaust denier in this torn country, in which the democratic opposition refuses to give up and protesters face possible death sentences?
If there is one place where it is possible to discover what is truly happening in Iran these days, it is London. Here, in an inconspicuous single-family home halfway between Heathrow Airport and downtown London, lives a man in self-imposed exile who can offer a wealth of information about Iran today. Ataollah Mohajerani, 54, a man with a history of ties to the top echelon of power in Iran, is deeply familiar with those who currently play key roles in the embattled theocracy.
As an inquisitive student, Mohajerani discussed the correct path of action with Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a cleric revered by the faithful in Iran, and was involved in the underground movement agitating against the shah. After the successful 1979 revolution, Mohajerani, a rising political talent, worked as a parliamentary secretary for then-Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the current opposition leader.
As a pragmatic vice-president under former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohajerani fought to improve the standard of living for all Iranians. And as an enlightened minister of culture under the reformist former President Mohammed Khatami, he brought the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to Tehran. In dozens of debates, he argued with conservative religious leader Ali Khamenei over the independence of art and freedom of the press. In 2000, realizing that championing his causes had become pointless, he resigned.
Mohajerani was born in Arak, a city at the top of Israel's list of potential bombing targets. Some believe that the heavy water reactor under construction there could be used to produce a nuclear weapon, and that it must be destroyed. Mohajerani studied history in Isfahan and Shiraz, the cultural centers of a country that is justifiably proud of its illustrious contributions to civilization.
Mohajerani's wife, Jamileh Kadivar, also a former prominent member of parliament, is on the short list for a post in a reformist cabinet should the street protests against the Tehran regime succeed after all. Would the man heading that cabinet be her husband?
Mohajerani laughs, sheepishly but confidently. "Me, as the next president of Iran? Well, that would perhaps not be optimal, but certainly an improvement over the current situation "
He pours Persian tea into porcelain cups. A picture depicting the first verse of the Koran -- "Allah Akbar," or "God is great" -- hangs on the wall above the upholstered furniture. The same words are now often shouted from the rooftops of Tehran -- as a defiant slogan of resistance, and yet one those in power clearly cannot prevent people from uttering.
He now corresponds with opposition politicians in Iran via email. The week before last, from his apartment in London, he helped organize a demonstration to mourn the death of Neda, a protestor who was killed in the streets by the regime's thugs and has since become an icon of the protest movement. Mohajerani also uses email to provide his commentary and advice on the "horrible show trials" that have now begun.
He is familiar with the circle of power in Tehran and its secrets -- the characters, the codes and the shadow play. According to Mohajerani's analysis, three figures are playing a special role in Iran today, three men who have always struggled to find the right path for their country and are now at the center of attention once again: Hossein Ali Montazeri, 87, who is reverentially referred to as "Marja-e Taglid," or "Source of Imitation," Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 74, who is respectfully but somewhat suspiciously known as "Kuseh" ("Shark"), and Ali Khamenei, who Iranians have taken to calling "the Dictator." The three men are now the three pillars of the theocracy. These big three, long partners in the revolution, are now fighting on different fronts.
This is the Persian puzzle, and the world is observing it with great anticipation. The story of Montazeri, Rafsanjani and Khamenei is one of friendship, estrangement and betrayal. It is the history of Iran, the story of its past and present, and probably of its political future.
The Road to Theocracy
Qom, the holy city of the Shiites, a center of resistance, in the early 1960s.
In 1953, the CIA backed a coup against the democratically elected, nationalistic Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and helped bring the shah, who had temporarily fled the country, back into power. But not everyone was willing to bow to the new leader. Religious leaders, angry over the confiscation of their property and a modernization campaign contemptuous of religion, came together in Qom. A descendant of the Prophet Mohammed is buried in Qom, a city considered so holy that not even the shah dared to close all of its Koran schools, or madrassas. To this day, Qom is a place of behind-the-scenes struggles over power in Iran.
Montazeri, Rafsanjani and Khamenei were among the students who engaged in heated discussions in the shadow of the golden Fatima al-Masumeh shrine and on the lawns of the madrassas. All three condemned what they perceived as an outrage against their religion and a selling-out of the country. And they had an idol, a shared über-father figure whose indictments of the godless regime had them mesmerized: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a gifted speaker with fiery eyes, a dark voice and uncompromising rhetoric. He promised his students a revolutionary goal: the road to a theocracy, one that would not bow to any outside efforts to control it.
Montazeri, the son of a small farmer, had a modest childhood. When he was sent to study at the seminary in Qom, every dinar counted. Rafsanjani comes from a far wealthier family that owns estates and a pistachio business. When Khamenei arrived in Qom, he was the only one of the three who had come from a prominent religious family. His father was a mullah at a mosque in Iran's other holy city, Mashhad.
