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Iran’s Bubble Boys

These are the men who make up Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inner circle -- and will determine if the Iranian president can strengthen his tenuous grip on power.

Majid/Getty Images
Majid/Getty Images

Over the last seven months, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s base of support appears to have steadily shrunk: Countless conservative politicians and clerics, such as former Intelligence Minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, have even parted ways with the Iranian president and joined the expanding group of his foes. But though his list of detractors is getting longer, a number of men continue to stand behind the president, ensuring his hold on power.

Even some symbolic leaders of the opposition green movement, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, declared in recent days that they recognize Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, even if they remain convinced that his re-election on June 12 was rigged.

All the president’s men — and they are all men, with the exception of the female health minister, Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi — fall into two categories. Ahmadinejad’s chosen advisors and cabinet members are either his relatives or men close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his powerful supporter. No matter the amount of criticism or condemnation heaped on the men in this inner circle, the president has remained as loyal to his appointees as they are to him.

The most glaring example is Ahmadinejad’s appointment two weeks ago of Judge Saeed Mortazavi as the head of Iran’s Task Force Against Smuggling. Mortazavi was just named in a report issued by the Iranian parliament as the man largely responsible for atrocities committed in July, following Iran’s contested presidential election, by state security forces at the Kahrizak detention facility. According to the report, some demonstrators in the opposition movement imprisoned in Kahrizak were killed, and others tortured, due to mismanagement and abuse. The parliamentary committee said the dissidents were taken to the detention facility based on orders from Mortazavi, who at the time was Tehran’s chief prosecutor. After the deaths were reported in July, Khamenei ordered the facility closed.

Despite Mortazavi’s tainted reputation — he is also notorious for shutting down hundreds of reformist newspapers and imprisoning their journalists in the late 1990s when he was a judge — Ahmadinejad has ignored widespread criticism of his appointment as the anti-smuggling chief.

The closest person to Ahmadinejad is his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, who is also the president’s brother-in-law. After Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in the June 12 election, he initially tapped Mashaie to be his vice president. However, Mashaie’s statement in 2008 that Iranians are "friends of all people in the world — even Israelis" angered conservatives, who pressured Ahmadinejad to rescind the appointment. Ahmadinejad refused to back down until Khamenei instructed him to remove Mashaie. Ahmadinejad’s subsequent decision to appoint Mashaie as his chief of staff was striking because it defied even Khamenei.

Ignoring Mashaie’s dismal reputation within Iran, Ahmadinejad praised him last week as "Olya Allah," a man of God, when a group of supporters questioned him over his reliance on his chief of staff. Such public adulation has become one of the hallmarks of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. Last summer, when bidding farewell to outgoing Health Minister Kamran Baqeri Lankarani, who is highly respected in Iran, Ahmadinejad praised him by saying: "He really worked hard. I like him in a very special way personally. He is such a clean and lovely person. I said somewhere that he is like a peach and you just want to eat him."

Unswerving loyalty has proven to be the blueprint for career advancement within Ahmadinejad’s circle. When Ahmadinejad wanted to secure control of the Intelligence Ministry, he appointed Heydar Moslehi as minister in August 2009, even though Moslehi had no experience in intelligence work and was unknown in government circles. Shortly beforehand, the president sacked Mohseni-Ejei, then intelligence minister, after he refused to participate in cabinet meetings with Mashaie, who was vice president at the time. Some analysts in Iran think that Ahmadinejad used this as an excuse to place his own loyalist as head of the ministry, which plays a key role in spying on and identifying Iranians who work with the opposition movement inside Iran and outside the country.

Moslehi has served Ahmadinejad well. He is the leading advocate of a government crackdown on the public intellectuals and journalists who form the intellectual wing of the opposition. After the massive demonstrations in Iran last December, Moslehi stated in an interview on state-run television: "This unrest is different from that of the past and is a prearranged counterrevolutionary movement, designed by agents of the sedition."

In addition to these loyalists, Ahmadinejad has deliberately chosen others who have close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), now the most important institution in Iran. Mojtaba Hashemi-Samareh, who is rarely seen in public, is Ahmadinejad’s chief political advisor and maintains close connections to both the IRGC and the Basij militias under their control. He is a close childhood friend of the president and served as his campaign manager during the last presidential election. He also shares Ahmadinejad’s affinity for Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the powerful, radical cleric who thinks that a world war needs to occur for Islam to prevail around the globe. Such an outcome, according to Yazdi and his followers, will return the Hidden Imam in Shiite theology back to Earth.

Ahmadinejad and Samareh have benefited from the symbiotic nature of their relationship. When Samareh was the interim governor of the West Azerbaijan province, he appointed Ahmadinejad to be the governor of Maku, a small city in that province. Samareh also has a healthy relationship with Khamenei.

Despite the greatest political upheaval in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, popular demands for his resignation, and the great disdain in which even many conservatives hold him, Ahmadinejad has endured the storm by surrounding himself with these staunch loyalists. This might enable him to complete his presidential term, but by ousting anyone who does not agree with him, he has deepened the fragmentation within the government and left behind a trail of enemies at a time when he could use more than a small circle of loyalists to confront an opposition movement that grows more formidable by the day.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive

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