Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Who Rules Iran?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Who Rules Iran?

Article excerpt

Iranian Ambitions

In the 30-year reign of Iran's Islamic Republic, there have been few controversies as serious as the one surrounding the 2009 elections. The votes that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term have been challenged, not just on paper, but by citizens taking to the streets in angry protests that have only been quelled by brute force on the part of the establishment. Less well known is the upset that followed Ahmadinejad's nepotistic appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Masha'i, the father of his daughter-in-law, to the post of first vice president. Not long after this, Iran's supreme leader, 'AJi Khamenei, demonstrated his personal authority over the entire political system by forcing Ahmadinejad to reconsider his appointee, leading to Masha'i's dismissal. Masha'i had become controversial for his impolitic references to Israel and America. In a speech at a tourism convention in July 2008, for example, he had observed: "Not only we have no enemy, but we are friends with the American people, with the Israeli people, and we are proud that we are friendly with all the nations in the world."1

How did this happen? How did a man holding such views on two countries regarded throughout Iran as the Great and Lesser Satan come to such an important public position? Was something less obvious going on? Why was it so important for Khamenei to risk such a public censure of the president?

It is hard to know just what Masha'i intended by his original remarks since they were overtaken so quickly by condemnation and denial. In themselves, they are of little importance since they clearly did not mark any change in emphasis for Iranian foreign policy. It is the incident in its entirety that is of importance, in what it says about the workings of the regime, above all the relationship between the supreme leader and the president.


Masha'i was born in November 1 960 in the Caspian Sea resort town of Ramsar. His ability to memorize the Qur'an and recite it at religious functions from the early age of fifteen allowed him to develop his skills as an orator. By the time of the revolution, Masha'i was eighteen and was aiready organizing marches against the shah and distributing Ayatollah Khomeini's decrees and instructions. Upon graduation with an electronics engineering degree from Esfahan Technical University (Daneshgah-e San'ati-ye Esfahan), he joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) security services. His first posting took him to Kurdistan. While there, Masha'i had the opportunity to meet Ahmadinejad who was then governor of Khoy in western Azerbaijan. Over the years, Masha'i held several posts at the Ministry of the Interior, then as director of Radio Payam, as director of Radio Tehran, and in the national radio and television service. Finally, he was tapped by Ahmadinejad, then mayor of Tehran, to serve as his social and cultural deputy. During Masha'i's term as deputy mayor of Tehran it is rumored that Ahmadinejad became infatuated with him and his apocalyptic ideas. Both Masha'i's connections with the Revolutionary Guards' security forces and his continued involvement in the repression of the Kurds remained as part of his portfolio for several years even when he rose to high office as first vice president.

Moreover, Masha'i's daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, a union that emerged after years of close friendship between the two families. The association denotes a predilection for domestic connections: Just as Ahmadinejad appointed Masha'i to the post of first vice president (there being ten vice presidents in all), so too, he named his son-inlaw, Mehdi Khorshidi, chief of staff - a role Masha'i would take soon after his dismissal from the vice presidency.


Masha'i's appointment generated controversy on the one hand because of the way in which it was made, and, on the other, because of a remark almost calculated to arouse anger in a wide section of the Iranian public and the political leadership. …

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