The shah expelled Khomeini in 1964. After initially spending time in Turkey and then neighboring Iraq, Khomeini eventually went into exile in the French village of Neauphle-le-Château. While in exile he quietly managed to unite the various opponents of the regime. Charismatic and conscious of his power, he also gave his blessing to the strikes staged by the communists, whose ideology he did not share. Cassettes of the imam's speeches were distributed in Iran's bazaars. Neither the shah's intelligence agency, SAVAK, which was supported by Israeli trainers, nor the many CIA agents stationed in the country were able to control Khomeini's underground activities.
Showing His Teeth
The hated SAVAK was notorious for torturing its victims. Many were imprisoned, and serving a prison term became a mark of honor for the opposition. In total, Montazeri, Rafsanjani and Khamenei spent almost a dozen years behind bars. After being released, they began to agitate for their idol once again, but the eldest and poorest of the three young revolutionaries took his religious studies especially seriously. Montazeri soon acquired the rank of an ayatollah ("sign of god"), and even attained the rank of marja or grand ayatollah, of whom there were fewer than one dozen at the time.
The two others only managed to attain the lower rank of hojatoleslam. This would eventually present a serious problem for Khamenei, but less so for Rafsanjani, who was already developing a reputation for his business acumen and political astuteness. He came to be known as a smooth operator, a shark who could show his teeth when he felt it was necessary.
The West supported the shah until the bitter end, in the knowledge that "his" Iran, with the world's second-largest natural gas reserves and its third-largest oil reserves, was an important energy supplier. But the shah, on his Peacock Throne, was no longer able to contain the rebellion. To avoid a major bloodbath, he left the country for good in January 1979.
From his exile in Neauphle-le-Château, Khomeini had already appointed a revolutionary council consisting of himself and four other men. One of them was Rafsanjani, whose outstanding talents as an organizer had caught the imam's attention. The zealous Khamenei was allowed to give revolutionary speeches in Mashhad. Though not part of the inner circle at first, Khamenei, at Rafsanjani's suggestion, "and after long debate, was added to the revolutionary council as a sixth member," as Mohajerani recalls.
Montazeri, who had a stronger relationship with revolutionary leader Khomeini than anyone else, worked closely with the imam to develop a constitution for the theocracy they had envisioned. In return for his loyalty, Khomeini soon made Montazeri his deputy -- to the disappointment of Rafsanjani and Khamenei. If they hoped to hold onto their power, the two men had to come up with a new strategy.
Start of a New Regime
Paris, on a bitterly cold February night in 1979.
A new era was about to begin. Traveling on board a specially chartered Air France jet, the revolutionary leader, with an uncharacteristic smile on his face, made the journey from Paris back to Tehran. Millions lined the streets of Tehran as the limousine carrying the reformer passed by. The imam captured the Iranian capital in a triumphant march.
The old regime was dissolved, and within a few days the roaring current of the revolution had turned everything upside-down. In a referendum approved by an overwhelming majority, the people endorsed the "Islamic Republic" in late March. The concept of "velayat-e-faqih" ("rule by Islamic clerics") is a unique construct, a mixture containing elements of democracy and the papal Vatican, as well as traits of a North Korean-style dictatorship.
Although Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, formally accepted the institutions of a parliamentary democracy, he created for himself -- in consultation with Montazeri -- an office that rules supreme over all elected bodies. As "religious leader," he established the guidelines of politics, and he controlled the armed forces, the intelligence services, the judiciary, the parliament and the media. The only curbs on his power were the position of prime minister and a body known as the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly, which consists of 86 theologians, has the right to unseat the religious leader and appoint a successor. But as long as the religious leader is a person who can unite the entire people and is uncontroversial, that right remains theoretical.
Rafsanjani became the speaker of the parliament. Khamenei survived an attack by left-wing extremists fighting against the theocracy, losing the use of his right arm in the process. Khamenei's "martyrdom" helped advance his career, and it helped him attain the office of president in October 1981.
The three comrades became caught up in the dynamics of the revolution, and they became convinced that anyone who could pose a threat to the theocracy had to be exterminated. "When the shah gave us freedoms, we drove him out of the country. We won't make that mistake ourselves," said Rafsanjani. Montazeri, too, initially believed that the revolution had to be consolidated with all possible means. "Dead trees must be cut down," he said.
