Enfeebling Ahmadinejad: Iran’s President Downsized for Challenging the Ayatullah

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How do you say “lame duck” in Farsi? (According to Google’s translation service, the answer would be: علیل وناتوان) And in a twist worthy of Game of Thrones, less than two years after his disputed reelection and the brutal crackdown on opponents that followed, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been reduced to a علیل وناتوان. And that’s just about where the clerical Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei — who abandoned the political neutrality required of his office in 2009 to hail Ahmadinejad as the candidate whose views were closest to his own — wants the president.

On Tuesday, Iran’s parliament moved closer to impeaching Ahmadinejad, after striking down the appointment of one of his allies to the post of Deputy Foreign Minister, and opening impeachment proceedings against the President’s handpicked foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Salehi. And that’s just the latest barrage of slings and arrows Ahmadinejad has suffered in the legislature, which just this week included canceling his merging of the ministries of transportation and housing, and forbidding his merging of the oil and energy ministries. Similar attacks have been coming for months in what has become open season on the controversial president within the corridors of power — even while those that opposed him on the streets, and even at the hustings, remain on lock down.

It’s not as if the Majlis, Iran’s elected parliament (although both elections and legislation are limited by clerical supervision), has suddenly become the center of power in the Islamic Republic and is calling the reckless populist president to heel; parliament is castigating Ahmadinejad at the pleasure of Ayatullah Khamenei and the conservative clerical establishment. Khamenei had appeared to bet all his political chips on Ahmadinejad during the electoral dispute, backing the president and the security forces’ vicious crackdown on those who opposed him (even though the leaders of the Green Movement opposition had pledged fealty to the theocratic system). At least, that’s what Ahmadinejad appears to have believed, because he soon began pushing back at Khamenei’s authority and moving to concentrate power in his own office.

Ahmadinejad also embraced a new ideological position threatening to the Islamic regime’s traditional clerical elite, combining a millennarian claim to be connected with the messianic “Mahdi” figure of Shi’ite Islam (and therefore not needing clerical guidance in matters Islamic) with a new more secular Persian nationalism that de-emphasized the state’s Islamic nature. As the clerics became increasingly alarmed by Ahmadinejad’s unorthodox ideas and encroachment on their power, Khamenei struck in April, forcing the reinstatement of an intelligence minister fired by the President. Ahmadinejad retaliated with an unprecedented show of defiance, going on strike for 11 days. But he lost that showdown, and has been on the back foot ever since, under fire in parliament and seeing increasingly senior supporters and aides arrested and interrogated.

Don’t expect impeachment to proceed to its conclusion, however. Those  close to Khamenei reportedly insist that the supreme leader, having humbled Ahmadinejad and clipped his wings, will allow the president to serve out the rest of his term — “only, of course, if he mends his ways, rids himself of his unsavory aides and accepts his role as a mere foot soldier in the divine deliberations of the ayatollah,” according to analyst Abbas Milani. “Ahmadinejad supposedly has two years left in office. As things stand today, it is unlikely that he will make it that long. And if, at the end, he is still somehow president, Ahmadinejad will surely be but a mere empty shell of the bombastic, combative, feverishly messianic persona he created for himself before the crisis began.”

If the experience of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, is anything to go by, a علیل وناتوان president is precisely how Khamenei sees the role. None of that bodes particularly well for nuclear negotiations with Tehran.  Not that it necessarily makes things worse. The apparent outcome of the past two years of palace intrigue in Tehran  does suggest that the address for any dialogue with Iran is still the Supreme Leader. Not that he’s necessarily much interested in the nuclear deals currently on offer from the West.