Divisions Deepening Within Iranian Government

Under pressure from increasingly effective economic sanctions and a growing banking scandal, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went before parliament to defend his government. His economics minister was nearly impeached. NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster explains Iran's internal power struggles.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Divisions within the Iranian government continue to deepen. This week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struggled to defend his economics minister from impeachment. Earlier, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei suggested that Iran may not need a president at all. And this infighting comes amid admitted problems with sanctions and repercussions from the U.S. allegations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in a Washington, D.C., restaurant.

NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster happens to be in Washington today. We've asked him to join us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us, Mike.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And a power struggle between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei seems a one-sided dispute.

SHUSTER: Well, one sided in the sense that they're both factions of the conservative trend in politics in Iran. But it's two power centers, the two primary constitutional power centers that the Islamic Republic of Iran has had since it came into being in 1979. And usually, the supreme leader and the president work well together. They have over the years. But it's gotten particularly difficult now. And I think this is actually very interesting that this happened within the last year and really intensifying now because this is the period after the disputed presidential election in 2009 when the supreme leader supported Ahmadinejad.

And then, Ahmadinejad repaid him later by basically trying to take some of his power away, and more and more overtly, the supreme leader is trying to hem in and constrain Ahmadinejad. And this – there are also two camps on the conservative side, and they get at one another through surrogates as well.

CONAN: Interesting. I think it broke into the open when President Ahmadinejad tried to fire his intelligence chief, and that person was then reinstalled by the supreme leader.

SHUSTER: And Ahmadinejad fired him more than once. This was earlier this year. There was a lot of suspicion that this was an intelligence minister who had a lot of dirt on both characters, but it became a real struggle. And Ahmadinejad lost that one, and then he went into a sulk. And for 10 days, he didn't go to work. He didn't hold Cabinet meetings. This was well reported on in the press in Iran and ultimately didn't do him much good that he's seemed like a sulker. But this is all part of the fascinating story of this power struggle. It's been emerging step by step this year.

CONAN: Now, dozens of people, allies of President Ahmadinejad, have been arrested in a banking scandal. This plays into the attempt to impeach the finance minister.

SHUSTER: This just became known a couple weeks ago. It is believed that some bankers essentially embezzled $2.6 billion, Neal, from some of the major banks in Iran simply by writing false letters of credit. And this suggests that there was a fairly large conspiracy of bankers that allowed a few to bilk the treasury of Iran. And as a result, the parliament called the minister of the economy before it yesterday, and they tried to impeach him. He's Ahmadinejad's man, and they tried to remove him from office. They almost did but didn't. It required Ahmadinejad to show up himself...

CONAN: In person.

SHUSTER: That's right. And he defended the economics minister, but at the same time, he let something dropped that he hadn't before. All along for many years, Iranian leaders have said that economic sanctions imposed by both the U.N. and the United States haven't had any impact on life in Iran. But Ahmadinejad contradicted that yesterday and said in fact that the current set of sanctions, which have become harsher and harsher, have made it impossible for Iranian banks to carry out certain transactions, international transactions. And this was an indication that in fact these sanctions are doing what they have been - they were conceived to do.

CONAN: In the end, he was bailed out by one of his opponents, Ali Larijani.

SHUSTER: Yeah. Well, it seemed that there weren't enough votes to move toward a formal interrogation of the president, which has never taken place in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that could have led to impeachment. But this isn't over. There had been threats by the parliament to impeach him before. They've also gotten at some of his surrogates, and I fully expect this to come back again and again.

CONAN: And what about the suggestion to rewrite the constitution to eliminate the office of the president?

SHUSTER: Well, this could be done. This is something that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei mentioned in a talk he gave recently, and it was couched in soft terms and all. In the 1980s, most of '80s, there wasn't a president in Iran. There was a prime minister system. And ultimately, Ali Khamenei became president, and they changed the system, and then he became the Supreme Leader. But it was clearly seen - his comment was clearly seen at a stab at Ahmadinejad, and this is something that I think is being talked about now more openly in Iran.

CONAN: And we're talking about the sanctions - admission, rare candor...

SHUSTER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...from the Iranian president that these are biting...