When students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran, the three men waited to see how Khomeini would react. And when the imam gave his blessing to the effort, they supported him. The hostage crisis would last 444 days, and the images of blindfolded diplomats being paraded before the cameras would be burned into the collective consciousness of Americans -- just as the images of Iraq's attack on their country, with American logistical support, remained etched into the memories of Iranians.
One of the imam's slogans read: "War until Victory." The eight-year conflict, imposed upon Tehran, cost roughly a million lives and ended in a stalemate. The fact that it ended at all was Rafsanjani's achievement. He dared to challenge the official position, and he convinced Khomeini, who was prepared to sacrifice more and more units of child soldiers, to agree to a cease-fire. Khomeini, for his part, said that signing the cease-fire agreement felt like drinking "a cup of poison."
The end of the hostilities was one of the few compromises in the first decade of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini, with the help of his three confidants, promoted the export of religion into the region and was behind the establishment of Hezbollah ("Party of God") in Lebanon, which he encouraged to commit suicide attacks. At home, the regime took a relentlessly harsh approach to governing the country. The range of victims of its arbitrary administration of justice was expanded beyond former supporters of the shah and "infidels" to include homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes and 14-year-old boys who had dared to make jokes about the imam. All were executed.
Rafsanjani and Khamenei remained silent when it came to the regime's excesses. After brief hesitation, they supported Khomeini's fatwa, declared on religious grounds, against writer Salman Rushdie, the author of "The Satanic Verses," which was the equivalent of a call to commit murder. But Montazeri could no longer reconcile keeping silent with his conscience. He wrote urgent letters to Khomeini, suggested pardoning the heretical author and sharply condemned human rights violations in Iran. The man the revolutionary leader had once publicly described as "the fruit of my life" fell out of favor. In March 1989, Khomeini expelled his designated successor, saying: "You are not worthy of this office."
Rafsanjani and Khamenei didn't lift a finger to help Montazeri. Instead, they saw his ouster as their golden opportunity. By that point, they knew that the country's supreme leader had cancer, and that Montazeri's demotion was their chance to rise to power.
Filling Khomeini's Shoes
Tehran, June 4, 1989, the day after Khomeini's death.
The country's leading dignitaries met to appoint his successor. As film footage that has recently surfaced demonstrates, Rafsanjani took the lead in a meeting of the Assembly of Experts -- and set the course. He described his last encounter with Khomeini in the hospital, as well as an earlier discussion he had had with Khomeini over his succession. Rafsanjani claimed that he had told Khomeini that no one had "the stature to fill your shoes," to which Khomeini had replied: "But why not? Mr. Khamenei is the one!"
Thus anointed, Khamenei humbly addressed the assembled clerics and, in a typical Iranian gesture of feigned modesty, told them that it was far too great an honor. "I am opposed," he said to the Assembly. Rafsanjani requested an open vote among the religious scholars, saying that those in favor of Khamenei should stand up. By acclamation, Khamenei was thus voted Khomeini's successor, even though he lacked the basic qualification for the country's supreme religious office, the rank of ayatollah, which could only be acquired by someone with an established record of acclaimed publications.
Later, when Montazeri publicly drew attention to this deficit on Khamenei's part, Khamenei had him placed under house arrest and got hired thugs to destroy his library. But he stopped short of having the marja imprisoned or, worse yet, murdered.
Khamenei and Rafsanjani had assumed the legacy of the nation's founder. Montazeri once said that the two men were as similar as identical twins and were capable of anything. Nevertheless, the duo's joint rise to power also contained the seeds of a power struggle -- perhaps because they had never agreed on what their respective roles would be, or perhaps because they were too much alike. Khamenei was the formal supreme leader, but Rafsanjani had reason to believe that in reality he was actually number one. Through a constitutional amendment Rafsanjani managed to push through in a behind-the-scenes campaign, the office of the prime minister was abolished and the last man to hold it, Mir Hossein Mousavi, withdrew from politics (until he became the hero of the opposition in 2009). It was only under these conditions that Rafsanjani agreed to run for the upgraded office of president, to which he was easily elected.
But Khamenei had also taken steps to reinforce his troops, in the literal sense of the word. He assumed control of the Revolutionary Guards Khomeini had founded as a counterforce to the regular army, which had been influenced by the shah and was suspected of disloyalty. Khamenei expanded the role of the Revolutionary Guards, turning them into a quasi state within a state. By that time, revolutionary leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani had become as dependent on each other as they were rivals. They attempted to balance out power among the various political camps. Khamenei cast his lot with the conservatives, who insisted on strict adherence to dress codes and the moral "cleanliness" of the press. He sought to appease the religious conservatives, sensing that, because of his lack of religious qualifications, they posed the greatest threat to his authority.
