The announcement in Tehran Saturday that the "skillful and faithful forces of the Intelligence Ministry have arrested 30 American spies in a strong confrontation with the CIA agents" has an ominous ring about it.
The statement said: "Due to the massive intelligence and counter-intelligence work by Iranian intelligence agents, a complex espionage and sabotage network linked to America's spy organization was uncovered and dismantled. Elite agents of the intelligence ministry in their confrontation with the CIA elements were able to arrest 30 America-linked spies through numerous intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. The network used a wide range of data bases and U.S. embassies and consulates in several countries, specially in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Turkey, to collect information on Iran's scientific, research and academic institutions in the fields of nuclear energy, air and defense industries and biotechnology." Fars news agency subsequently quoted 'sources' that the detainees included government officials and top executives of state-owned companies.
Spy trials in Iran often get intertwined with the Byzantine politics in the corridors of power in Tehran and Qom. Influential politicians from the Majlis (parliament) have rushed to congratulate the Intelligence Ministry.
The Majlis is fast emerging as a counterpoint to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's authority. What lends piquancy is also that the Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, a senior cleric, is himself the focal point of what appears to be a grim power struggle within the regime. Ahmadinejad sacked him last month as part of government infighting, but the minister was immediately reinstated by supreme leader Ali Khamenei. A cat-and-mouse game ensued with Ahmadinejad boycotting Cabinet sessions and Khamenei’s loyalists warning Ahmadinejad he was skating on thin ice by challenging the ruling system dominated by the religious establishment. Moslehi used to be Khamenei's representative to the Basij, Iran's 13-million strong volunteer army.
And catching the American spies brings Moslehi into limelight as a faithful guardian of the regime. The political implication is at once obvious. The conservatives and hardliners of the regime have turned against Ahmadinejad and in a series of moves, the religious establishment has launched pinpoint strikes at the president with the intent of weakening him before next year’s parliamentary elections and the vote for his successor in 2013.
This has been a rough Saturday for Ahmedinejad. His trusted vice-president Hamid Baqaei was removed from office by the constitutional court. Another of his closest aides was arrested. The Guardian Council ruled on Saturday that Ahmadnejad was not empowered to hold charge of the oil ministry, which is a treasure house of perks and patronage (and a vast cesspool of corruption and sleaze). Evidently, the clerics want to regain control of the oil ministry from where the president systematically ousted them during the past 4-5 year period.
At least 25 people loyal to Ahmadinejad, including his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (who is also the president's chief of staff), have been arrested in recent weeks and half a dozen websites allied to them have been blocked. Mashaei and Baqaei have been summoned for questioning twice in recent days by Iran’s intelligence services to respond to questions on financial and security matters. Hardliners and conservative clergy have been campaigning in recent months that Ahmadinejad has a master plan to weaken the the ruling Islamic system - Velayat-e Faqih - and shape politics on secular lines. Earlier this week, an ultraconservative publication urged Mashaei’s arrest.
Now, it is against a turbulent backdrop of political infighting that the spy trial will take place. The night of the long knives may be beginning all over again. At the root of it all lies the paradox that Ahmadinejad is Iran's first non-cleric as president. But the roots of the schism run deep and can be traced to the early days of the revolution in 1979.
Ahmadinejad is a follower of Ali Shariati, the brilliant non-cleric Iranian revolutionary and sociologist who propagated “red Shi’ism” in the tumultuous years leading to the revolution in 1979 – a curious amalgam of Marxism, Third Worldism and Islamic puritanism – which opposed the unrevolutionary “black Shi’ism” or Savafid Shi’ism of the Iranian religious establishment. Shariati who was trained in Sorbonne and was a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, was murdered in 1975 under mysterious circumstances, most likely by the Shah's intelligence, when he was undergoing medical treatment in UK. Indeed, Shariati was the true ideologue of the Iranian revolution who fired up the Iranian youth (like Ahmadinejad) with his emphasis on social justice and egalitarianism and his progressive analysis of the problems of Muslim societies with the tools of modern sociology and philosophy. It was his name that the multitude of Iranian students pouring out into the heaving streets of Tehran chanted in unison in those chaotic weeks leading to the revolution. But in the event, with his early death (at the age of 42), the Iranian clerics in league with the bazaar hijacked the revolution from its leftist moorings.
Without doubt, the power struggle in Tehran will have profound significance for both Iranian and regional politics. Ahmadinejad instinctively warmed up to the revolution in Egypt. The conservatives and hardliners, on the other hand, would feel more comfortable with the Saudi regime. But at the end of the day, ideology becomes secondary to the lure of power and privileges and the Shi'ite clergy is notorious for intriguing. Don't be surprised if tomorrow we wake up hearing that the spy ring that Moslehi unraveled has since exposed that the government headed by Ahmadinejad secretly worked for the Americans and "Zionists".