Political Problems Mounting For Iran's Ahmadinejad

May 24, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks to be in the most precarious position he's been in since his election nearly six years ago. He's under attack from the Parliament, the conservative press and, most seriously of all, many of the conservative clergy who once supported him.

Ahmadinejad has been accused of adopting a "deviant position" and of seeking to circumvent Iran's clerics in matters of religion.

In recent weeks, he tried to fire his intelligence chief but was blocked from doing it. He has tried to consolidate several government ministries, but the Parliament says he can't — it's illegal.

Officials close to his inner circle have been arrested, and there's a rumor his chief of staff will be arrested.

Tension With Islamic Leaders

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corp., says that the number of supporters Ahmadinejad has within the governing system in Iran is dwindling.

"There's tension between him and the supreme leader," Nader says. "He doesn't get along with Parliament. There's a lot of tension between him and the Guardian Council, and the head of the Guardian Council was a strong Ahmadinejad supporter. So he is slowly being squeezed by all the most important players in Iranian politics."

Why all this hostility? In essence, because Ahmadinejad has challenged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad and those around him have sought to portray the president as preeminent in matters of both religion and policy.

He's trying to create new constituencies, says Trita Parsi, the director of the National Iranian American Council.

"He's been trying to play the Persian nationalist card, for instance, which is very, very popular in Iran, particularly among those who despise the Islamic Republic," Parsi says. "Whether he will be successful in that, of course, is a different matter. But it shows that he is himself aware that he needs to have a stronger platform and constituency in order to continue this effort of his."

Keeping Power Beyond 2013

The goal appears to be to extend Ahmadinejad's political power beyond 2013, when his second and final term as president expires.

To accomplish this, he had taken some very risky steps. He has set in motion new economic policies to eliminate many of the subsidies that for years have provided cheap gasoline, electricity, bread, rice and other basic staples.

At the same time, he has initiated cash payments to many in Iran to ease the economic pain, says Hossein Askari, an expert on Iran's economy at George Washington University.

"Nobody else had the courage to do this," Askari says. "He jumped on it because I think he saw this as a way to become even more of a populist. He wanted to target the cash payments to the poor."

All this is designed with a clear political purpose in mind, and many in Iran believed the goal was to put forward his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as the presidential candidate to succeed him, says Nader of the RAND Corp.

"This is not a man who is going to give up power easily, and since he can't run for another term, he wants to use Mashaei as basically his proxy," Nader says.

Askari agrees, saying Ahmadinejad is "trying to make sure that he is the power behind the throne when the two years are up."

Clashes With Khamenei

But it's been a dangerous gambit, and it's brought him into direct conflict with Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in the Islamic Republic. So far in all the head-to-head clashes that have taken place recently, Khamenei has come out the winner.

Ahmadinejad effectively conceded that in a recent television interview, in which he appeared contrite. He told the national television audience that it is his duty to defend both the dear leader and his high status.

But that appearance has done nothing to calm the storm of criticism, says Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

"If you're an Islamic Republic and you have people who may run for president say that Iran is more important than Islam, then that is a fundamental challenge to the very principle that [the] Islamic Republic is resting on," Parsi says.

A Weakened Iran?

The battle for control of Iran's government shows no sign of abating, and as it intensifies, it only seems to weaken Iran further, Parsi says.

"There are no good guys in this fight, but there can be a good outcome if this further weakens them and enables the political spectrum in Iran to expand rather than shrink, which is exactly what it's been doing in the last 10 years," Parsi says.

The latest slap in the face for Ahmadinejad occurred when he appointed himself interim head of the oil ministry, with its multibillion-dollar budget. The rotating chair of the oil cartel OPEC is in Iran's hands right now, and he was expected to lead its meeting next month.

Not going to happen, declared the clergy-dominated Guardian Council a couple of days ago — that's illegal. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.