Will Ahmadinejad Be Stronger, Or Weaker, In His Second Term?
By Mazyar Mokfi, Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
Tensions between Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad and more mainstream conservatives are hardening.
Ahmadinejad (right) sitting next
to Parliament Speaker Larijani during Friday prayers on June
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has cracked down so hard on postelection
protesters that his forceful behavior has precipitated a second crisis that few
foresaw -- a battle with mainstream conservative leaders who are the backbone of
the establishment and regard Ahmadinejad's aggressive style as a threat to their
The battle comes just as Ahmadinejad begins his second term and the stakes are
how powerful he will be in his second term.
On paper, Ahmadinejad should not a strong president.
His hard-line conservative supporters are a minority in parliament, where they
share power with a majority block of fellow conservatives usually labeled
"traditionalist" and "pragmatic."
Weakening his parliamentary clout further, there also are sizeable, minority
blocks of reformist and "independent" deputies.
But if Ahmadinejad should be a weak according to his parliamentary base, his
behavior - particularly in the current postelection crisis - has notably been
The death of one protester, the son of a top aide to former Revolutionary Guard
leader Mohsen Rezai, the only conservative to challenge Ahmadinejad in the
presidential race, has been particularly noticed by mainstream conservatives.
So has Ahmadinejad's showdown with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic
conservative usually considered one of the establishment's most influential
leaders. Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts, is widely believed to
have financially backed the leading reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi
Now, as reformists have been forced from the streets, the tensions between the
president and more mainstream conservatives are hardening.
"The conservatives who have a pragmatic view about the government and are
looking at the future of the political system are the main opposition to Mr.
Ahmadinejad," analyst Ali Reza Haghighi of the University of Toronto told RFE/RL's
"This group has long-term plans for itself and in this future program Mr.
Ahmadinejad has no place. Therefore, they are planning for the next
parliamentary and presidential elections and are trying to put their members in
key policy-making positions," he says.
The tone of exchanges between mainstream conservative groups and Ahmadinejad can
be surprisingly sharp.
Recently, the head of the country's powerful alliance of clerics and
shopkeepers, wrote an open letter to the president reminding him to work in the
interest of the Islamic Revolution.
The letter from Habibollah Asgar Ouladi of the Hay'atha-ye mo'talafe-ye eslami
(Coalition of Islamic Associations), reads in part:
"If you make some mistakes by inaccuracy, by
lack of consulting with other honest followers of the Islamic Revolution,
and by policies that do not precisely follow the Velayat-e faqih (Rule of
the Jurisprudent), it will demolish the people's trust in you ... and it can
damage the whole system irrevocably."
Ouladi has separately praised Rafsanjani for trying to calm the postelection
crisis and said he deserves full public respect.
The Coalition of Islamic Associations, with members in mosques and bazaars
throughout the country, is a major backer of the mainstream conservative
deputies who make up the largest block in parliament.
But Ahmadinejad has shown no readiness to listen to such warnings. Rather than
reach out to other conservatives, he is proceeding alone with the first major
step of his second-term: forming his cabinet.
Ahmadinejad has rejected urgings from the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani,
to discuss the appointees before he presents them to the legislature for
approval next week.
Instead, he has signaled he may further challenge Iran's aging establishment by
forming a cabinet made up of "young people who have experience." It is not yet
clear what that means, but it may be more people like Ahmadinejad himself. That
is, a second generation of revolutionaries who are ready, like the Jacobins of
the French Revolution, to wrest power from the Islamic Republic's founding
generation and pursue their own purist vision of the future.
The mainline conservatives' mounting frictions with Ahmadinejad suggest that his
second-term could be filled with the kinds of power struggles now on display in
Some analysts see Ahmadinejad's prospects for dominating the establishment as
limited. That is not only because ultimate executive power in Iran belongs to
the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but also because Ahmadinejad has
made himself some very powerful enemies.
"Going forward, we are going to see, in fact, a weaker Ahmadinejad presidency,
not because of Khamenei, but because of all the conservatives who now oppose
him," Geneive Abdo, a regional expert at The Century Foundation in Washington,
D.C., told Radio Farda.
"He now has heavyweight, big players in Iran openly against him, not the
reformers who are sort of irrelevant, but he has now Larijani, Rezai,
Rafsanjani, all these people with real power who now are working diligently to
undermine his authority," she says.
Crises As Weapons
But other analysts say that Ahmadinejad is likely to respond to such powerful
enemies by using political crises to neutralize them as he mobilizes
parliamentary support for his government in the interest of stability. The model
for using political crises may be exactly what he is doing now in making no
compromises to end the post-election trauma in the country.
"We need to know whether [Ahmadinejad's] type of management, which is not in
favor of the 'traditional conservatives' and the 'bureaucratic conservatives,'
can be understood, and countered, by these groups," says Taqi Rahmaneh, a
reformist leader with the Melli Mazhabi movement close to former President
"He does not give a lot of importance to these groups. For example, he did not
take part in [the annual commemoration ceremony] of the Coalition of Islamic
Associations. He said that he was too busy last year, even though Mr. Rafsanjani
and Mr. Khatami have always taken part in this ceremony," Rahmaneh says.
Maintaining a crisis atmosphere also enables Ahmadinejad to sidestep rivals by
going directly to his powerbase: a mass of poorer Iranians who see him as one of
their own. That base can be called out for mass demonstrations and
counterdemonstrations and its members are strongly represented in the Basij and
Combined, those are powerful tools for street power and Ahmadinejad has employed
all of them in the postelection crisis.
What is not known today is exactly what Ahmadinejad and his hard-line camp would
do with any additional power they wrest from the mainstream conservatives.
The hard-liners pledge loyalty to the supreme leader and that entails simply
following his lead in directing the country's affairs.
The president's spiritual mentor, the ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mohammad
Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, restated that loyalty as he called on Iranians to
unquestioningly follow Ahmadinejad on August 12.
"When the president is endorsed by the [supreme] leader, obeying him is similar
to obedience to God," Mesbah-Yazdi said.
But all of the increasingly independent president's enemies in the postelection
crisis - be they reformist or conservative - also follow the supreme leader.
And that suggests, when so many rivals pledge the same allegiance, that
following the supreme leader can be a relative thing.
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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