Tuesday, January 10, 2006

11 Iranian Commanders Die in Plane Crash

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
Eleven top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders died yesterday in a plane crash outside the town of Oroumieh while trying to make an emergency landing in inclement weather, according to the country's official news agency.

While analysts and experts in Washington said yesterday that they had no information that suggests the crash was caused by foul play, it came as tensions among the ruling mullahs are rising. The crash claimed the life of the commander of the guard's ground forces, General Ahmad Kazemi, an ally of a former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - who himself is a target of Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The official explanation yesterday from the Revolutionary Guard was that the French-made Falcon crashed because of an engine failure. The crash marks the second military aviation disaster for Iran in 34 days. On December 6, a transport plane crashed into a 10-story building in Tehran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad in recent months has begun replacing the Revolutionary Guard's officer corps, ambassadors, university professors, and factory chiefs with his old colleagues drawn the paramilitary Basij and guard corps. READ MORE

These moves have been met with protests from political rivals, who at the time of Mr. Ahmadinejad's ascendancy accused him and the supreme leader of fixing the presidential elections.

As fissures inside Iran have begun to widen, the country is becoming more isolated. Yesterday, the incoming president of the European Union warned that the Continent may consider sanctions against the Islamic Republic in light of its announcement yesterday that it will continue nuclear fuel research. In Austria, Chancellor Schuessel said, "We are not at all satisfied with developments in Iran." Mr. Schuessel's government over the summer reopened an investigation into the 1989 assassination of a Kurdish Iranian leader in Vienna. The murder occurred when Mr. Ahmadinejad was the deputy in charge of intelligence for the Revolutionary Guard.

"Ahmadinejad has some problems with the supreme leader. He has problems even inside the Revolutionary Guard as well," a former adviser to Ayatollah Khomenei who is now a visiting professor at Yale University, Mohsen Sazegara, said. "He has some problems inside the parliament with conservatives, the coalition party as well. You could say there is a kind of complete struggle for power inside Iran."

Mr. Sazegara said the internal divisions in his native country will come to a head in the coming weeks as the Guardian Council begins the process of determining who will be allowed to run for the powerful council of experts, the body that approves by consensus the choice of the supreme leader. The Islamic Republic has had only two supreme leaders in its 26-year history:

Ayatollah Khamenei followed the reign of Ayatollah Khomenei after his death.
But if Mr. Ahmadinejad can stack the council with his men, there is a chance, according to Mr. Sazegara and others, that Ayatollah Khamenei could lose power.

A former journalist at Tehran's Netekhab newspaper and a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mehdi Khalaji, said the president is closely aligned with a Shiite fundamentalist, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who has rejected any claims that Islam and democracy are compatible.

The supreme leader last year issued a statement condemning Ayatollah Yazdi, who Mr. Khalaji says is a threat to his religious and political authority.

"Ahmadinejad and Yazdi want to unify the council of experts. They believe they should eliminate all other factions inside the Islamic Republic," he said.

However, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former CIA officer, Ruel Marc Gerecht, said he has yet to see much ideological difference between Iran's new president and the supreme leader. "Keep in mind, nothing Ahmadinejad is saying clashes with the official ideology. He says he wants to destroy Israel, pursue nuclear weapons. He is anti-Semitic. Well, so is Khamenei, so is Rafsanjani."