One man who is definitely not getting much sleep these days is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For a number of weeks now, the president has been locked in political spat, which could have enormous implications for the Islamic Republic.
It all started when Ahmadinejad, fired the minister of intelligence, Heidar Moslehi, after he was found bugging the offices of his own chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. However Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, swiftly stepped in and prevented him from leaving office, which caused Ahmadinejad to throw a strop and he refused to attend meetings and avoided public events.
His rivals saw this as a unique opportunity to curry favour with Khamenei, by making Ahmadinejad’s tasks more difficult. When he tried to combine government ministries, he was stopped by the Guardian Council, which informed him that in order to install a new minister, parliamentary approval must first be given. The head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, received the backing of the speaker of the parliament or Majlis, Ali Larijani. Both men insisted that Ahmadinejad must get a vote of confidence before changes can be made in accordance with the constitution. According to the official IRNA news agency, in a cabinet meeting, Ahmadinejad told Larijani: “The parliament speaker assumes he is the law. This is not correct. …One can’t interpret the law the way he wishes and impose it on the government”. To which Jannati wrote to the speaker of the parliament that the president was wrong about restructuring the Cabinet.
Ahmadinejad also angered conservatives when he made predictions for the return of Muhammed al-Mahdi, who in Shia Islam is the 12th imam and is heralded as the saviour of mankind. One presidential aid, Abbas Amirifar, who is the head of the cultural office, was arrested by security forces for his links to a film which praised both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei for helping to advance the return of the imam. Religious conservatives consider the president highly misplaced to speak on Islamic matters.
Ahmadinejad may have to grovel if he intends to gather any momentum for next year’s parliamentary elections. Radio Free Europe reported that Ahmadinejad rejected suggestions that there was trouble at the top between himself and Khamenei. He even said he is “like a father”. But, given his reaction following the Moslehi scandal, there is little reason for Khamenei to reciprocate positively.
According to the Economist, Ahmadinejad can still rely on the support of mid-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia. His chief-of-staff was suspected of being groomed as his likely successor in 2013. Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei is viewed as a pragmatic thinker, who many clerics believe could steer the country away from its Islamic foundations. He caused consternation in 2008 when he said Iran was a friend to “the people of Israel”, but according to Radio Free Europe, one serious allegation against him is that Rahim-Mashaei has family links to the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which is an Islamic-Marxist opposition group which receives support in the west to topple the Islamic Republic.
One cleric bizarrely accused Rahim-Mashaei of using hypnotism, spells and charms on the president. The Washington Post reported that Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah Yazdi said the president had been “bewitched” by Mashaei. He went further saying that Ahmadinejad’s behavior is “unnatural” and needs to be “saved”.
Whatever plots and suspicions are being planted in the consciences of Iran’s rulers, one thing is clear, all is not well in the Islamic Republic. Accusations will keep flying as long a religious hardliners join together to corner anyone suspected of having a reformist agenda. Ahmadinejad is experiencing a battering that he probably never thought would endure. His position seemed secure after receiving the endorsement of the Supreme Leader in 2009. Now, factionalism is conspiring against him; however, the head of Iranian studies at St. Andrews University, Ali Ansari, is cautious about rumours circulating about the president’s demise: “Ahmadinejad being the sort of character he is, I don’t think he’s going to go down without fighting and this slight riposte in his direction I don’t think is enough to put him in his place”.
Perhaps the biggest loser in this whole story could be Khamenei, who previously was able to stay above the political fray, but since 2009, he has taken pains to ensure his word is gospel, which has effectively sullied his neutrality. He will have to depend on his network of supporters and take a few compromising steps if he intends on salvaging this farcical system of government under velayat-e faqih.