SHUSTER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...sanctions largely as a result of Iran's pursuit - what everybody believes - of nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: That's right. The - there had been four sets of sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council over the last four or five years that had to do with - that steamed directly from Iran's controversial nuclear program and the inability of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its monitors and inspectors to determine what precisely the Iranians are doing. The Iranians, of course, claim that they are not pursuing a bomb. They are pursuing nuclear energy. And there are plenty of monitors and inspectors on the ground, but still, they IAEA is not happy with the explanation that they get from the Iranians. And they're so - they were - that set of U.N. sanctions - and the United States has always pursued much tougher sanctions, particularly in the last few years on the banking side. And that appears now to be what's really hurting Iran.

CONAN: And the United States is also putting pressure, we read, on the IAEA to issue a statement that would be much more declarative about what it believes Iran is up to.

SHUSTER: Yeah. There's been a lot of un-source reporting on this in the last week or two. And there's a - the IAEA is due for another quarterly report on Iran's nuclear activities. And there have been those who said that they're holding back much more definitive evidence that Iran's program is a militarized program. There are others, like China and Russia, who don't believe that. There's a struggle going on within the U.N. and within the IAEA behind the scenes over just how tough and just how real the intelligence is, that the IAEA may have held back until now. And we should know much more about this next week.

CONAN: And - all right. Now, we're wandering off into much murkier areas. Stuxnet. This is a virus that has attacked Iran's control systems for many of the centrifuges that uses to enrich uranium. Enrich it either, if you believe the Iranians, so it will be available to produce nuclear energy. Or if you believe Iran's many skeptics, that it's going to be enriched so that it could be use as a nuclear explosive. Stuxnet device believed to have originated in the United States and done with Israeli's help as well.

SHUSTER: Yes, believed to have been the work - the cooperative work of both the Israeli and the American intelligence world. And this seems to have been a really effective cyber attack on Iran's, gas centrifuges that produce highly-enriched uranium. This started in 2009. It worked its way through the cyberspace to Iran in 2010, and it apparently took down some 1,000 of these centrifuges. The Iranians have something on the order of 8,000 centrifuges at Natanz, and they're building more at another place closer to another city, Qom. And - but the Iranians, when news of this broke, tried to play it down. They claimed that this wasn't as significant attack as it was being made out in the West. But there are reports and analyses that suggest that, actually, it was far worse for the Iranians than initially thought.

And it's believed that something is else happening. That there are either Stuxnet 2.0 that's been let lose, or that the original 1.0 has - had the ability to sort of transform itself, lurk in Iran and actually other nations, watch the computers, gather intelligence and then, perhaps, come back with a vengeance later on. There's a lot of uncertainty right now about this. And I think we'll probably hear much more about another cyber destabilization effort sometime soon.

CONAN: And if you missed it, Tom Gjelten on MORNING EDITION today about the possibilities of blowback, that having unleashed a cyber warfare effectively, the United States may reap the whirlwind someday, but...

SHUSTER: It certainly could be. And, in fact, the Iranians claim that they're just as good at computers and cybers - cyber warfare as the United States, so the United States needs to be on alert. But the Iranians brag about a lot of things that - and often, their boasts do not turn out to be as accurate as they would want you to believe.

CONAN: The Iranians also say their nuclear program has been hindered to some degree by an assassination program, scientists murdered, it says, by Israel.

SHUSTER: Well, yes. There have been two or three, depending upon the back story for all these characters in the last year and a half or so, that have been assassinated in the streets of Tehran. They may or may not all have been part of the nuclear program, but it certainly has rattled the Iranian authorities and the Iranian intelligence world. They have not been able to fully explain this. The normal reaction is to blame Israel for doing this. There are some suspicions that at least one of these characters was - may have been murdered by Iranian intelligence themselves because, although a nuclear engineer, it's been said, it's also been asserted that he was supportive of the opposition movement in Iran. And maybe the Iranians themselves decided to take him out. That's why, as you said in your last question, it's a very murky world.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent, Mike Shuster, who spends a lot of his time reading murky issues about Iran. He's here with us in Washington, D.C. on temporary assignment. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And speaking of murky issues, there is the allegation by the United States of America, by the president of the United States, by the head of the FBI, by the Attorney General - no less, that Iran hired or attempted to hire, through a proxy, a used car dealer in Texas, attempted to hire a Mexican cartel - drug cartel to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States in a Washington, D.C. restaurant and didn't much care if 50 or 75 people died with him.

