May 24, 2007

Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Moves to Contain Ahmadinejad

Source: Stratfor
May 24, 2007 02 00 GMT

Iran has increased the price of gasoline by 25 percent, from 30 cents to 38 cents per gallon, and is attempting to reduce subsidies, Fars News Agency reported on Wednesday. The quasi-official Iranian media organization quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi as saying the move is in keeping with the new budget law. Pour-Mohammadi added that fuel rationing will begin June 5.

The move came as a surprise, particularly given that the government said May 20 it had no immediate plans to increase fuel prices. The price hike could stoke public ire, and it runs counter to the agenda of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose political future depends on his image as a populist leader championing the cause of the downtrodden.

One explanation for what appears a bizarre government decision is that it is part of a plan by the pragmatic conservatives to discredit Ahmadinejad and weaken the influence of his ultraconservative faction. Some might dismiss this as a conspiracy theory, but a number of other recent developments force us to consider that Ahmadinejad could be in serious political trouble at home. In fact, reports have circulated about major disagreements between the president and other senior Iranian officials, especially on foreign policy matters.

Saudi-owned daily newspaper Al Hayat reported May 21 that Iranian national security chief Ali Larijani has tendered his resignation on five separate occasions in recent months due to frustration over what he considers irresponsible statements and actions by Ahmadinejad. The newspaper added that the intervention of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has temporarily defused the situation, but Larijani feels the president is jeopardizing Iranian interests. These disputes deal with how to conduct U.S.-Iranian negotiations over Iraq, which will move into the public arena May 28, and who should lead these talks for Tehran.

Ahmadinejad faces significant opposition to his foreign policy positions from across the Iranian political system, including from Khamenei; the Expediency Council led by the regime's no. 2, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; parliament; and even the country's elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Ahmadinejad wants to play a major role in talks with the United States and steer them in the direction preferred by his ultraconservative faction, which includes senior members of the Basij militia, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts, such as Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati, Abolghassem Khazali and his spiritual mentor, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. But the bulk of the establishment does not trust Ahmadinejad with foreign policy, and especially not with dealing with United States on Iraq.

Indeed, opposition to Ahmadinejad is so strong that, if it received the green light from Khamenei, parliament would waste little time impeaching him. However, Khamenei is not interested in inciting internal turmoil as Iran moves to shore up its influence in Iraq and engages in risky negotiations with Washington. While getting rid of Ahmadinejad might not be an option right now, the Iranian establishment is working to box in the maverick president.

The fuel price hike is not the only tool being used to do this. On May 22, parliament approved for the third time legislation that would extend its term but reduce the tenure of the president. The bill, which proposes holding legislative and presidential elections simultaneously, with the next round in November 2008, was approved by a 222-120 vote, with seven deputies abstaining. If passed, it would extend the life of the current parliament by seven months and reduce Ahmadinejad's term by four months. Ahmadinejad's allies on the Guardian Council, which has the power of parliamentary oversight, have twice rejected this legislation as unconstitutional. Now that parliament has approved the law for a third time, the bill will go to the Rafsanjani-led Expediency Council, which arbitrates disputes between the legislature and the Guardian Council, for a final ruling, which could give the pragmatic conservatives another victory against their ultraconservative rivals.

The Iranians are not attempting to hide these moves against Ahmadinejad. In fact, by leaking the details of efforts to undercut Ahmadinejad to the press, the Iranian establishment is sending a message to Washington that it is serious about pursuing a deal on Iraq and is cleaning house -- and Tehran expects the Bush administration to do the same. These efforts notwithstanding, a lot can go wrong before May 28, the beginning of formal U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraq, and it will be some time before anyone can claim progress has been made. The Iranian regime might have Ahmadinejad and his allies contained for now, but things could change should Khamenei, who is seriously ill, no longer be at the helm.

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