A mysterious man known by some as the Iranian president’s “exorcist” has been arrested, in the latest sign that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s involvement with purveyors of the so-called “dark arts” is raising concerns among Iran’s leadership.
Abbas Ghaffari, described as Ahmadinejad’s “exorcist” or “jinn (genie) catcher” is reportedly among a number of people in Ahmadinejad’s circle who have been arrested lately, amid reports of continuing strains between the president and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As is typical in Iran, details on the timing and specific charges behind the arrests are somewhat murky.
It’s also not clear from what or whom Ghaffari was protecting the president, and what he may have been doing to accomplish that aim. What does is clearer is that a particular target in the arrests is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the president’s right-hand man, who has been marginalized more recently by Khamenei. Most of the arrests are said to be Mashaei associates within Ahmadinejad’s inner circle.
In a fiery speech Tuesday in the Iranian holy city of Qom, Mojtaba Zolnour, Khamenei’s representative in the Revolutionary Guard, said he asked Ahmadinejad: “What do you see in this Mashaei, other than links to exorcists, soothsayers and fortune tellers? … They come and gurgle on about his prophecies, and Mr. Ahmadinejad thinks he has divine knowledge.”
Ahmadinejad has also frequently raised concerns with what some see as his obsession over the concept of the “12th Imam,” a belief among some Muslims that a leader who has been in hiding since 869 will return and unite the world under the banner of Islam.
Believers say the 12th Imam will only appear during a time of worldwide chaos, however, leading some to fear Ahmadinejad would deliberately act to destabilize the international situation in the hopes of sparking the imam’s return. Ahmadinejad has reportedly stabilized a rift with Kahmenei, following a nearly two-week sustained sulk that kept him out of his office.
But the same apparently can’t be said for those arrested. Superstition and mysticism are to an extent vestiges of pre-Islamic Iranian culture. And while the Islamic system officially shuns them, a significant number of Iranians may share some of these unorthodox beliefs.
Nor do many Iranians think such beliefs exist only within the their own culture.
“The reality of conjuring ‘jinn’ is not exclusive to our society,” said Morteza Nabavi, a member of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the Iranian parliament and the Guardian Council and who is also managing director of Resalat newspaper. “In other places too, catching jinn and eliciting their help is also relevant.”
But that doesn’t mean the proponents of such beliefs should be running a government, according to Nabavi. “The deviant group that have recently been mentioned have reached out to others … and they have even influenced the president and gained his support.” Despite the fact that Ahmadinejad is at the center of this controversy, there are limits to how seriously others in the regime are willing to damage him.
He remains the most visible public face of the Islamic Republic. But by arresting and humiliating those around him, particularly Mashaei, the president’s detractors cause chaos without toppling the country’s political foundations.
It’s not the first time Ahmadinejad and his circle has been cast under the shadow of “dark arts.”
A campaign film for the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, from whom many Iranians believe the 2009 election was stolen, plays up the mystic bogeyman.
Mousavi says in the ad, “The next government will be the government of reason. Not a government of soothsayers and palm readers.”
Amy Kellogg currently serves as a Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent based in the London bureau. She joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a Moscow-based correspondent. Follow her on Twitter: @kellogglondon