President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made quite a few domestic enemies over the years, from the reformist opposition to leading ayatollahs in Qom and conservative politicians in senior state positions. All are now watching keenly to see whether the president is beginning to lose the once unconditional backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
If that happens – and there are some indications that the Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Khamenei is cooling – the president’s rivals among the group known as “moderate conservatives” may feel they are no longer constrained from attacking him head-on.
These moderate conservatives include a number of current and former political figures like the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander-in-chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guards. They have frequently accused Ahmadinejad and his administration of using deliberately provocative rhetoric, of chaotic management, undermining other parts of the state like the legislature, judiciary and local government institutions, and sometimes of disregarding the Islamic principles it professes to follow. (For background on the conservative opposition, see Iran’s Hardliners Fall Out.)
Having Khamenei’s unreserved backing meant Ahmadinejad had a free hand to crush the protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election and effectively eliminate the opposition Green Movement. The Supreme Leader paid a high price, as he was criticised internationally and lost the support of many influential Qom clerics.
Now Khamenei finds himself with a president who disregards his views and does not follow his advice – both of which would be unpardonable offences coming from anyone else.
One recent example of Ahmadinejad deliberatedly going against Khamenei’s wishes came in December when he sacked Manouchehr Mottaki as foreign minister.
The president and the foreign minister had borne each other ill will for some time. Mottaki had accused Ahmadinejad of trying to bypass his ministry by creating special envoys for foreign policy, and had indicated he had the Supreme Leader’s backing on the matter. (See: Iranian President Gunning for Foreign Minister.)
Nevertheless, the president’s peremptory dismissal of a minister mid-way through an official visit was a calculated humiliation, and not just of Mottaki.
It is an unwritten rule in Iran that the Supreme Leader has oversight over foreign policy, and that his approval is a essential before any change to that ministerial position.
Ahmadinejad would have been well aware that Khamenei would have vetoed Mottaki’s removal, so rather than consulting him, he made sure the act was a fait accompli. The night before he announced it, he went to see the Supreme Leader, but he made no mention of his decision. Afterwards, he asked Khamenei’s entourage to pass on the news, adding insult to injury.
As rumours of a further cabinet reshuffle began spreading in January, the influential parliamentarian Ali Motahari told the media that Khamenei had asked Ahmadinejad not to change any more of his ministers. Such a direct intervention by the normally circumspect Khamenei was a measure of his displeasure.
This month, Ahmadinejad again displayed a cavalier attitude to the Supreme Leader’s wishes when he denigrated a 20-year state programme designed to make Iran the premier regional power by 2025.
At a meeting with the president in September, the Supreme Leader had urged him to find out what progress had been made on executing a plan he called a “roadmap to the future” of Iran.
On January 15, Ahmadinejad infuriated Khamenei’s conservative supporters by suggesting the plan was already redundant because “Iran is currently number one in many fields, not just in the region but in the world”.
“Those who drafted this plan,” he said, “were ignorant of the capacities of the Iranian nation.”
Despite slights of this kind, it would be unrealistic to forecast that Khamenei will openly dissociate himself from the substantial political investment he has made in Ahmadinejad.
What is much more likely that he will quietly make it known his favour tilting towards the conservatives in parliament. They will pick up on the hints, and use the opportunity to move against Ahmadinejad, at the very least to trim some of his power and influence.
Khamenei’s behind-the-scenes influence is exemplified by the way he has blocked the Ahmadinejad camp’s desire to prosecute leaders of the political opposition. Insider sources say the Supreme Leader has made it clear he does not want to see Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi or Mohammad Khatami in detention – so they remain at large.
Conservative members of parliament are already making life difficult for the president.
In November, for example, the Majlis passed a bill restricting the president’s right to choose the head of the central bank. The bill was rejected by pro-Ahmadineajd members of the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog body, but lawmakers refused to back down.
The president asked the Supreme Leader to intervene on the matter, but Khamenei instead referred it to the Expediency Council, which has supervisory powers over all branches of government and is charged with resolving differences between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians.
The council is chaired by former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – Ahmadinejad’s main foe within the regime – and the majority of its members are, like him, conservative opponents of the president.
The conservatives are also attacking key Ahmadinejad allies. On January 10, the Majlis announced it was initiating an investigation into Esfandyar Rahim-Mashaei, the president’s chief of staff and closest confidant. The investigation will look at remarks and actions deemed to be controversial.
Mashaei has annoyed senior clerical figures in Qom by making what they see as his ill-judged comments on religious matters, such as suggestions that Islam as practiced in Iran was a specifically national rather than universal faith. His role as head of the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad has also led to allegations that he forged inappropriate political contacts.
Finally, his enemies even accuse him of being a foreign agent deep in the heart of government, who deliberately makes trouble to sow dissent.
Ahmadinejad has already had a run-in with the Supreme Leader over his friend and ally. A month after the 2009 presidential election, he named Mashaei as his first vice-president, but protests from conservative politicians and clerics led Khamenei to take the unprecedented step of instructing Ahmadinejad not to appoint him to this or indeed any other senior government position.
It took the president a full week to comply, and immediately afterwards he named Mashaei as his chief of staff and assigned him several other important tasks, making him de facto the second most powerful individual in the executive after himself.
Ahmadinejad is also under considerable pressure to withdraw his support from the current first vice-president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, whom Iran’s prosecutor general has accused of corruption.
Lawmakers have named Rahimi as the head of an alleged corruption ring whose other members are already under arrest for bribery and misappropriating government funds. (See Deputies Accuse Vice-President of Corruption.)
An insider source close to Khamenei says he has urged the president to allow the judiciary to decide his deputy’s fate. But Ahmadinejad has so far backed Rahimi solidly, saying that whatever financial transactions he may have engaged in were for the good of the 2009 election. Rahimi, who heads a government anti-corruption task force, has said the charges are an attempt to derail his attempts to uncover real wrongdoing.
If Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad continues to crumble, the president will be left in a vulnerable position, while the moderate conservatives ranged against him will be in a position to claim much more power in the next parliamentary election in early 2012, and on the political scene generally.
Omid Memarian is a journalist and multimedia expert based in San Francisco.