Rumors of sorcery in the environs of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have reached such a high pitch that leading members of his entourage have had to deny them. Some Iranian media outlets even quoted the president as saying that those alleging “the influence of fortune-tellers and jinn on government were telling jokes.”
In fact, the matter is deadly serious. Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi was quoted as being “more than 90 percent certain that he (Ahmadinejad) has been put under a spell… I do not know if it is hypnotism… or relations with yogis. But there is something wrong.”
Senior clerics have long disliked Ahmadinejad and see opportunity in his soured relations with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Hence, a dispute with the leader over ministerial appointments has set off a wider spat. Khamenei in April reinstated Heydar Moslehi as the intelligence minister after Ahmadinejad had forced him to resign. While the president had little choice but to accept the directive, he subsequently refused to attend cabinet meetings for a week, then in May removed three ministers as part of a scheme to reorganize ministries. In assuming the sensitive oil ministry himself, Ahmadinejad further enraged his many critics and in a matter of days the Guardian Council — which can block legislation it deems unconstitutional — had overruled the president, deeming his move “illegal”.
Ahmadinejad came to the presidency in 2005 as an outsider to Iran’s political class after a skillful campaign that hamstrung his main rival, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had strong support within the establishment. The new president had a popular touch rooted in his lowly father’s simple Quranic classes. Here was a man who talked to millions of Iranians in simple language and understood their beliefs and practices. Yet many aspects of popular religion in Iran are frowned on by senior clerics, whose standing is based on Islamic law and who disparage “superstition”.
When Ahmadinejad was elected, many wrong-footed analysts said he was a creature of the Revolutionary Guards (although his membership has never been established). But the discrete talk in Iran was of his religious beliefs, and particularly of his relationship with the 12th Imam. For Khamenei, the new president was a double-edged sword. On one side, he had won a landslide election victory pledging a return to the egalitarian values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in the process steamrolling two reformist candidates along with Rafsanjani. But on the other side, Ahmadinejad’s populism was unpredictable. His statements on Israel delighted the Persian, Arab and Muslim “street”, but they disturbed pragmatists in Tehran seeking a hardheaded calculation of national interest. His management of government also alienated a wide range of conservatives close to Khamenei.
By endorsing Ahmadinejad’s 2009 disputed election victory, Khamenei put more wind in the president’s sails. Buoyed by this support, Ahmadinejad and his close ally and relative by marriage, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have tried to create a political bloc that might outlast the 2013 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad’s second term expires and he must stand down.
Senior clerics detest Mashaei, another figure of humble origins and one who has stressed Iranian nationalism even at the expense of Islam. Mashaei is at the root of tension between the president and leader; in 2009 Ahmadinejad was overruled by the supreme leader when he tried to appoint Mashaei as first vice-president. Instead he made Mashaei chief of staff, a post from which he recently stepped down, perhaps to prepare for parliamentary elections next year.
It was Mashaei’s tense relations with Heydar Moslehi that led to the April sacking of the intelligence minister and he has also been at the center of allegations that the Ahmadinejad camp has diverted oil revenue into election campaign coffers. At the brink before, Ahmadinejad has always pulled back from confronting Khamenei, and in a televised interview in mid-May he praised the leader as a just father, both to himself and the nation. Perhaps the president knows that, with or without the use of sorcery, this would be a confrontation he could not win.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran