Chronology of Controversy

01 December 2010 | 03:25 Code : 9503 Who’s Who in Iranian Politics
Who is Esfandiar Mashaei?
Chronology of Controversy
 In His Exalted Name

To His Eminence Ayatollah Khamenei May His Shadow Be Extended

Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution


Sending the copy of the resignation letter of Mr. Engineer Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei from the vice presidency (dated July 24th, 2009), I would like to inform that Your Excellency’s missive dated July 15th, 2009 was enforced according to Article 57 of the Constitution.

May your days of dignity be extended

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Lost in translation of this letter is the point-blank tone of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in addressing the Supreme Leader of Iran (don’t let the courteous phrases mislead you), a tone that had never been taken by any Iranian official toward Ayatollah Khamenei. Question: who is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose requested dismissal by the Iranian Leader drove Ahmadinejad to write such a blunt letter?

Born in 1960 in the small village of Mashakalayeh, a suburb of the northern city of Ramsar, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei has long served as an executive in the Islamic nezam. In the early 1980s, as a young revolutionary he joined the Mazandaran Province’s branch of the Sepah’s intelligence service. Later, he was dispatched to Kurdistan Province, where the nascent Islamic Republic was engaged in an uphill battle against secessionist Kurdish rebels. During his term of office in Kurdistan, Mashaei reportedly dumped the iron fist policy in favor of a culture-oriented approach to deal with the security challenges of the region. His first encounter with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took place in those years, when Ahmadinejad served as the governor of the Northwestern city of Khoy. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei later moved to the Ministry of Intelligence, and started the project of formulating an IRI strategy toward Iranian Kurds. Dean of the Social Affairs Department of the Ministry of Interior, and Head of the Payam and Tehran radio channels were his other responsibilities up until the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. Following the second city council election of Tehran, where an all-time low 20% turnout sent Principlists to the city council, the then obscure Ahmadinejad was elected to Tehran’s mayoralty. His choice for administrator of the municipality’s social and cultural affairs was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Mashaei and Ahmadinejad at a cabinet meeting

To grab the spotlight; however, Mashaei would have to wait a few years, until Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entered the Pasteur Office as the sixth Iranian president. Controversy over Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei’s behavior began in late 2006, when short video footage circulated on the Internet showing him –then Head of the Cultural Heritage Organization- watching a dance performance at a tourism-related conference in Turkey. Interestingly, throughout these years, disillusioned Principlists –and not Reformists- have been the chief critics of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, regarding him as a blot on the landscape of Ahmadinejad’s career. Alluding to an Iranian myth, the tale of Esfandiar -who like the Greek hero Achilles was invincible but from both eyes- some refer to him as “Esfandiar of the Government”.

Mashaei’s sporadic controversial comments cover a wide range of topics, from current affairs to religion and global politics. Mashaei’s most outspoken critics are indeed the clerics, who regard his remarks on religious affairs an incursion into their private realm. Ahmadinejad –known for his unabashed support of his caucus- has stood by Mashaei on all occasions. Against all the demands that he dissociate himself from his close friend, Ahmadinejad’s praise for Mashaei –the Iranian president has called him a “great Islamologist”, “as pure as a spring” and “an honor and blessing God has bestowed me in my life”- has even fostered within some the idea that Ahmadinejad may perhaps be a disciple of Mashaei, who also employs a certain esoteric mystical vein in his remarks and lifestyle.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei, the favorite photo of Principlist media when they talk of Ahmadinejad misled by Mashaei

According to Mohammad-Hassan Saffar Harandi, Minister of Culture in Ahmadinejad’s first cabinet, “Mr. Ahmadinejad has an excessive trust in Mr. Mashaei”. Ali Motahhari -Tehran representative in Majles and an orthodox Principlist- claims that Mashaei masterminds the government’s ‘liberal’ cultural attitudes, particularly the issue of hijab (in an interview with a Turkish correspondent, Mashaei had once said that hijab is optional in Iran and the administration obliges no one to wear hijab). Mashaei is a “suspicious ideological and political element” according to Motahhari.