Rafsanjani advocated greater personal freedoms, but he was not prepared to truly fight for them. His only concern was to retain his hold on power. He did manage to achieve cautious privatization in an economy crippled by nationalization programs. In terms of foreign policy, Rafsanjani, who had traveled in the United States in the days of the shah regime and whose business dealings required a certain level of cosmopolitanism, argued for a cautious course of rapprochement with the West, provided Iran was treated as an "equal partner" -- he might have been a revolutionary, but he was pragmatic. But after Rafsanjani was reelected in 1993, Iranians became increasingly disenchanted with his policies. The West, for its part, was divided over how to handle an Iranian government that was almost simultaneously sending gestures of goodwill toward Washington while dispatching assassins to murder Iranian dissidents around the world.
By the time of the 1997 election, Khamenei and Rafsanjani realized that they no longer had the support of the people. Mohammed Khatami, a reformer, clearly defeated the candidate favored by the ruling duo. But at least the outcome, as odious as it was to the religious leaders, was not rendered invalid by a bogus election result. Khatami's predecessor and, most of all, the religious leaders, did their utmost to obstruct him. Washington also abandoned Khatami, even though he publicly expressed "regret" for the 1979 embassy occupation, offered an intercultural dialogue and helped the United States, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to find al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Despite these overtures, then US President George W. Bush counted Iran as part of his "axis of evil."
Rafsanjani suddenly found himself caught between fronts. The liberals were deeply disappointed when he did nothing against the increasingly brutal repression of opposition members by an intelligence service loyal to Khamenei. Meanwhile, the religious leader tolerated conservatives publicly criticizing Rafsanjani for being "corrupt" and maligning him as a "fat cat." In fact, he even quietly instigated the mudslinging campaign.
Harder than Stalin
But Rafsanjani was not about to give up. He ran for president again in 2005, only to experience the ultimate betrayal by his former comrade-in-arms. "If necessary, Khamenei can even make Stalin look soft," says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer and expert on Iran. The religious leader conjured up a rival candidate -- Ahmadinejad -- and made it clear that he believed him to be more qualified than his ally of many years.
Once again, everyone had underestimated Khamenei, a man who comes across as extraordinarily bland and dull. Nevertheless, the religious leader, who never meets with foreign journalists or Western statesmen, made an impression on the then-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, during his visits to Tehran. "He is highly intelligent and is familiar with every detail of the nuclear weapons issue," ElBaradei said.
At the same time, Khamenei remained ideologically inflexible and deeply suspicious of the West's intentions. For Khamenei, any compromise was nothing but surrender. The image of America as the enemy remained his guiding principle, the glue holding the regime together.
He kept a close eye on his rival Rafsanjani, who had lost the 2005 election to Ahmadinejad. He knew that Rafsanjani would never acknowledge defeat, and that he would attempt to settle scores with Khamenei. He sensed that the shark had his own plans.
After his first inauguration, Ahmadinejad loyally kissed the hand of his "father," Khamenei. He was the first president in Iranian history to do so. And the hardliner regime he ran was also much to the taste of the religious leader: anti-Western in its foreign policy and anti-liberal domestically.
Rafsanjani was opposed to such extremist positions, but he kept a low profile. And when Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, ran for reelection and Khamenei indicated a preference for the incumbent, Rafsanjani did not openly endorse the most promising challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. This was despite Rafsanjani and Mousavi's shared history: Mousavi, the former prime minister, was the last member of the expanded Revolutionary Council Rafsanjani had appointed more than 30 years earlier -- Rafsanjani's 12th "apostle."
Mousavi is also a pillar of the Islamic Republic, a representative of the establishment and, until shortly before the election, an overly cautious and bland candidate. Nevertheless, he is a man who, as he has recently demonstrated, can rise to the occasion at key moments. When Ahmadinejad insulted Mousavi and his wife with a defamatory comment in a television debate, the challenger shot back with an astonishing remark, one that electrified previously apathetic voters: "You are leading our country toward dictatorship!"
Iranians Take to the Streets
Tehran, in the summer of 2009, in the days after the electoral fraud that triggered an upheaval throughout the country.
The election outcome that religious leader Khamenei, only hours after polling places closed, presented to Iranians and declared to be God-given was simply too implausible. Ahmadinejad had supposedly won the vote by a landslide, with almost a 30-percent lead, despite the fact that opinion polls had predicted a close race. When Iranians took to the streets in protest, Khamenei's Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias bludgeoned the peaceful protestors, and shots were fired.
