In a single day earlier this week, the Iranian parliament dealt three blows to the presidency of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has become a political punching bag as the result of a continuing power struggle with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The battle has heated up over Ahmadinejad’s repeated attempts to make inroads into Khamenei’s spheres of influence.
Embattled Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) has been faring badly in a continuing power struggle with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Ahmadinejad and his entourage, which counts among its ranks former Revolutionary Guard members who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, are under attack from Khamenei’s camp, comprising senior clerics, conservative politicians and rival Revolutionary Guard commanders.
On June 21, the parliament launched impeachment proceedings against Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi over the appointment of his deputy, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, who was forced to resign after just three days on the job. Malekzadeh was arrested on corruption charges on June 23.
The parliament then rejected Hamid Sajjadi, Ahmadinejad’s nominee for the newly created Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry, due to his “lack of experience.”
The parliament also vetoed Ahmadinejad’s decision to merge the Oil Ministry with the Industry Ministry.
As if that triple blow were not humiliation enough, lawmakers booed a colleague who attempted to escort Ahmadinejad to the door of the parliamentary chamber, driving the hapless deputy back to this seat.
That was a stark contrast to the picture just a few months ago, when Ahmadinejad was routinely surrounded by crowds of lawmakers eager to seek his opinion during his visits to the legislature.
The parliament - which has also launched an investigation into vote-buying ahead of the 2009 disputed Presidential election - is believed to be undermining the Iranian president with the express blessing of the Iranian leader.
Khamenei, who publicly humiliated Ahmadinejad in April when he reversed the president’s decision to fire Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, is said to be using parliament to clip the wings of the ambitious Ahmadinejad and keep him under control.
In recent days several legislators have threatened Ahmadinejad with impeachment. Deputy Fazel Mousavi said last week that Ahmadinejad was “two yellow cards away” from losing office.
President Ahmadinejad (L) has been undermined by his close association with the deeply unpopular former Vice President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei.
Lawmaker Ali Motahari, known as a staunch critic of the president, said a motion to question Ahmadinejad - a measure that could serve as a prelude to impeachment - will be tabled in ten days.
Those threats are unlikely to be acted upon for the time being, say most analysts. They maintain that Khamenei has not yet given the green light for the impeachment of the man whom he once said he trusted more than his predecessors as president.
A Policy Of Containment
Political analyst and journalist Reza Alijani, who fled Iran recently, says that Khamenei’s policy for dealing with Ahmadinejad and his entourage is essentially based on the principle of containment, holding the president at bay without completely destroying him politically.
Yet Alijani warns that Ahmadinejad’s next moves remain a big source of uncertainty.
“We do not know about what’s happening behind the scenes or anything about the plans of Ahmadinejad and his clique, and this is key," he says. "The actions of Khamenei are predictable - but that is not true at all of Ahmadinejad’s moves.”
Ahmadinejad’s dismissal would fracture Iran’s already unstable political establishment even more and could lead to uncertainty at a time when the country is fragile domestically due to a shaky economy and the risk of more street protests inspired by the Arab Spring. On the international scene the country faces increasing isolation over its sensitive nuclear work.
Ahmadinejad’s removal would also be another blow to Khamenei’s legitimacy, which has already been seriously damaged by his past support for Ahmadinejad and his endorsement of the president’s disputed reelection despite allegations of massive fraud and street protests.
“Our understanding is that [Khamenei] would like the government to continue its work in peace until the end of its legal term, [and] that he would like the political life of the government to end naturally,” said lawmaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar last month.
Treading Water With A Deviant Current
Yet Ali Mazroui, a former legislator and a senior member of Iran’s largest political reformist political party, tells RFE/RL that there is a chance Ahmadinejad could be dismissed before the end of his term in 2013.
“I think the path Ahmadinejad has taken - he’s creating trouble - has led to the escalation of attacks against him, and a continuation of this pattern will definitely lead to his dismissal,” he says.
Both Mazroui and Alijani agree that the parliament is ready to get rid of Ahmadinejad at just one hint from Khamenei. They believe, however, that Khamenei’s priority is to preserve the current political establishment while keeping the unruly president under control.
Recent comments by lawmaker Bahonar, as well as by Mojtaba Zolnour, Khamenei’s deputy representative to the Revolutionary Guard, also suggest that confrontation is not on the agenda for now.
“The atmosphere of the society is not ripe for confronting this issue," Zolnour said on June 20. "Therefore, we should tolerate it. But that doesn’t mean that we should allow the deviant current to do whatever it wants.”
“Deviant current” is a term Iranian officials have adopted to describe Ahmadinejad’s inner circle, including his right-hand man Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, whose deep unpopularity is one of the main reasons for the opposition to Ahmadinejad.
Most of Ahmadinejad’s critics used to differentiate between him and Mashaei, but increasingly this is no longer the case. In what would seem to be more bad news for the Iranian President, Zolnour compared Ahmadinejad and Mashaei to the story, well-known in Iran, of a pair of conjoined twins “who died when surgeons tried to separate them.”
Ahmadinejad has so far refused to withdraw his support for Mashaei. Even if he does, it might be too late for him to regain his one-time status as the Islamic Republic’s rising political star, back in the era when he was still reaping praise as a miracle and a gift from God.
Both camps are said to be eyeing the March 2012 parliamentary vote, which is now set to become the stage for even greater tensions.
Copyright (c) 2011 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org