Like many Iranian officials, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei attended the ceremony for the anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Tehran earlier this year. The event hasn’t changed much over the decades; there were the usual bombastic speeches and flag waving. But Mashaei, chief of staff of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, encountered a very unordinary scene on the way back to his car. An enraged mob circled him. “Die, Mashaei!” one woman yelled. “Mashaei, get out of the government!” a group of men jeered. The crowd jostled him for several minutes before his bodyguards cleared the way for a hasty exit.
Mashaei has been a divisive figure in Iran for years, both because of his close relations with the president—his daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son—and because of his unorthodox religious beliefs, which some clerics see as a threat to the entire foundation of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad also appears to be grooming Mashaei, 51, to replace him as president, a move that has infuriated many hardline supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In recent weeks, tensions among conservatives at the top have boiled over. Several hardline websites published a letter allegedly linking Mashaei to a $2.6 billion embezzlement scandal—the biggest in Iranian history—which may land him in jail and could even bring serious legal trouble for Ahmadinejad. One hardline M.P., in comments directed at Mashaei, said the punishment for involvement in the financial fraud should be execution. The judiciary seems to be closing in; two weeks ago, one of Mashaei’s relatives was arrested for alleged links to the scandal. “Any time Mashaei is involved in a controversial issue, Ahmadinejad is also involved. Behind the scenes, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad are one,” says Mehdi Khazali, a political analyst whose father is a senior cleric close to Khamenei. “Ahmadinejad’s fight with Khamenei and his supporters is real and serious. The goal is to sideline the Supreme Leader.”
As the conflict reaches a critical point, the fates of Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are now inseparable. As with the president, Mashaei’s ambitions far exceeded his humble origins. He was born in Ramsar, a small town on the Caspian coast, but managed to leave and get a degree in electrical engineering. When the revolution swept across Iran in the late ’70s, he joined enthusiastically and even served in a branch of the Intelligence Ministry in his hometown after the shah was ousted.
(…)The controversies surrounding Mashaei have piled on during Ahmadinejad’s two terms. There was his 2008 declaration that Iranians and Israelis are friends, as well as the praise for Iran’s pre-Islamic past, both big taboos. There was his hobnobbing with starlets and a ceremony in Turkey with dancing women, hardly the actions of a pious man. But he has stirred up the most controversy with repeated comments that seem to question the need for the clergy. At each turn, the hardline press, politicians, and clerics have howled with anger, but Mashaei has refused to back down. “I’m a soldier and I’m not going to give up, even if it’s over my dead body,” he said defiantly at a meeting with clerics and religious students last year.