Following his controversial reelection to the presidency in 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Mashaei as his vice president. His decision provoked intense resentment among Principlists. After a week, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s letter to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanding an annulment of his decision, was leaked to the media to pressure Ahmadinejad more than ever. Ahmadinejad’s blunt response to the leader reinforced a belief by some politicians that despite his outer appearance, Ahmadinejad is not as much a follower of the velayat as many believe.

Rumors about Mashaei’s running in the 2013 presidential election -an Iranian version of the Putin-Medvedev model- have been around for long, raising the concern of many Principlist figures. For Mashaei –indeed the most divisive figure among the Principlists, Ahmadinejad even went as far as sacrificing three of his key ministers in the first administration who objected to Mashaei’s new post and barred them from entering his second cabinet. In his latest international press gathering at the 2010 UN General Assembly in New York, when asked about the contingency of Mashaei’s presidency, Ahmadinejad tried to evade the question by saying that there is a long way to go to the next presidential election. Less than three years remain until the next presidential election, and with the 2009 post-election protest that deeply changed the political landscape of Iran, it is difficult to predict Iran’s future. Will Esfandiar become the next Iranian president? Or will powerful forces inside the Nezam terminate his political career?

All the Controversies of Esfandiar

July 2008: “Today, Iran is a friend of the nations of United States and Israel. No nation in the world is our enemy. This is an honor.” For the first time after the 1979 Revolution, an Iranian politician acknowledged Israelis as a ‘nation’. Following Mashaei’s remarks, 200 MPs released a statement calling for Mashaei to be dealt with seriously. Despite a lukewarm whitewash, Mashaei reiterated his remarks a few weeks later and sparked further controversy. The dispute ended when Ayatollah Khamenei denounced his remarks in Friday prayers and called for an end to the dispute. A day before the Supreme Leader’s speech, Ahmadinejad had said that Mashaei’s opinions were the government’s opinions. Following Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech, Mashaei sent him an apologetic letter, explaining his stance on the issue of the ‘Zionist regime.’ In September, 50 members of the Assembly of Experts released a statement, calling for Mashaei’s dismissal from the government. Mashaei’s request to meet with Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani, a Qom-residing marja’, was rejected by the ayatollah a month later.

Mashaei and Hedieh Tehrani, Iranian celebrity actress

November 2008: Opening ceremonies in Iran almost always being with the recitation of a few verses of the Qur’an by a qari (reciter). The reciter of the international conference on investment in Iran’s tourism industry had to wait for the Qur’an to be delivered to him by daf-playing (daf is a drum-like traditional Middle Eastern instrument) women dressed in Kurdish traditional clothes. Two respected religious leaders of Qom, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani and Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi decried the event. Mashaei’s deputy was forced to resign, though his boss was also present at the ceremony.

July 2009: Saeed Haddadian, war veteran and influential revolutionary maddah (reciter of religious hymns), criticized Ahmadinejad’s appointment of Mashaei as vice president, saying that his decision “brought tears to the eyes of the nation of Hezbollah”. He added that Ahmadinejad’s next position for Mashaei –Head of the Presidential Office- was meaningful. According to Haddadian, “Ahmadinejad has assumed that the [24-million] vote belongs to him, while the people’s vote was a vote to the line of Leadership.”

September 2009: At the inauguration of the Minister of Higher education, Mashaei elaborated on his latest doctrines about the creation of humankind and their relation to God. “God was indebted to himself” Mashaei said, “so he created the human…if the human were removed [ignored], there is no need to remove God; God is removed by itself.” This was not the first time Mashaei taunted the clerics with his remarks.

