The Fight for Iran's Political Future Revolution Leaders Struggle for Power in Tehran

In the wake of a bogus election, the deadly harassment of protestors and squabbling among hardliners, everything seems to have changed in Tehran. Two men could now pose a serious threat to the regime: Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and multimillionaire Hashemi Rafsanjani.

By and Erich Follath

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.

Organizing Protests

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.


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