SHUSTER: Well, that's exactly right. That's the story that's come from the U.S. government in indictments against two individuals that are alleged to have worked out this plot, conspired to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, in public, possibly killing Americans or even members of Congress in the process. It's an extraordinary story, and it generated - this is - it's very interesting. It generated enormous skepticism on the part of the Iran analyst community, internationally and in the United States. Most did not believe that this was possible, that something as bizarre, irresponsible and incomprehensible would actually happen. How would this benefit Iran, many people questioned. I think all the questions about this alleged plot are very interesting.

But one thing that, I think, people have failed to do is ask, why would Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador be the target? And this is what's interesting to me. In the WikiLeak documents, in the document that cabled from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to the State Department a couple of years ago, there is a conversation noted between the U.S. charge d'affaires and Ambassador al-Jubeir in which he essentially tells the Americans that the king of Saudi Arabia would like to see the United States attack Iran and cut off the head of the snake. Those are the actually words that Adel al-Jubeir used. And at least, that, it seems to me, is one bit of evidence that might suggests why al-Jubeir was - may have been a target for something that could have been a real conspiracy.

CONAN: Not a member of the royal family, but a very close advisor to the king.

SHUSTER: The king, exactly.

CONAN: And a very influential figure. Obviously, as ambassador to the United States, they are not small figures. But as you look at this, a lot of people also say it doesn't make any sense. The Quds Force, which reports directly to the supreme leader, to Khamenei, not to Ahmadinejad...

SHUSTER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...is not there some possibility of a rogue element trying to discredit, that this is part of the infighting?

SHUSTER: That could happen. I mean, those kind of scenarios are plausible. It's plausible that the supreme leader might have known about this. It's plausible that there were rogue elements. It's plausible that even the guy in Texas initiated this. But there's just not enough evidence out there to make a really good judgment about this at this point. But I think we're going to hear more also about this story.

There's a second man indicted. He has not been taken into custody in the United States. He is believed to - the Justice Department asserts that he's in Iran. The Iranians say, no. He's - there is no such person here. And that was their initial response. The second response is, oh, by the way, he's part - he's a member of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which is an enemy to the government in Iran.

CONAN: Based in Iraq, yes.

SHUSTER: Yeah, based in Iraq. So it's - I mean, the stories are extraordinary. Trying to follow this and make sense of it is challenging, to say the least for journalist, but fascinating, I think.

CONAN: If the story is wrong, the United States has, again, made an enormous allegation about a foreign power with which it is regarded as an enemy, not at war, but regarded as an enemy, and would have been wrong, we'd have disastrous consequences. If the story is right, that suggests that Iran is willing to carry out what, a lot of people says, is an act of war in the United States.

SHUSTER: If the story is right, I think that's - and if actually took place, it would be an act of war. I think it would be impossible for any U.S. president to resist a military retaliatory strike of some kind because Americans would be killed.

CONAN: And then a lot of people who said about Iran's nuclear weapons program, they are going to do this. This is in their interest. We can see this. But Iran is not an irrational power. You don't have to bomb them because they're not necessarily going to use this in an irrational way. If they're capable of an irrational act like an attempt to blow up the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, everything is on the table.

SHUSTER: I think that that's one line of thought that is logical and makes sense. But the biggest illogical elements to all this, for me, is that Iran would - if the United States had to respond militarily and war broke out between Iran and the United States, it would certainly hurt Iran deeply. It - no one believes that in war with the United States, Iran would come out the winner. So it's puzzling why they would conceive of such a plan and bring war down on their heads when that's not really in their interest. That's a real puzzle part - part of a puzzle here.

CONAN: We'll follow this closely as more information becomes available. Mike Shuster, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: Sure.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent, Mike Shuster, joined us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, we'll talk with two people about innovative ways to keep low-level offenders out of jail. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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