By M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi
The latent tension between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the vali-e-faqih (the supreme leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has come out in the open now. It has left many wondering as to what the future holds for the Iranian president.
Developments in the last one month have seriously exposed the fault lines within the Iranian establishment. The problem started when the supreme leader insisted on reinstating the intelligence minister, Heider Moslehi, who is believed to have resigned in April 2011 under pressure from Ahmadinejad. Khamenei went to the extent of giving Ahmadinejad an ultimatum to either accept his supreme decision to reinstate the intelligence minister or else resign from the presidency. In response, Ahmadinejad boycotted the presidential palace for about 11 days, declined to chair cabinet meetings, and did not attend religious services at Khamenei’s home.
Moslehi’s resignation not only antagonised the supreme leader but also the president’s past supporters, especially Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (Ahmadinejad’s earlier spiritual mentor) who said that: “A human being who would behave in a way that angers his closest friends and allies and turns them into opponents is not logical for any politician.” He also added that “disobedience to the vali-e-faqih was equal to “apostasy from [sic] God.” Yazdi’s statements came after Ahmadinejad fired Moslehi without consulting him. Many Iranians believe that the vali-e-faqih is “God’s representative on earth.” No doubt the president was under heavy pressure from the Iranian clergy to obey the decision of the supreme leader and obey his orders. A report on the news website Azad Negar suggests that Moslehi had earlier ordered the replacement of the chief of the intelligence ministry’s Bureau of Planning and Budget, who was in fact backed by the president’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. Since Mashaei opposed the move, Moslehi was instead asked to resign.
The Moslehi issue is, however, only one of the reasons for the conflict. The root of the recent problem is traced to Ahmadinejad’s appointment of his close friend and his son’s father-in-law Mashaei as first vice-president, shortly after the beginning of his second presidential term in 2009. Khamenei had at that time challenged Mashaei’s appointment. Ahmadinejad had to reluctantly accept the leader’s orders, but, at the same time, immediately appointed Mashaei as chief of staff in the president’s office, hardly a less influential position.
Khamenei’s supporters believe that the confrontation began with the increasing influence of Mashaei, who is opposed to the over-arching role and influence of the clerics in Iranian politics. Mashaei has time and again made it clear that he and his allies look to undermining the clerics’ participation in politics. In May 2011, a clerical court had accused the president’s cultural council head of sorcery because he backed a film which declared that the Twelfth Imam (Mohammad Mahdi) would shortly appear on earth and that the three persons who would pave the way for his coming are Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrollah. The film undoubtedly created a great deal of controversy among the clerics who see Ahmadinejad as undermining their privileged spiritual position as the true representatives of the Hidden Imam and the interpreters of Islamic teaching.
Mashaei has been blamed of being the main force behind the making of the film. He was also accused of spreading superstition and undermining the position of the Hidden Imam. Charges, which Mashaei has denied. The Khamenei camp also believes that today Mashaei is the actual president, and that Ahmadinejad is holding on by relying on him. The allegations against Ahmadinejad’s administration of using supernatural powers, sorcery and evil spirits have fuelled the internal squabble for supremacy within the Iranian establishment.
In addition, President Ahmadinejad’s position became more precarious when the Iranian parliament challenged his June 2011 decision to assume charge of the oil ministry and referred the matter to the judiciary. Parliament, repeatedly at odds with Ahmadinejad on policy issues, approved a finding by its energy committee that the president’s move to take over the oil ministry after dismissing Massoud Mirkazemi from the post was wrong. By law, if parliament refers the president or one of his cabinet ministers to the judiciary three times for violating the law, the Majlis then gets the right to impeach the person.
Iran’s Mehr news agency reported that several members of parliament had attempted to summon the president for questioning over “the recent events.” The Mehr also noted that 90 legislators (though 175 are needed) had signed a petition to probably impeach Ahmadinejad. Impeachment would also require final approval from the supreme leader, who has the last word in all important issues.
It can be argued that Ahmadinejad’s influence may actually be declining, unless he springs a surprise, and calls his supporters on to the streets. However, such a move will benefit the Green Movement and those seeking change; they were earlier crushed in 2009. Ahmadinejad’s position is also likely to weaken because of the failure of his foreign policy, which has led to Iran today being fully isolated due to his stand on the nuclear issue. Khamenei is also no longer willing to tolerate Ahmadinejad and his supporters because of several contentious issues.
The real game is, however, likely to begin when the next Iranian parliamentary election takes place in March 2012, followed by the presidential election in June 2013. The qualifications of the candidates both for Majlis and presidential elections will be scrutinised by the Guardian Council, which works partly on the recommendations of the intelligence ministry.
In any event, Khamenei is likely to emerge victorious because he is the number one figure in the country according to the Iranian Constitution. The vali-e-faqih also has enough authority to limit the powers of the president through the Guardian Council as well as the Majlis.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/MountingPressureonPresidentMahmoudAhmadinejad_mmarizvi_260611