Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Khamenei arrests his own son for 'assassination plot'

Divisions within the Iranian elite are nothing new, but this story takes things to another level:
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei has ordered the arrest of a number of senior members of the Revolutionary Guards he suspects of planning to assassinate him. . . Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei’s son and an ardent supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was one of the officials that was arrested.

Apparently some of the detainees had invited Khamenei to visit a weapons depot near Tehran on 12th November, the same day it was hit by a mysterious (and deadly) blast. The arrest of Mojtaba, the Supreme Leader's second son and allegedly one of the leaders of the pro-government Basij militia, is pretty remarkable. In 2009 the Guardian reported that Mojtaba was an influential if shadowy figure who was being groomed as a potential successor to his father.

Family feuding aside, his arrest seriously complicates the intensifying contest for power within the Iranian elites. Many readings of the current struggle pit Ahmadinejad and his personal power base against the clerical establishment, with the Revolutionary Guards divided between them - reporting to the Supreme Leader and similarly conservative by inclination, but supportive of Ahmadinejad's campaign to clip the wings of the clerics and his ability to safeguard their economic assets.

A genuine attempt to assassinate Khamenei would mean that at least one faction of the IRGC has thrown its lot in decisively with the president. But the story seems too dramatic to be believed: supporting Ahmadinejad is one thing, but blowing up the fearsomely powerful Supreme Leader is quite another. 

It would throw the country into chaos and could lead to war with Israel, if and when the military elite pointed the finger at Mossad. Like the bizarre plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington, this seems like it would bring nobody any benefit: unless, of course, chaos and turmoil, facilitating a military takeover, was the overall aim.

Another scenario is a pre-emptive strike by Khamenei and the clerics against sections of the Guards that he considers disloyal. This is more believable, but the arrest of his son and heir apparent muddies the waters. Khamenei must have had a very, very good reason - real or perceived - for having Mojtaba detained. It suggests that something serious is happening behind closed doors. Nothing is clear yet: it's definitely something to keep an eye on.

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