Since June 12, more than 30 people have died in the streets, and more than 100 protestors now face trials reminiscent of the Stalinist model, with defendants' "confessions" clearly obtained under duress and threat of death. And yet thousands are still taking to the streets.
Rafsanjani, sensing a shift, spoke out in favor of the protesters in a Friday sermon in mid-July. His move was likely triggered by the opportunity to exact his revenge on Khamenei. He spoke of a "national crisis" and demanded the release of imprisoned protestors. The country's rulers, he said, should "operate within the framework of the law." As head of the influential Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani is still an important power broker in Tehran.
The elderly Montazeri has already reappeared on the scene. Long sidelined, he is making good on a promise he made in a 2003 interview with SPIEGEL in Qom: "There is so much for which I wish to atone. I am not free of guilt." The grand ayatollah made his stance public in the form of a fatwa, or religious opinion -- a declaration that carries enormous weight with the faithful.
In the sensational document, the religious scholar compared the current situation in Iran with the pre-revolutionary period under the Shah, "who did not hear the call of the revolution until it was too late." A leadership "based on clubs, injustice and violations of the law," he said, is worthless and must be condemned. The government, he said, serves the people, not the reverse, and if the people are no longer satisfied with it, then it loses its legitimacy, according to Shiite teachings. "Each person has a responsibility in the face of tyranny."
Rafsanjani has also rediscovered his interest in the clerics. Seeking allies, he recently visited Qom, Montazeri's stronghold, and Mashhad, where Khamenei has his supporters. The image of leading ayatollahs joining forces with a mercantile multimillionaire and pro-Western, Twitter-using students illustrates how unique alliances can be in Iran.
The Failed Theocracy
This is where the triumvirate stands today, the three men who embarked on their political careers together, intent on bringing an Islamic revolution to Tehran -- and who could now be confronted by a new revolution.
Montazeri is convinced that the concept of a theocracy has failed. He grants the religious leader, at most, the status of a constitutional monarch.
Rafsanjani would probably like to see the basic structures of the velayat preserved, but with a "sensible" religious leader like himself, and with a liberal market economy similar to China's.
"In the struggle for the country's direction," says Iran expert Mohsen Milani of the University of South Florida, Rafsanjani has "never quite forgotten that even an Islamic Republic needs popular approval to attain legitimacy." According to Milani, this explains why Rafsanjani tried to limit the term of the revolutionary leader to 10 years in his 1989 constitutional amendment. For Khamenei, on the other hand, says Milani, the country's leadership "answers primarily to God."
Khamenei is fighting to preserve the status quo, and to do so, he could very well be prepared to throw Ahmadinejad, his awkward protégé and ideological ally, to the wolves.
The tensions between the two men, at any rate, are hard to overlook -- even beyond the rebuffed kiss. For seven days, the president resisted the religious leader's "urgent wish" that he remove his first vice-president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai. Ahmadinejad eventually relented, only to make Mashai his chief of staff.
Now Tehran is filled with rumors that Khamenei, seeking a new balance, could persuade the parliament, in the coming weeks, to refuse to endorse the entire cabinet Ahmadinejad has proposed. This would lead to a new election, in which the religious leader could support a presidential candidacy for Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament. Or could the situation present Rafsanjani with the opportunity to use his influence in the Assembly of Experts to force Khamenei, who is believed to have cancer, to resign, thus fulfilling his own life's dream of becoming Khomeini's "true" successor?
The Nuclear Option
And what are the implications of the current power struggle for the question that interests the world more than anything else: Iran's future as a potential nuclear power?
There are currently 12,000 centrifuges in operation, producing the basic material for a possible nuclear weapon, and it is conceivable that Iran will have produced enough of the material by next year. In 2003, when Tehran made a secret offer to negotiate through Swiss mediators, Iran had only 164 centrifuges and claimed that it wanted to keep a few dozen for "research purposes." But the Bush administration was not even willing to discuss the possibility of symbolic uranium enrichment for Iran. As a result, Tehran refused to submit to any UN resolutions.
In the opinion of London exile Ataollah Mohajerani, there is little evidence to suggest that there is any room for compromise on the nuclear issue. Neither Khamenei nor Rafsanjani, or even Mousavi, seem willing to even suspend uranium enrichment. New US President Barack Obama's offer to talk to the Iranians is likely to have as little effect as the threat of tougher sanctions -- even if they include a ban on fuel imports, for which Washington is currently seeking European support, and which would be painful for Iran.
Despite all denials from Tehran, it is highly likely that Iran is on its way to becoming a nuclear power. And Israeli air strikes will probably be the only means of uniting the theocracy's bankrupt leadership and its courageous opposition in a surge of national pride and defiance: us against the world.