TEHRAN, Iran – Powerful reformists and conservatives within Iran’s elite have joined forces to wage an unprecedented behind-the-scenes campaign to unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, worried that he is driving the nation to the brink of collapse with populist economic policies and a confrontational stance toward the West.
The prominent figures have put their considerable efforts behind the candidacy of reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who they believe has the best chance to defeat the hard-line Ahmadinejad in Friday’s presidential election and charting a new course for the country.
They have used the levers of government to foil attempts by Ahmadinejad to secure funds for populist giveaways and to permit freewheeling campaigning that has benefited Mousavi. State-controlled television agreed to an unheard-of series of live debates, and the Council of Guardians, which thwarted the reformist wave of the late 1990s, rejected a ballot box maneuver by the president that some saw as a prelude to attempted fraud.
Some called it a realignment of Iranian domestic politics from its longtime rift between reformists and conservatives to one that pits pragmatists on both sides against radicals such as Ahmadinejad.
“Some of the supporters of Mousavi like his ideas; others don’t want Ahmadinejad,” said Javad Etaat, a professor of political science and a campaigner for Mousavi. “They’ve decided that preserving the nation is more important than preserving the government.”
Those involved in the effort say they already have outmaneuvered Ahmadinejad and his allies, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and gained the upper hand within Iranian institutions and among voters.
In addition to protecting their own considerable financial and political interests, which include control over key segments of foreign trade, private education and agriculture, Ahmadinejad’s behind-the-scenes opponents fear that a win by the incumbent will isolate Iran internationally further, weaken the middle class and give more power to the military and the Revolutionary Guard.
“We can’t run Iran like North Korea,” said Saeed Laylaz, a newspaper editor and analyst with contacts among the political elite. “A group of militarists cannot stuff this civilization into a can and put it away. Iran cannot make up for its lack of economic might with nuclear technology, missiles and proxy threats in Lebanon and Palestine and elsewhere.”
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering is emerging from deep within the Iranian state and includes some of the most prominent conservative names, including Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri and Ali Akbar Velayati, both close to Khamenei, Iran’s highest political and military authority. But if there’s a brain behind the push against Ahmadinejad, it’s Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s longtime kingmaker and chairman of both the powerful Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between other government bodies, and Assembly of Experts, which oversees the office of the supreme leader.
To level the playing field, Rafsanjani has created a multimillion-dollar electronic network under the aegis of the Expediency Council to set off alarm bells in case of fraud, said one person close to his camp.