June 10, 2008

Iran: Putting the brakes on Ahmadinejad

Three years of untrammeled rule as supremo has convinced many of Iran's conservatives that it finally may be time to put the brakes on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

By Kamal Nazer Yasin for ISN Security Watch (10/06/08)

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's erratic posturings on the world stage have attracted a great deal of global media attention, the effect that his policies are having on his own country's conservative factions - those myriad groups that had paved the way for his presidency in 2005 - has largely escaped the scrutiny of experts and the international press. This may be partly due to the fact that conservatives are always anxious to paper over their differences and partly because of Ahmadinejad's singular success in enforcing compliance on fellow conservatives.

That chapter in intra-conservative relations, however, may be closing for good. (See Iran: A new balance of forces by Kamal Nazer Yasin for ISN Security Watch.)

As we approach Iran's pivotal 2009 presidential race and as a new parliament is inaugurated, a major realignment in the conservative camp is set in motion with significant support from most of the country's top leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Unlike his undistinguished predecessor, the new speaker of parliament, former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, is preparing to curb Ahmadinejad's excesses head on.
A three-year balance sheet

Ahmadinejad's success in forcing acquiescence on his conservative critics can be explained by the fact that he has successfully presented himself as an indispensable standard-bearer of revolutionary and populist politics and as someone who has reversed dangerous secularizing trends in the country.

While his presidency has alienated much of the political and the religious elite, it has managed to galvanize two key constituencies: the young religious militants and the very pious - both important pillars of the revolution.

However, that is the extent of his utility for conservatives.

"Ahmadinejad has been quite successful in generating a wave of top-down religiosity in Iran," an Iranian political scientist who wished to remain anonymous told ISN Security Watch from Tehran.

"So you would think the conservatives are very happy with his presidency, but they are not. At best it is a mixed blessing for them."

Among the negative items that must weigh heavily on the mind of the conservatives are Iran's deteriorating international standing; the rather dismal state of the economy; and Ahmadinejad's divisive leadership style.

His periodic calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and his peculiar form of nuclear diplomacy have done much to isolate Iran in the international community. A European diplomat told ISN Security Watch recently that "the EU countries' patience with Ahmadinejad is running out."

On 9 April, Ahmadinejad took reporters on an extraordinary tour of the hitherto-secret Natanz nuclear facility where scientists were photographed displaying Iran's latest achievements to a beaming president, including technologies considered top-secret.

"That was not a very smart move," said the academic. "It appeared to many people that he was revealing Iran's [technological] advances quite needlessly."

Some people are speculating that the recent report on Iran by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - an exceptionally harsh report - may have been partly motivated by the publications of those pictures in newspapers like the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Most observers believe that had it not been for the US National Intelligence Estimate last November, Iran by now would have been slapped with at least one severely punitive UN sanction.

Earlier this month, Iran's National Bank announced that inflation was reaching 19.8 percent. (The actual figure is probably closer to 35 percent, experts say.) Economists believe that this is a direct result of the government's skyrocketing expenditures in the last three years. A populist import boom has also affected domestic producers. Several key sectors have been in recession non-stop since 2005. Most economists believe that without the unusually high oil prices, the economy would have been in a deep slump by now.

As for his leadership style, Ahmadinejad "cannot tolerate anyone except the most hardcore loyalists," according to the academic. "He has an extremely narrow agenda that doesn't leave room for compromise."

Since he has become president, Ahmadinejad has doggedly refused to share power with other factions and has continued to purge the government apparatus of their followers. Only a month ago, he even forced out hardline Interior Minister Mostafa Poormohammadi for minor differences over policy.

Likewise, his policies have divided and embittered old allies and friends including the country's top clerics. The president's constant invocation of the Hidden Imam as his government's protector is a source of friction with the clergy. (Shias believe that their 12th and last Imam who disappeared in 874 AD will return one day to usher in peace and prosperity for mankind.) Last May, several top clerics took to their pulpits accusing him of hiding behind the 12th Imam to defect criticism from his policy failings.
Honeymoon is over

While for many in Iran's top leadership some of Ahmadinejad's economic and foreign policies may be barely tolerable, his political posturings must seem downright reckless.

In refusing to share power with other rightist factions, he has unwittingly given an opening to the hated reformists, not to mention creating a great deal of acrimony among his friends.

Ahmadinejad faction's refusal to cooperate with other conservatives during the October 2006 elections split their vote and led to the entry of many independent and reformist candidates in the local councils.

