Iran’s standoff: Khamenei vs Ahmadinejad

A row over who will become intelligence minister has triggered a show-down between the president and the supreme leader.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempts to reconcile with the UN Security Council on the issue of Iran’s nuclear projects in an attempt to “fend off his detractors and act presidential” [GALLO/GETTY]

No matter how he twists and turns, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad keeps sinking. No sooner than he appeared to have mended his frayed relationship with supreme leader Ali Khamenei – he was photographed sitting dutifully at Khamenei’s feet during a religious ceremony over the weekend – new assaults against him have begun.

The motivations of conservatives around Khamenei trying to discredit him seem clear: upcoming parliamentary elections are an opportunity to deny hardline supporters of the president the chance to win a clear parliamentary majority. And as their long-term goal, Iran’s traditional conservatives and clerics, backed by Khamenei, are striving to prevent an Ahmadinejad protégé from becoming the next president in 2013.

This intense power struggle broke into public view recently over Ahmadinejad’s decision to dismiss intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi. Khamenei gave the president an ultimatum last week to reinstate the minister or resign.

Khamenei took this unprecedented step not only to maintain his own power but to ensure that of the entire clerical establishment, which Ahmadinejad is trying to marginalise.

Since the disputed election which returned him to power in 2009, Ahmadinejad has tried to advance an Iran with minimal clerical influence run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This is the reason many members of the establishment believe he is a threat to the system.

Ahmadinejad’s predicament was aptly captured this week by a prominent Iranian cartoonist who has followed the president’s travails. He drew the president as a bee buzzing in Khamenei’s ear on Tuesday, and by Wednesday Khamenei had cut off the bee’s stinger, rendering him harmless or even sending him to his death.

The conservative backlash

Unlike the bee, Ahmadinejad is still not finished, but conservatives in the parliament are doing their best to seal his fate. They are demanding that the president appear before the parliament for questioning over his competence to govern. Such a proceeding could be a precursor to a formal impeachment hearing.

In an exclusive interview with Khaneh Mellat, the Iranian parliament’s official website and news outlet, prominent conservative and parliamentarian Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, said May 9: “The president cannot say that he is going to select [members of] the parliament,” strongly implying that the faction close to president Ahmadinejad is not going to have an easy ride to election victory simply because he holds the top government post.

Bahonar’s comments also implied that other powerful bodies, such as the Guardian Council, may get involved to deny president Ahmadinejad a solid parliamentarian majority next spring. The council has long been used by the ruling clergy to weed out candidates for office that it sees as a threat to the system.

This well-known conservative politician criticised president Ahmadinejad’s performance and accused the president of “deserting” his supporters. “Ahmadinejad and [former president] Khatami both came to power with the help of political parties and organisations, but after winning the election, they deserted their supporters.”

Bahonar and others are also attacking Ahmadinejad on theological grounds. “There is this deviant faction and I don’t even think they follow the laws of Islam,” Bahonar said. “Most of them are followers of mysticism and Sufism,” both anathema to many conservative Shia clerics.

Bahonar and many other conservatives have clearly come to believe that Ahmadinejad seeks to eliminate the clerics from politics and end the system of supreme clerical rule set in place with the victory of the Islamic Revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Is Ahmadinejad’s time up?

The bottom line is that many conservatives in the regime have had enough of Ahmadinejad, and they see this latest conflict with Khamenei as a good way to completely paralyse him and his loyalists.

Outrage among influential conservatives has been fuelled further by the belief that they brought Ahmadinejad to power only to see their interests spurned after his election.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad hails from a provincial and populist background that is at odds with the economic principles of the urban and merchant class that has long used its significant backing for the ruling clerics to pursue its interests.

On Tuesday, in a bid to fend off his detractors and act presidential, Ahmadinejad suddenly attempted to initiate yet another meeting with members of the UN Security Council, after months of stalled nuclear negotiations.

Seemingly out of the blue, Ahmadinejad and a few other officials, such as the foreign minister and the head of the nuclear program, announced on May 9 that Iran would respond to a letter sent by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton back in February.
But not even Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi seem to be on board with the idea. And Iran’s state-run media questioned the plausibility of nuclear talks resuming. Raja News, a site previously supportive of Ahmadinejad that turned staunchly critical upon his abortive mutiny surrounding the minister of intelligence affair, published a derisive article on May 10 questioning the purpose of the talks.

Titled, “What is the latest status of Iran’s nuclear dossier?”, the article describes the incompatible differences between what Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US plus Germany) are willing to do to achieve compromise, noting that despite the sea of changes happening in the Middle East, the obstacles to progress on the nuclear issue remain.

For now, Ahmadinejad appears unable to control his own destiny. With Khamenei, his long-time supporter, no longer willing to tolerate his insubordination, Iran’s parliament poised to bring him in for questioning and his attempts to appear presidential mocked openly in the press, he might have to settle for serving out two years of his term as a weakened and lame duck president.

Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran programme at the National Security Network and The Century Foundation. Arash Aramesh and Shayan Ghajar, two researchers for the programme, contributed to this article.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.