Iran’s deepening internal battle

Farideh Farhi

  • Two years after his controversial re-election, President Ahmadinejad faces mounting pressure from the supreme leader, parliament and the Guardian Council on several issues. Is his presidency really in jeopardy?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may or may not survive his second term. His political fate will depend on whether he continues to try to shift political power towards his office and coterie of loyalists in ways that challenge both the supreme leader and the predominantly conservative parliament.
Tensions became public when Ahmadinejad fired the intelligence minister in April, only to have Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reinstate him. During the crisis, Ahmadinejad did not show up for work or key cabinet meetings for 11 days. Khamenei refused to coax or woo the president to return to office. Indeed, he even initially signaled his willingness to let Ahmadinejad resign for refusing his dictates, despite the potential political costs to the regime.
The same tensions are likely to play out for the remainder of Ahmadinejad's term. Khamenei apparently now wants the embattled president to serve out the final two years of his term, according to parliament's deputy speaker Mohammad-Reza Bahonar. Ahmadinejad also will no longer have the supreme leader’s protection in political showdowns with the judiciary, parliament or Guardian Council. As a result, all three institutions have more aggressively challenged the president’s recent actions, including cabinet appointments, merging ministries or disbursement of state funds. Ahmadinejad’s future will depend on whether he persists in doing political battle or  agrees to serve as a weakened lame-duck.
  • Supreme Leader Khamenei staked his own leadership on support for Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Has Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad changed—and if so, how much and to what end?
Khamenei and Ahmadinejad’s union has always been a temporary marriage. For several reasons, Khamenei believed that an Ahmadinejad loss in the 2009 election would be construed at home and abroad as a setback for the supreme leader’s office.  Khamenei had long been concerned about “dual governance,” or the rivalry between the presidency and supreme leader in defining the national agenda. It was a particularly sensitive issue in 2009, when Iran was preparing for talks with a new U.S. administration.  Like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei stands for an aggressive foreign policy in contrast to former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, who flirted with rapprochement to reduce tensions with the outside world.
But Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad’s re-election backfired. When millions took to the streets to protest alleged election fraud, the focus was as much on the supreme leader as the president. Khamenei also took much of the blame for the repression that followed. Ahmadinejad and his inner circle used the crackdown to try to expand their hold over government—always assuming that the supreme leader would have to side with them.  But they miscalculated.
Ahmadinejad’s decision not to show up for work particularly crossed a red line. Khamenei’s then signaled that Ahmadinejad was dispensable, which was sufficient to undercut the president’s support among many of the regime’s true believers.
  • What are the risks or benefits for either Khamenei or the regime in challenging Ahmadinejad ?
Ahmadeinjad was perceived as challenging Khamenei and not the other way around. The leader’s occasional intervention in government affairs is routine. So Khamenei’s reinstatement of Minister of Intelligence Heidar Moslehi was never questioned by regime loyalists. It was Ahmadinejad’s refusal to go to work that was perceived as a challenge to Khamenei’s authority. Khamenei made clear that the move was unacceptable and that he was willing to accept the cost of political turmoil resulting from Ahmadinejad’s resignation. This was the game changer.
  • On May 25, 2011, parliament voted to investigate the Ahmadinejad government’s alleged vote-buying—reportedly $80 each for 9 million people—during the 2009 election. The opposition Green Movement made similar allegations after the election but was ignored. Why is parliament acting now—and to what end?
The move is as much to preempt future corruption as to deal with past fraud. Parliamentary elections are due in March 2012. Ahmadinejad’s conservative opponents have expressed concern that Ahmadinejad and his allies will use state resources to buy votes. So the parliamentary investigation is a threat. It is still unclear whether the final report will be read in parliament or will lead to further action, such as calls for Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. As of now, it appears largely an attempt to further clip Ahmadinejad’s wings.
Parliament has been complaining about Ahmadinejad's general financial mismanagement for years. Its auditing branch has detailed lists of missing funds or funds used without parliamentary authorization. But there was little follow-up, Khamenei often stepped in and told the parliament not to create too many obstacles for the executive branch.