November 2009: Hard-line newspaper Kayhan daily criticized Mashaei for his remarks on religion and statements such as “God cannot be the fulcrum of unity for humankind”, saying that his remarks are “unjustifiable” and pave the way for malicious propaganda. Mashaei of course resorted to his usual tactic and claimed that his remarks had been misquoted.

November 2009: Commander Yadollah Javani, Head of Revolutionary Guards’ Political Bureau criticized Mashaei for his remarks on religion and lamented the president’s disregard of the ‘essence’ of the Supreme Leader’s letter on the vice presidency of Mashaei.

January 2010: Mashaei’s meeting with and visit to the photo exhibition of Hedieh Tehrani –Iranian celebrity actress- and rumors that the Organization of Cultural Heritage had paid her a 200 thousand dollar loan to hold the event sparked controversy. Mashaei claimed that the picture taken of his meeting with the actress has been manipulated to show them more intimate when sitting side by side. All he had said to the actress was that her photos were “monotheistic and remind one of God,” according to Mashaei, who claimed Tehrani was impressed and had cried after his comment. Hedieh Tehrani denied rumors that Mashaei had bought one of her most expensive photo works. The loan claim was also denied by the cultural heritage organization. News of Mashaei’s meetings with other celebrity actors and actresses circulated on the Internet for a while after this incident.

July 2010: Saeed Haddadian slammed the return of Los Angeles-resident singers –some of them pre-Revolution singers and with moral codes different from the Islamic Republic’s standard- to the country, and claimed that Rahim Mashaei was behind their invitation. He said that “some are trying to invert the situation”, implying that revolutionary elements may be replaced by those who were supporters of the monarchy. His remarks came after Mashaei’s June 14th comment that expatriate Iranian singers have no problem returning to the country if their activities are within legal frameworks.

August 2010: In a speech at the Razi Medical Research Festival, Mashaei said that the God-sent prophet Noah failed to undertake a “comprehensive management [style]” since he did not establish justice. He reiterated similar remarks regarding other prophets in his subsequent speeches.

In the closing ceremony of the controversial Expatriate Iranians Convention, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei uttered what was perhaps his most controversial remark to date and took disputes to a simmering point: “some criticize me that why don’t you say The School of Islam and [instead] say The School of Iran? There are diverse interpretations of Islam, but our perception of the essence of Iran and the essence of Islam is The School of Iran and from now on, we should promote The School of Iran for the world.” His remarks, which were later expectedly supported by Ahmadinejad, were (perhaps intentionally) misinterpreted as a call for Iranian nationalism, a doctrine known as a legacy of the monarchy system and rejected ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Reactions came from different directions. Former Head of the Judiciary Ayatollah Yazdi criticized Mashaei’s remarks on the “School of Iran”, saying that all the hardships Iranians have endured after the Revolution were for Islam and the “rule of religion.” He accused Mashaei of repeating the words of monarchists. General Firouzabadi, Head of the Joint Chief of Staffs of the Iranian Armed Forces called his remarks a “deviation”, an act against national security, and an attack on the tenets of the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution. In response, Mashaei said that he would sue Firouzabadi. Tehran MP Gholam-Reza Mesbahi Moqaddam slammed Mashaei’s remarks on the “Iranian School”, saying that “Mr. Mashaei makes remarks out of the area of his responsibilities and knowledge.” He asked the president to admonish Mashaei; “stretch his leg out of his own rug” (not to bite off more than he can chew.) Iran’s best-known maddah, Haj Mansour Arzi also slammed Mashaei during a religious ceremony, saying that “if no appropriate action is taken against Mashaei, I will correct him myself…why should he be given all these posts and responsibilities?”

September 2010: Ahmadinejad appointed Rahim Mashaei as his special representative, among three others, in Middle East affairs, another post for a man with more than 15 official titles and positions. The president’s decision even raised the resentment of the laconic Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Ahmadinejad withdrew his decision after Ayatollah Khamenei rejected parallel moves in foreign policy.

By: Ali Attaran