Iran: Ahmadinejad on the Ropes in Clash with his Supreme Leader

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Iran’s streets are quiet, the uprising that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection two years ago but a memory as opposition leaders languish in prison or under house arrest, and fear of the brutal security forces restrains most from protesting. And yet, there are unmistakable signs that the regime is literally cracking up.

A public confrontation between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s clerical Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei has escalated into a high-noon showdown from which neither man can retreat without losing face – and damaging the regime, one way or another. Reports from Iran Friday suggested that Khamenei has given Ahmadinejad an ultimatum: Accept the Supreme Leader’s reinstatement of Heydar Moslehi, the intelligence minister fired two weeks ago by Ahmadinejad, or resign as president.

Khamenei’s move to reinstate a cabinet minister fired by Ahmadinejad marks an unprecedented meddling by the clerical leader in the affairs of the elected branch of government, and the President has – not for the first time – demonstrably bucked Khamenei’s authority by refusing to attend cabinet meetings.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad and his supporters have come under withering attack from the conservative clergy, and from political allies of the Supreme Leader in parliament, who appear to be reviving moves to impeach the President. Ahmadinejad’s key ally and chosen successor in the presidency, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, was this week accused of “sorcery”, and the commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guards on Thursday expressed support for Khamenei, and warned that “deviations” driven by “djinns, fairies and demons” will not be tolerated.

The Moslehi reappointment after Ahmadinejad fired him because of his loyalty to Khamenei and alleged spying on political figures was simply the last straw – a split between the Supreme Leader and the president he backed to the hilt in the 2009 election showdown has been looming ever since then.

Ahmadinejad has moved steadily to challenge the power of the clergy and assert his own. The 1979 revolution had created an uneasy balance between clerical power and the authority of elected bodies such as the presidency and parliament, giving the last word always to clerical Supreme Leader and his appointees. Khamenei not only holds executive power, but clerics get to determine who is allowed to run for election, and whether legislation accords with Islamic principles.

The limits of elected power in Iran had been clearly on view during the presidency of his predecessor, the more liberal Mohammed Khatami, who was consistently overruled in his efforts to reform the state from within. Curiously enough, though, a far more vigorous challenge to clerical authority is coming, now, not from the reformist left but from the nationalist right, led by Ahmadinejad.

The president and his supporters have not only repeatedly sought to diminish Khamenei’s authority and challenge his edicts, they have even given ideological form to their political trend by emphasizing nationalist rather than Islamist themes, encouraging and celebrating expressions of pre-Islamic Persian identity that the Khomeini revolution had sought to suppress.

But in trying to understand what has produced the split in the alliance that banded together to crush the challenge of the Green Movement two years ago, it would be a mistake to assume that this is about us. Some have noted that Ahmadinejad’s camp appears to be more inclined than Khamenei’s to do a deal with the West on the nuclear issue.  Perhaps, but that’s not the reason for the split – and it could be perilous trying to find ‘the good guys’ in this particular fight.

Nor is there any clear shape to the dispute: Some of the clerics that might have supported Ahmadinejad against the more pragmatic conservatives such as parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani are now out front, alongside Larijani, demanding that Ahmadinejad bow before the Supreme Leader. The Revolutionary Guards were seen as the most hardline element within the regime, backing Ahmadinejad against the Green Movement and even established regime figures such as former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, but the Guards’ leadership also appears to have turned on the president and thrown its weight behind Khamenei. Even the arch-conservative cleric Ayatullah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, once a strong backer of Ahmadinejad, has publicly castigated the nationalist trend associated with Ahmadinejad.

The president, who appears to have hoped to expand his own authority with the regime at the expense of the clerics, appears to have overreached, betting that from Khamenei’s perspective, the president would be “too big to fail” – after all, the Supreme Leader had irreparably damaged the authority of his office, which is supposed to be above electoral politics, by publicly backing Ahmadinejad in the disputed June 2009 election, hoping to tap into the populist president’s support base to boost his own support. Ousting Ahmadinejad would be a huge embarrassment, and also potentially risky. But Ahmadinejad appears to have pushed Khamenei too far. Now, the Supreme Leader is pushing back.

But this is less a fight over policy and philosophies of government than a power struggle within a narrow conservative elite. Policy differences on question such as whether and how to negotiate with the West may be more a symptom of that power struggle than its cause, even though its outcome could effect Iran’s international posture in the coming months.

Ahmadinejad’s camp would like to renew relations with the West, but on Iran’s own terms. Khamenei is more suspicious. And, of course, he won’t allow Ahmadinejad to take credit for an opening with the West, even if he’s unable to bring himself to cut a deal with the “Great Satan.”

Pressure on the regime from the failing economy is likely to exacerbate the tensions within the regime. Indeed, some analysts have suggested that it may even suit the Supreme Leader to cut Ahmadinejad loose and blame his polices for the looming economic disaster. Tehran watchers will be eagerly awaiting Ahmadinejad’s answer to Khamenei’s ultimatum. Apparently finding himself increasingly isolated, the President may have no alternative but to back down on the cabinet appointment. But whatever his choice, the latest showdown is a sign that the power struggle between the president and the supreme leader, which is likely to escalate in the years ahead of the 2013 election and the anticipated succession of the aging Khamenei, has weakened both power centers – and as a result has accelerated the demise in the authority of the regime as a whole.