Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Photo by Reuters
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Ahmadinejad, left, with Mashaei in 2009. Photo by AP

"The state must present the world with Iran's ideology instead of that of Islam," Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei said at a meeting of Iranian exiles who had returned to their homeland. "Islam would be lost if it weren't for Iran," he stated again a week later. "And if we want to present the truth embodied in Islam, we must fly the flag of Iran."

Had a regular citizen made these pronouncements, it's not difficult to imagine him being called in for an interrogation and perhaps even being brought to trial. To present the state as being superior to Islam, and Islam as dependent on the state, is the sort of position that even in a country less radical than Iran no government would dare express aloud. It almost resembles the kind of jargon heard in liberal Western regimes; it is not fitting for a country that saw an Islamic revolution and which wishes to export Islam to the rest of the world. But these words of "heresy" were uttered by no less than Mashaei, one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest advisors.

This is not the first time Mashaei has created a storm. In 2008, he declared that "Iran is a friend of the United States and the Israeli people. There is no nation in the world that is our enemy." He later said: "No official Iranian representative will recognize the Zionist regime, we are opposed to the Zionist regime. But we have no problem with the nation that lives in the occupied territory," referring to the Jews in Israel.

For these declarations, Mashaei - whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son - was awarded the position of First Vice President, a post in Iran similar to that of prime minister. He also continues to serve as head of the president's staff and his adviser. This time around, he again forced Ahmadinejad to come to his defense after he found himself under attack by the religious sages.

"If the president is unable to dismiss his adviser, he should at least make him keep his mouth shut," Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi said. Ayatollah Mortada Muqtadai complained that, "Unfortunately, these remarks are made by the very same people who are close to the president." And the chief of staff of the Iranian army, General Hassan Firouzabadi, went even further, describing the remarks as "a crime against state security."

Ahmadinejad's support for Mashaei not only succeeded in annoying the conservative religious sages. Last week he also clashed with the country's chief justice, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, whose brother Ali Larijani is the speaker of the parliament.

The Iranian president publicly denounced the seven-month suspended sentence handed to Mashaei's deputy, Mohammed Jafar Behdad, for writing an article that was critical of the speaker. In the article, Behdad accused Ali Larijani of hastening to congratulate the opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, on winning last year's elections before the official winner (Ahmadinejad ) had been announced.

"Despite the fact that the jury decided by a majority that Behdad was not guilty, the judge decided to act against their position and impose the punishment on him," Ahmadinejad declared. The chief justice, who was appointed by the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not remain silent. "The central issue here is whether we must allow everyone to speak just as he wishes," he said. "Why do we have laws? The laws were enacted so that people would obey them."

Ahmadinejad also opened up a new front against the parliament: The president declared that he would oppose the law allocating $2 billion for Tehran's underground railway, after the parliament set forth a law forbidding changes to the directorate of Tehran's Azad University - which is headed by Ahmadinejad's political rival, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad claims Rafsanjani used university funds to help pay for the opposition's election campaign.

What sanctions?

Despite Ahmadinejad's difficulties in keeping internal affairs under control, he still has cause to celebrate thanks to his country's nuclear program. At the end of this month, fuel will begin flowing into Iran's nuclear facility at Bushehr, with the reactor expected to begin producing electricity in the middle of September.

After 40 years of delay, the nearly $1 billion project will finally be completed, supplying Iran with nuclear infrastructure through which it can gain relevant experience. It will also better supply the country with electricity. With or without sanctions, the Bushehr reactor will operate, and Russian fuel will flow to Iran as well. The Gazprom and Lukoil companies will increase the amount of fuel they sell to Tehran, as will Turkey. But not only Russian oil will make its way there. The Iranian Oil Minister Masoud Mir Kazemi met with his Chinese counterpart last week, during which time they finalized Chinese plans to invest in the building of oil refineries in Iran.

Iran, which intends to invest some $26 billion in building new oil refineries and another $12 billion in renovating the existing refineries, obviously prefers Russia and China as partners and so these countries are therefore intensifying their relations with Tehran. And while it's true that Russia has declared its intention to implement the UN sanctions against Iran, these do not include a ban on the sale of oil products to the Islamic Republic.

The additional sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union have not been adopted by Moscow, allowing Russia to enjoy the best of both worlds: It continues to do business with Iran and at the same time is considered a country cooperating with the sanctions.

This view can be seen from the perspective of the Turkish oil industry as well. "Iran is more important than America because we get crude oil from Iran," one of the senior officials of the Turkish oil company Topras, which is owned by the wealthy Koch family, was quoted as saying last week.

Turkey, whose trade with Iran amounts to some $10 billion a year, needs the Iranian oil and does not plan to forgo its income from selling oil to its neighbor. The two also intend to set up a series of joint power stations. Sanctions? Not in the Turkish, Russian or Chinese lexicons.