Ahmadinejad’s fall from grace has given his conservative competitors room to maneuver. They are talking about organizing a supervisory committee to prevent fraud in the upcoming elections, although they face obstacles. In any oil-rich state, the executive branch has discretionary funds to play with during elections, particularly in the provinces where governor-generals and governors are appointed by the president. Many of Ahmadinejad’s conservative competitors also do not have sufficient support or funding to challenge government-supported candidates.
  • On May 20, the 12-man Guardian Council ruled that Ahmadinejad could not take over the oil ministry. On June 1, parliament voted overwhelmingly —165 of the 198 members present—to refer Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for illegally attempting to take over the oil ministry. What are the potential consequences of these two actions?
Again this was a threat, and on the surface it worked. Ahmadinejad responded by appointing a caretaker for the Petroleum Ministry. Yet the appointment exemplified how the president is countering pressures on what he considers executive power. He named Mohammad Ali-Abadi, a former vice-president and head of Olympics Committee of Iran. A civil engineer, he has no experience in the oil industry. Parliament had earlier rejected him for the smaller Energy Ministry.
Ali-Abadi, an Ahmadinejad loyalist, is likely to continue the management changes in ministry that expand the president’s control over the National Iranian Oil Company, the real cash cow in Iran. The caretaker appointment mollified the legal challenge but Ahmadinejad demonstrated his disdain for parliament even as he responded to its pressure.
And the current battle is just the beginning of the conflict. Ali-abadi is unlikely to be approved as petroleum minister after his three months as caretaker is up. Ahmadinejad’s government has also approved the merger of the energy and petroleum ministries. Parliament may well try to block the unpopular merger. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to follow parliamentary mandates could create a legal basis for another parliamentary referral to the judiciary.
Parliament’s committee on Article 90, which deals with violations by any government branch, has also referred Ahmadinejad to the judiciary for three other violations: his refusal to establish a sports and youth ministry as mandated by legislation; his refusal to disburse money for the metro system; and the government’s failure to produce an article of association for the Petroleum Ministry. In theory, any of these violations could become the basis for questioning in parliament and even impeachment.
  • How is Ahmadinejad responding to the mounting pressure?
As the Ali-Abadi example shows, Ahmadinejad is not a man who gives up easily. As president, he still has many resources at his disposal. He also believes he has a strong base of popular support, which is increasingly doubtful. He was publicly booed at his speech on the June 4 anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah's Khomeini’s death.
Still Ahmadinejad is known to be a shrewd political tactician, and few politicians in the governing circle are thinking beyond short-term political goals. If he is going to be pushed around, he is likely to try to make everyone else suffer as well.
  • What is Khamenei’s situation?
The supreme leader still has the most control over Iran’s political future and direction.  Yet his plan in 2009 to engineer an election in which Ahmadinejad would legitimately win a popular election backfired. He had explicitly asked former President Khatami not to run out of concern about his popularity. He also signaled that former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi should be allowed to run, calculating that an uncharismatic and long-forgotten former prime minister would not be a real challenge. Irrespective of who really won the election, Mousavi and his popular wife generated far more support than the supreme leader counted on.
The post-election protests also affected the internal balance of power. Various security forces were emboldened. And every-day running the country grew more complicated, especially with a highly polarizing president unable to work with other branches of government.  In just one example, the fate of eight ministries--out of a total of 21--is in doubt because of uncertainty about whether they will be (or even already have been) merged and who will lead them. Parliament, which insists it controls government restructuring, has in turn come up with unusual mergers of its own—including merge of the ministries of roads and transportation, housing, and communications and information technology. 
Given the administrative chaos, Khamenei and his office are now increasingly involved in day-to-day government administration. With parliamentary elections due in 2012 and a presidential election due in 2013, the supreme leader apparently hopes to orchestrate polls that produce less combative figures to take the government’s helm. But the circle of true loyalists has shrunk considerably since the 2009 vote, the subsequent purge of reformists, and now the pressure on Ahmadinejad and his allies. Managing both the country and upcoming elections in a highly polarized political environment is a daunting challenge.
Farideh Farhi is an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.
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