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Iran's Hardliners Fall Out

By Yasaman Baji, Iran; source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)

President Ahmadinejad appears determined to ride roughshod over conservative politicians and clerics who should be his allies, but aren't.

While the reformist opposition has been more or less completely marginalised from Iranian politics over the past year, that does not mean all is quiet at the top. 

Quite the reverse - a fierce battle is now going on within Iran's conservative establishment.

The various conservative and hard-line political factions and senior clerics that are collectively known as the "principalists" have tried to establish a modus vivendi with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since he first came to power in 2005.

It might appear to an outsider that he and they represent pretty much the same thing - a conservative, Islamist view of society, and a defiant view of the outside world. Ahmadinejad himself comes from the principalist camp. But Ahmadinejad's style has been to accumulate more and more power in his hands over the years, at the expense of anyone outside his circle.

The principalists should logically be content with their control of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive in Iran, but they have felt increasingly pressured by the president's expanding reach.

Interviewed recently by the Panjareh weekly, Morteza Nabavi, managing director of Resalat, a daily paper that effectively serves as mouthpiece for the Motalefeh party and other principalist forces, warned, "Now that Ahmadinejad's supporters have got rid of the reformists, they are trying to get rid of their principalist opponents as well."

One of the main clashes between Ahmadinejad and his principalist opponents concerns Esfandiar Rahim-Mashayi, the president's aide and chief of staff.

Mashayi is close to Ahmadinejad, whose son is married to his daughter. But since Ahmadinejad's ascent to power, Mashayi has been a thorn in the flesh to senior clerics in Qom, who have pressed for his dismissal whenever he has been appointed to a new post. The president has treated their demands with disdain.

The clerics get particularly wound up by Mashayi's controversial remarks about religion. His assertion that anyone can experience direct contact with God and with the Mahdi, the 12th imam who Shia Muslims believe will come out of seclusion some day, was not well-received, since senior clerics see themselves as intermediaries in this relationship. They responded by accusing Ahmadinejad supporters of trying to isolate religious leaders from political and social affairs.

After Ahmadenejad made his ally first vice-president of Iran last year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forced him to drop him from the post. The president showed his unwavering trust in his friend and ally by making him his chief of staff and assigning him dozens of other jobs, making him the most responsible figure in government with at least 18 different posts.

Although he generally does not comment on the the criticisms levelled against Mashayi, Ahmadinejad told reporters in August that he had complete confidence in him and Mashayi's statements should be regarded as "the word of the government".

The Ahmadinejad government enjoys support among younger, mid-level Shia clerics, but it has never had a good relationship with the ayatollahs in Qom, the heart of Shia Islam in Iran

Among the top-ranking grand ayatollahs, the "sources of emulation" based in this city, only Hossein Noori Hamedani can be said to support Ahmadinejad.

Some of the ayatollahs are extremely critical of Ahmadinejad's economic policies, believing that they have created hardship for ordinary Iranians. Others have condemned the violence used to suppress the street protests that followed Ahmadinejad's re-election in the summer of 2009.

When the president visited Qom last winter, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi was the only one prepared to receive him - and even then, it was only to give voice to harsh criticism of his government.

This bumpy relationship may explain why Ahmadinejad prefers to ignore the religious establishment, and perhaps also why his chief of staff tries to downplay their role as intermediary between man and God.

In a live TV programme in June, Ahmadinejad managed to offend even clerics who support him by speaking out against the latest drive by Iran's morality police to crack down on women wearing "bad hejab" - in other words, clothing deemed not sufficiently modest.

Parto-ye Sokhan, a weekly paper controlled by the hardline Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, normally an ally of the president, said that "the path Ahmadinejad is taking goes nowhere".

The president appears to be oblivious to such criticism. It is almost as though he was angling for support among sections of society who dislike the clerics. If that were true, it would be a high-risk strategy - losing support among the hardliners without necessarily gaining any elsewhere.

The Majlis, Iran's parliament, is dominated by principalists, but once again, Ahmadinejad does what he likes and appears indifferent to their views.

During first term in office, principalist legislators tended to turn a blind eye to digressions from the law. This seems merely to have encouraged him to impose his own views at the expense of other branches of authority especially as he has enjoyed unflinching support from Supreme Leader Khamenei.

In the course of the last Iranian calendar year, ending March 2010, the Majlis sent the president an unprecedented 32 legal reminders about refusals to enact bills it had passed or discrepancies between bills drafted by his government and the constitution. Within the first four months of the current Iranian year, it sent another 21 legal reminders. And in another unparalleled move, the government has started refusing to submit its own draft laws for parliamentary scrutiny.

Ahmadinejad has said quite openly, "Any parliamentary bills that I don't enact, I don't regard as law."

Principalist Majlis members were outraged by this remark.

"This kind of behaviour is a lesson to others in evading the law,"Ahmad Tavakkoli, a powerful principalist politician, said. The speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, promised to stand firm against "violators of the law".

Meanwhile, the president has for over a year refused to take part in meetings of the Expediency Council, a supervisory body headed by Ahmadinejad's powerful challenger Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that oversees the work of all branches of government and advises the Supreme Leader.

According to his advisor Mehdi Kalhor, the president says, "I don't like going."

After remaining silent on the conflict between Ahmadinejad and the principalists for a long time, the Supreme Leader stepped in last month, using a meeting with the cabinet to mildly request the president to regard the plans and bills he came up with as "subject to change and criticism".

Just a few days later, Ahmadinejad took the extraordinary step of questioning a famous remark by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to the effect that "parliament is paramount". This formula had now expired, the president said - it was now his executive power that reigned supreme.

Ahmadinejad and his allies continue to downplay the importance of the principalists and emphasise their own separation from them.

Presidential adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr, for example, made it clear Ahmadinejad did not consider himself indebted to the principalists for helping secure his election victory last year.

"The yes vote for Ahmadinejad was not a vote for principalism," Javanfekr said in a TV interview.

The offensive is still ongoing, the latest move consisting of a plan by Ahmadinejad supporters to draft a written "manifesto of principalism". This effectively amounts to a claim to the right to decide who is in and who is out.

The document excludes, for example, such illustrious principalists as Majlis speaker Larijani, Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezayi.

Ali Motahari, a principalist member of parliament who has become a fierce critic of the president, believes the manifesto is the first shot in the Ahmnadinejad's campaign for the next parliamentary and presidential elections.

A political science professor inside Iran argues that there is nothing surprising about the fact the confrontation is taking place is not strange, but the range and depth of the dispute is unexpected.

"The conflicts between parliament and government are not just between Larijani and Ahmadinejad," he said. "It's a conflict at the heart of the Islamic Republic, about the authority and responsibilities of these two branches of power. And it has now reached its peak."

A history professor, predicting major changes in the principalist bloc, says, "The crisis in this camp will have a loser, a victim - but the survivor won't necessarily be the [ultimate] winner."

 Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran.

... Payvand News - 10/15/10 ... --

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