Was Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei behind the abduction of Britain’s 15 sailors — who were taken by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on March 23rd of this year — or not?
Many of the Iran experts I know have told me that it is hard to imagine a scenario that would not depict Khamenei as the key decision-maker who authorized the episode. Some others, however, do not agree — and the question is important because just as there are increasingly clear divisions in the White House, so too might there be very important divisions inside Iran’s ruling clique that would affect our strategy in trying to chart something other than a hot collision between the US and Iran.
To be candid, I have not been following carefully serious after-the-fact journalism following the abduction of the British sailors. I have noted though that there has been some interesting analysis of where to place blame on the British side for the incident, and this piece by RedState.com‘s Jeff Emanuel makes many strong points about the encounter.
But what I have come across — via a senior European intelligence official — is a narrative on what happened that deserves to at least be written up and posted. I have confidence in this official, and am certain that the information shared reflects the collective analysis of his particular country — though I have no idea whether American, Israeli, or other intelligence operations elsewhere share this perspective.
And to be clear, I am in no position to validate one way or another the truthfulness of this narrative.
This is what the intelligence official recounted:
The abduction of the sailors was an operation that was animated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The political fortunes of both have been falling this past year. Ahmadinejad lost key elections in December that not only marked his decline but marked the rise, to some degree, of political forces allied with former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
The abduction was designed to secure domestic political leverage for Ahmadinejad and the al Quds forces, whose budgets have been stagnant despite the rise of national income from increasing oil prices.
According to my source, Ayatollah Khamenei was furious when informed of the abduction. Iran nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani reportedly threatened to resign his post if the sailors were not released. And Rafsanjani — behind the scenes — “heaped scorn” on Ahmadinejad for the action he and the al Quds force triggered.
Khamenei ordered the sailors to be released and allowed Ahmadinejad to be the deliverer of the news — on his own terms — in a way that would allow him not to appear rebuked and would allow him to save political face.
According to the intelligence official, Rafsanjani’s crowd has become marginally stronger — and Ahmadinejad significantly weaker — which makes the latter even more dangerous and unpredictable.
I was also told that Ahmadinejad’s chief rival politically right now is the current Mayor of Tehran and former presidential aspirant, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.
Ahmadinejad tried to get Qalibaf out of the country by appointing him Iran’s Ambassador to Venezuela, and Qalibaf refused the appointment. The intelligence official speaking to me told me that Khamenei is maneuvering Qalibaf to knock Ahmadinejad out of the presidential seat.
Again, I can’t validate these tidbits shared above. But I do find them potentially important because it provides to those who don’t follow the close details of Iran’s theocratic politics some sense that despite Khamenei’s seeming strong control of the country and its machinery — particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — that there is instability of leadership and episodes of rogue autonomy.
— Steve Clemons