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Iran - How The Revolutionary Guards Are Taking Control Over The Theocracy.

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TEHRAN - Sector by sector, a radical faction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to which newly-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad belongs is taking over in Iran. Now the IRGC is concentrating on the petroleum sector, where over 400 CEOs and managers, many of them highly-qualified and rare engineers, are expected to be replaced by IRGC appointees.

Staging a military coup d'etat in a complex but slow process, the IRGC is to take over all the other sectors. First indications of this began to appear in late May 2005, when suddenly the candidacy of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad to Iran's presidency was backed by the country's un-elected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as it became known that Khamenei's eldest son Mujtaba was Ahmadi-Nejad's campaign manager for the June 17 presidential elections.

At first it was thought this was to be Ayatollah Khamenei's own coup. But by June 24, when the second round of the elections was held and won by Ahmadi-Nejad, it began to appear that - rather than Khamenei's conservative faction - it was the IRGC which had put its weight behind the new president - who got 17 million votes.

Ahmadi-Nejad's June 24 victory over former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other candidates was overwhelming. But it was not until August that it became clear the outcome of the elections had been planned long in advance and was then seen as a victory for the IRGC and its allies - young and fascist groups including the Islamist militants known as the Basijis (volunteers for the Islamic revolution), and Hizbollahi (the party of God - mostly consisting of militants who follow very fanatic clerics of the Ja'fari Shi'ite religious order.

The ruling sect in Iran is Ja'fari (Twelver) Shi'ism, which recognises the twelve Shi'ite Imams in Islam as the only legitimate immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad. The 12th Imam, Abul-Qassem Muhammad, whom Ja'fari Shi'ites regard as the last direct successor to the Prophet, entered occultation in 941 A.D. and will one day return to rule the world justly before Judgment Day.

Ahmadi-Nejad had begun his career as a young Basiji and later was promoted in the ranks of the IRGC, becoming an IRGC commander during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). He was later promoted to a provincial governor. In 2003 he became mayor of Tehran, and as such in June 2005 he ran for the presidency.

Ahmadi-Nejad's source of emulation (chief religious inspirer) is Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi - an ultra-conservative figure seen by Iranian intellectuals as the most uncompromising cleric - whom Supreme Leader Khamenei grudgingly calls "a great teacher". Now Ahmadi-Nejad looks to Mesbah-Yazdi for legitimacy, and this has tended to undermine the authority of Khamenei - although the latter would not dare, as yet, challenge the position of the new president. But now few doubt that previously unorganised, grassroots religious groups played a key role along with the IRGC in Ahmadi-Nejad's election campaign.

Ahmadi-Najad rode a wave using mosque-based organisations and even maddahs (religious singers) to gain support. But those songs were not political; they were not praising Iran's Islamic Republic (also known as a Shi'ite theocracy). They were only praising the 12th Imam.

So now there is a power-struggle between Ahmadi-Nejad and Khamenei. Though this is still latent, experts in Tehran say it will reach the surface sooner or later and the implications could be serious - in view of very radical pronouncements by the new president.

For political leaders in Iran to seek backing from popular clerics, mystics or even millennialists is hardly new in this country. The Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), which converted the country to Ja'fari Shi'ism, sprang from a small Sunni sect whose followers believed its leader was divine.

On the sidelines of a conference in Tehran backed by the state-owned National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) and the Petroleum Ministry, international oil companies (ICOs) operating in Iran expressed alarm at the anticipated personnel changes in the petroleum and petrochemicals sectors. The conference was organised by the International Institute for Energy Studies (IIES), which is part of the Petroleum Ministry.

The 10th annual IIES Conference, held on Dec. 4-5, was attended by ICO executives from several countries as well as senior NIOC and Petroleum Ministry officials. It was said that the CEOs of the four main NIOC units - NIOC's and those of National Petrochemical Co. (NPC), National Iranian Gas Co. (NIGC) and Pars Oil & Gas Co. (POGC) - will be among the first to go.

These executives are also deputy ministers of petroleum. Already some of the executives who saw the writing on the wall after Ahmadi-Nejad was elected as president left NIOC to take up jobs in private and/or semi-private companies. Mehdi Hosseini, author of the buy-back contract for the development of oil and gas fields, now is with the engineering company Sadra.

Dr. Mehdi Mir-Moezzi, CEO of NIOC and deputy minister of petroleum, gave a daring presentation at the conference on Dec. 5 which also contained a record of NIOC's achievements under his management. He spoke of the production sharing agreement (PSA) option which - to some was hitherto a taboo subject - IOCs prefer over the buy-back system. The tone of his conversations with participants came to confirm that he was on the way out of NIOC, probably out of the petroleum sector altogether. The petroleum minister and a powerful figure until early August, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, now is on the Expediency Council (EC).

Headed by Rafsanjani, the EC in early October saw its widening powers confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei - which meant the council had the authority to check on all the branches of the theocracy including Ahmadi-Nejad's presidency. But since then the EC has not been able do much, while Ahmadi-Nejad has been a loose canon embarrassing Tehran in many ways.

Also mentioned as being among the first to go were the top management of NaftIran Intertrade Co. (NICO). This management, Zanganeh and the CEOs of NIOC and its various unites have been part of Rafsanjani's power centre.

IOC executives agreed with their Iranian counterparts that Iran sectors of petroleum and petrochemicals were to sink to grave lows - with NIOC and most of its units lacking in efficiency - and that the resultant damage to the two sectors could be irreparable.

Ahmadi-Nejad does not hide the fact that he belongs to the radical faction of the IRGC which has spearheaded the coup. Now people talk of a potentially explosive power struggle within the Shi'ite theocracy, mainly between Khamenei and the IRGC and among various power blocs which act as independent states within the state.

Ahmadi-Nejad, in Mecca for the Dec. 7-8 Islamic summit meeting, told a press conference just before leaving the holiest city in Islam that the European Jews of Israel should move their state to Germany and Austria, or to Alaska if they wished. He said he did not believe the Jewish Holocaust story was true, a point made by other Iranian leaders many years ago. Even pragmatists like Rafsanjani questioned the Holocaust story.

His comments angered the Saudis and caused international condemnation, with the leaders of the theocracy in Tehran becoming more worried. On Dec. 10 Israel was reported to be seeking more sophisticated military hardware and capability in apparent preparations to attack Iran's nuclear installations. This was substantiated on Dec. 11, when it was announced in Israel that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had ordered the Israeli armed forces to prepare to hit Iran's nuclear installations by March 2006.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Dec 19, 2005
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