“Without Iran, Islam would be lost.” Iranian Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei spoke these words in August of this year, inciting a gush of criticism from Shi’ite conservatives.
For his adversaries, the statement was further proof of Mashaei’s impulsive, divisive behavior. As the right hand man of radical conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mashaei has upset the more religious factions of the government by advocating Iranian nationalist ideology above a Shi’ite one. Mashaei’s blunder-prone and seemingly secular politics underpins why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded he step down from his appointment as First Vice President after the 2009 elections. Ahmadinejad did not honor the request; though fearing political fallout, Mashaei resigned.
The allegations of his secularism are an odd departure from Mashaei’s robustly conservative past. As a young teenager, he was practicing his oration skills reciting verses from the Koran during public religious ceremonies. At age 18, the Iranian Revolution piqued his activism as he organized protests and handed out propaganda in support of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Mashaei went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He then joined the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite military branch of which Ahmadinejad is also a former member. Though the two did not serve together, they met in the early 1980s while Mashaei was working as an agent for the IRGC’s intelligence service, and Ahmadinejad was governing a city in Western Azerbaijan. When Ahmadinejad’s ambitions led him to govern the province of Ardabil in 1993, he tapped Mashaei to join his administration.
From overseeing national radio and television stations to acting as Ministry of the Interior, Mashaei has served the government in an assortment of capacities during his political career. Since his forced resignation as First Vice President in 2009, he has been appointed to 17 other government positions. The marriage of Mashaei’s daughter to Ahmadinejad’s son in 2008 further solidified the politicians’ close relationship with the President, which reformist members say reeks of nepotism.
Other less conservative gaffes committed by Mashaei include his attendance at a ceremony in Turkey in 2007 at which women danced. He also made public pro-Israeli and pro-American declarations in 2008, directly contradicting the radicals within Ahmadinejad’s government. After harsh criticism, Mashaei retracted the statements.
Despite Mashaei being a political liability, Ahmadinejad recently told reporters that he has immense faith in his trusted aide. But Mashaei may be the reason Ahmadinejad is losing heavy-weight supporters. In November, the IRGC released a scathing article reprimanding the President for not being more aggressively conservative and for causing divisions among the conservative factions. Clergy members blame Mashaei for impeding Ahmadinejad’s radical agenda. Top Iranian businessmen have reiterated these sentiments, fearing Mashaei’s volatile rhetoric could have adverse effects on commerce. Rumors have also surfaced that Mashaei is working with the Green Movement, the reformist group.
Why the continued alliance between the President and Mashaei? Some political analysts believe Ahmadinejad is grooming 50 year old Mashaei to be Iran’s next President, thus securing his own influence in government affairs until he is eligible again for the Presidency. But even those within Ahmadinejad’s entourage want Mashaei gone, arguing that he is not conservative enough. Just last month, a video surfaced showing top deputies stripping down public posters of Mashaei—a symbolic gesture of their growing frustration and a sign of the widening rift between conservative factions. Of course, ultimately, all political appointments must be upheld by the Supreme Leader, and it is doubtful Mashaei will win Khamenei’s favor.
Nevertheless, Mashaei appears to be gaining influence within Ahmadinejad’s administration, often speaking on behalf of the President. In March 2010 The New Yorker questioned him about the country’s human rights abuses. Mashaei grew increasingly agitated during the interview, throwing out attacks against the West to deflect attention from Iran. He also criticized neighboring Middle Eastern countries which, according to Mashaei, are substantially less progressive on women’s issues. This however, comes from a man who justifies Iran’s questionable death penalty by stoning, a protocol applied to women found guilty of adultery.
As a member of Ahmadinejad’s diplomatic team headed by the Supreme Leader, Mashaei also represents the country on its nuclear position. He has stated the program is intended solely to cut energy costs, and the country does not intend to weaponize the technology. But Iran’s unyielding noncompliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty since 2003, unaffected by painful economic sanctions, has raised international concerns over the country’s ambitions.
This dogged defiance is perhaps embodied in Mashaei, who is quoted as saying, “The nuclear issue is a symbol of Iranians’ resistance,” and affirming that the country will not relent on its pursuit. However, in recent weeks President Ahmadinejad expressed interest in continuing multilateral negotiations, provided they lead to the legitimization of Iran’s program. These diplomatic contradictions hint at the brewing power struggles and communication difficulties within the current government.
Fortunately for Ahmadinejad, analysts say there are no absolute signs that the Supreme Leader will extract his Presidential support over Mashaei’s behavior, even if the IRGC’s report was perceived as an extension of Khamenei’s views. Similarly, the conservative factions in Iran have more to squabble about than one politician, and it is unlikely Mashaei’s departure would solve the infighting. Perhaps for now, President Ahmadinejad is better served to keep his loyal friend and advisor Mashaei close at hand.