A repeat of this tactic could be extremely perilous for the conservatives in next year's presidential election.

Clearly, as far as Ayatollah Khamenei and other top leaders are concerned, the continuation of the present state of affairs cannot be countenanced. This is precisely what had happened 10 years ago when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president in an upset victory. Although the reformists' public esteem has diminished considerably since then, if unchecked, even a protest vote could propel the reformist front-runner to the pinnacles of power.

The first sign that the country's conservative leadership was preparing to put the breaks on Ahmadinejad occurred when Larijani was invited by the Qum Theological Teachers to make a run at the parliament from Qum instead of Tehran. Doing so in addition to showing clerical support for an Ahmadinejad rival would have ensured Larijani a place at the top of an important list of candidates.

A month later, on 29 April, Davoud Danesh-Jafari (former economics minister under Ahmadinejad) gave a press conference in which he revealed some of the inner workings of the current administration. Observers believe he would have never done so without permission from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

In May, Sayenews published a report quoting the Supreme Leader as having directed his ire at the president. Khamenei suggested it was counterproductive for Ahmadinejad to attack those whose opinions differed from his own. Referring to a speech in Qum last April in which Ahmadinejad made a slanderous attack on his rivals, the website, obviously with the Supreme Leader's approval, quoted Khamenei as saying: "What purpose did his speech make? People don't believe these words and if they do it makes them question the system's legitimacy."

Finally, according to the daily Kargozaran newspaper, as the new right-wing lawmakers (numbering some 211 people) were holding an internal caucus to reluctantly give the job of speaker of parliament to the ineffectual Ghlamreza Haddad-Adel - whose daughter is married to one of the Supreme Leader's sons - as opposed to the much more experienced Larijani, they were informed that Khamenei had no personal preference in the matter.
The parliament to the rescue

The new parliament, which was inaugurated on 27 May, is quite different from its predecessor.

For instance, hardcore pro-Ahmadinejad MP's have shrunk to less than 50, while reformists and independents have doubled in number to 80 lawmakers. But perhaps the most critical difference is that the post of speaker of parliament is now held by an old hand like Larijani. Thanks to some unpalatable backroom deals, the last parliament became something akin to a rubber stamp body.

In this connection, in its third week, according to an 8 June report in Sarmayeh, the parliament is already preparing a motion to impeach the minister of housing.

In his acceptance speech, Larijani indicated that the parliamentary subcommittees would be reactivated again. In particular, he said the parliament would participate in nuclear policymaking and decisions. Appearing to outdo Ahmadinejad, he said: "Our suggestion is that they [foreign powers] refrain from the dubious diplomatic game of bouncing around Iran's nuclear file between the IAEA and the 5+1 […] We declare here that the parliament will not allow such duplicity to go on."

It is important to note that Larijani is no liberal democrat. As the head of the Nationwide Radio and TV network, he has proved a hardline administrator and a staunch supporter of the status quo; he also played no small role in defeating the reformist movement.

Equally important is the fact that no one is considering ousting Ahmadinejad in the 2009 election, as no one has the power to mobilize the foot soldiers of the Iranian right, i.e. the young Basijis or militants and the ordinary religious fundamentalists, groups whose support for the system is absolutely vital.

Larijani's job, and that of the new parliament, is merely to curb Ahmadinejad's excesses.

To bring this point home, on 7 June, Tabnak, an influential website published by the former head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaii, published a letter supposedly from one of its readers in which the "reader" in question was spelling out the future shape of relations between Larijani and Ahmadinejad. (This was the third time Tabnak had published a letter from an unnamed "reader" as a main news posting. Previous letters turned out to have been written by someone very close to the Supreme Leader.)

Among other things, the "reader" said: "The enemies are trying to pit the heads of the two branches against each other. What is crucial to foil this is for the two heads of the two branches to cooperate to resolve the country's two main domestic and foreign challenges [inflation and the nuclear issue [...]] Neither side should try to control or weaken the other."

Attentive readers of Tabnak must have taken some pleasure in the fact that just a few days prior to the publication of the letter, the entire 50-memeber pro-Ahmadinejad faction in parliament had cast their votes for Larijani as speaker rather than for their loyal and trusted friend Gholamali Haddad-Adel.

Kamal Nazer Yasin is the pseudonym of a journalist reporting for ISN Security Watch from Iran and the US.

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